Pablo Fetter might be new to Kings', but he is neither new to Dubai nor the education sector.
Fetter has lived in Dubai for the past 8 years, put his son through school in the city, and was previously CEO and board member for GEMS Education's Africa operations.
Dubai’s Education Evolution
“When I moved to Dubai 8 years ago, you basically had to queue up and go on your knees asking for a school to give you a place for your child… and, if you got lucky, you got into a good school,” says Fetter.
However, things have changed, for the better. By August 2016, Fetter says Dubai will have truly “evolved from a sellers’ to a buyers' market.”
He views this as a natural progression in any maturing market, and while it might not be great news for every school in the city, he is a firm believer it will usher in an era of increased quality for parents.
“There will be a shift in power towards the consumer, parents and students, for the first time there will be choice and I think this will be of great benefit for most of us that are at the quality end of the spectrum, and I think that’s a good thing,” he says.
“For the first time, parents will have choice, I think ultimately marginal players, people who haven’t demonstrated or shown a good track record of delivery of a good quality of education, will be the ones at the losing end.”
With the raising of $54 million, the group is clearly entering a period of expansion both locally and across the wider GCC.
“One of the reasons I was hired is to ensure that this expansion is undertaken with a focus on policy and procedures and make sure the great product we offer in Umm Sequim is delivered across our new campuses.”
“First I want to emphasise that our focus is on our existing schools where we want to make sure we deliver the best quality of education possible. Clearly our existing schools remain my priority number one.”
“At Kings' School Dubai, Umm Sequim we are completely full, we have 940 seats there, and no capacity for expansion, unless we demolish one building and put a tower there, there simply is not more space,” he says.
While Kings' Dubai is limited by its plot to 940 seats, accommodating only 120 children per year, there is demand annually, he says, for over 1000. He does note that after FS1, Kings' School Dubai does have around 5 spaces per year available in all school Years.
“It is very, very, difficult to get into that school….we have ten times the demand there that what we can offer.”
“The idea of opening Kings' in Al Barsha was clearly trying to be able to offer the same product in a different campus.”
And as parents at the campus must surely be aware, the Al Barsha school is currently under expansion with construction underway costing an estimated $5.3 million.
“Certain new sections will be finished by the start of the new academic year, bringing the total capacity to around 1,600 students.”
“We are at the moment… full, but we are expanding the capacity to bring in more students.”
At 2 million square feet, the Al Barsha site is vast. On completion, it will have a full rugby pitch, full size football pitch, numerous tennis courts, 3 swimming pools, making it one of the most well equipped schools in Dubai.
“We have land for further expansion, no specific plans there right now, but this is something that is a natural progression. For the time being we’re focusing on offering the complete facilities for 1,600 students,” says Fetter.
The 1.3 million square feet, Kings' Nad Al Sheba campus, currently offers only Foundation and Primary with a total capacity of 600 students.
Nad Al Sheba is an up-and-coming neighbourhood, it’s what Barsha used to be 5-6 years ago.”
"Right now our campus there is a ‘destination-campus,’ you wouldn’t live there, you would have to drive there, so the school is smaller, it has the same layout as this one (Al Barsha), and for the time being we have only opened Foundation and Primary,” says Fetter.
The current spend on expansion at Nad Al Sheba is $27 million, equipping the school with a Secondary and allowing it to utilise the IB and A Level licenses the school already holds.
With Dubai’s education sector reaching saturation, Kings' is now looking outwards for expansion; Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi.
“On the back of the strong brand that we have built, I think it’s a no-brainer to look at expansion,” he says.
“Abu Dhabi is the natural candidate, if you look at the market in Abu Dhabi, it’s probably like Dubai was five years ago, you have some supply constraints in certain segments in particular, when it comes to quality operations, clearly the demand exceeds the supply and there is space for more quality operators in AD.”
“But that window is going to close at some point,” Fetter adds.
“The UAE makes it easy to do business, they guarantee ownership, a regulator which has… clear rules of the game, so in general, I think AD is clearly the next step in the natural expansion strategy of Kings.”
While Fetter admits there is no set time scale for Abu Dhabi, the group is in preliminary discussions, with stakeholders, calling further discussion on the subject, “premature.”
“Beyond that, we are looking at other areas with interest at other markets, although we don’t have any specific plans,” he adds.
An Outstanding School
Fetter puts the success of Kings' Dubai’s flawless eight Outstanding inspection reports, a feat no other school has managed, down to the hard work and dedication of the teachers and the work of the regulator, the KHDA.
"If you look at the leadership teams and the more experienced teachers, both here and in the other schools, many of them come from Kings' School Dubai, our first campus and they are Kings'-ified’ if you like," he says.
This ‘Kings'-ification’ is important and the team makes sure there are regular meetings with all principals and heads to ensure that across all three schools everyone is following the same principles.
”They’ve been with the company for a couple of years, they know the company and the culture, the values of the organisation and they are the leaders in the new campuses transmitting this history.”
The group isn’t waiting for the competition to heat up either, it's currently rolling out several hi-tech continual assessment programmes designed to keep parents up to date on everything their child does, while allowing the school and teachers to immediately flag any issues the he or she might have.
“The teachers will be capturing… while they [the children] are doing something and then this will be uploaded onto a database and then consolidated into a report which parents can access online… this will give a very detailed benchmarking of your child versus the expectations of that age of year group.”
Fetter says he likes to visit other schools when he has the chance, hoping to not only assess the competition but gauge how happy the children are.
“When I go around other schools, and occasionally I do mystery visits to competitors, one of the things I always pay attention to is whether I get the impression that the children are happy, and I have to say I’m very proud that, I think the happiest students I’ve seen are in our schools," he says.
"If I’m a parent and I bring my children to the school obviously I want them to learn, but most of all I want them to be happy. And I think we are doing a very good job in securing both sides of the equation, in terms of having happy children who are achieving academic excellence.”