Meet the Principal: Michael Wilson at Cranleigh

Michael Wilson is the new head of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, taking the helm from founding Principal, Brendan Law for the 2018-2019 academic year.
Meet the Principal: Michael Wilson at Cranleigh
By Jenny Mollon
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Mr Wilson has considerable experience of Cranleigh, having now held several teaching and leadership positions with the UK branch of the school. The Cranleigh head was instrumental in creating the curriculum for Cranleigh UK, and is now busy re-interpreting the best of the UK school for life and learning in the UAE.

We met with Mr Wilson as part of our review of the school. We took the opportunity to grill the Principal of one of the UAE’s most impressive schools on what drives him, and what we can expect from Cranleigh Abu Dhabi in the near future…

What drew you to education?

Well, I like to joke that first and foremost I am failed professional tennis player! After graduating university, I was playing professional tennis on the competitive circuit. The Headmaster of Cranleigh UK approached me about doing some tennis coaching, but as our conversation progressed it became clear that they really needed a Chemistry teacher – I had a chemistry degree and before I knew it…bang! There I was – teaching.

So, to some extent, I fell in to teaching, but I soon began to develop a real adrenaline buzz from helping children to understand Chemistry. I realised that once you start to teach a subject, your own understanding of it deepens – and that was thrilling to me. As a young man, I loved the teaching itself – it felt like an extension of university!

So how long have you been with Cranleigh, both UK and Abu Dhabi?

I have always had this idea that in our profession you become too blinkered by becoming entrenched in one place for too long. More than that, you become too keen on your own opinion, so you need to break that by doing other things. I have come and gone from Cranleigh four times! My first stint lasted three years, after which I went to teach in East Africa.

On returning from Africa, my wife and I (Mr Wilson's wife is a highly experienced SEN teacher, now also working at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi) went back to Cranleigh, where I became a House Master. It was an interesting time, where my career really started to take off with more leadership responsibility.

After a time, I began to think that my career was just moving too quickly and with three children of our own, I wanted to slow things down a bit! We went to Thailand where we set up a British school in Phuket. That experience taught me more about education than anything else. After Thailand, I returned again to Cranleigh as Senior Housemaster. I had a timetable in mind now, I wanted to do five years then move into Junior Education, because it was becoming clear to me that there were challenges with 18-year-olds that could have been fixed when they were so much younger.

For a time, and to gain that Junior School experience, I ran a prep school in North London. Cranleigh then invited back for a third time to come and run the Junior School.

I have been involved with the planning for Cranleigh Abu Dhabi since the very beginning of the project. The fourth stage of my Cranleigh career began when my predecessor (Brendan Law, founding Principal of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi) left. It felt quite natural to step into this position.

All these different experiences of Cranleigh have helped me to gather a very deep understanding of what a ‘Cranleigh’ school is. Cranleigh is about looking at the individual, seeing what that child is good at and making things work around them as an individual. We don’t say “this is what we offer, you need to fit in with us”. That is not our school. Every day, what I am trying to do is to be true to that principle.

What is your leadership style?

In a nutshell, I am very direct! I think because I was brought up in East Africa [in Kenya] – it made me the forthright person I am today. As my father used to say “a spade is a spade”! I just say things as I see them. I think I get forgiveness for being so direct by making sure people see that I really do care. I fundamentally think that if, in this profession, parents, staff and student can see that you care, they will forgive you if you get something wrong!

What is the one vision to that is key to you as an Educator?

Being true to the child. That is it! That really is the heart of it to me.

I try to help parents step far enough away to realise that a pot hole or bump in the road of their child’s development is a good thing, children just need to be allowed to work out how to get out of it for themselves.

With my staff, I work to help them accept that until they truly understand each individual child – then they are not really being true to what good education is, nor do you have the right tools to do what you want to do.

I like to focus on skills and make the exam result a by-product. I truly believe that you don’t need to be preparing children for exams from age five! If you do that, you just force children to meet targets, rather than trusting your teachers to achieve things in their own way. At Cranleigh, we’re not going to measure you every five minutes, not at all.

Early Years education is great and an area we can all learn a lot from. In Early Years, you are allowing kids to play and develop skills through play. We try to carry those principles forward. For example, we might take kids to the beach for fieldwork, then back to the drama department and say ‘do a presentation on your fieldwork’. I don’t have to examine them to see the learning and I get more skill this way. They can’t stand in front of a teacher and class and blag it! This is more meaningful than any exam.

Are you still teaching?

Not at the moment. I do want to go back to it but at the moment there is a lot to do here. This phase in my new role is about finding things that need work before they are hidden or I get grey eyes and I don’t see them! So that is what I am focussed on, for now.

How would say your curriculum is nuanced for the UAE?

I wrote much of the curriculum for Cranleigh UK and it’s been interesting that the Humanities course we designed in the UK fits beautifully with the Moral, Social Studies and Islamic Education we do here at Cranleigh. That has been great and so successful.

What I really like about this school is that people are prepared to take children out of the classroom and truly engage. For example, at the beginning of this term we brought a professional opera company here and had 80 of our students work with them to develop an original opera, themed around sustainability and water conservation. It was an incredible learning experience and so valuable.

It can be a risk to take so much time out of the ‘normal’ timetable, but the way I see it is that, back in class, we simply cannot ‘teach’ the skills children acquire in these unique experiences. Cranleigh is a school that is prepared to take those risks, take the time out of the typical school day so that children can have these experiences. It’s partly why one of my next projects is to look again at this exam based curriculum – because it just doesn’t leave me with enough time!

Why should parents choose Cranleigh?

Cranleigh is a truly child centric school. It’s not about being selective – it’s an integration. That is where we are and what we do so well.

Where is the school headed?

We’ve passed through the ‘new school’ phase now. This is the ‘look at ourselves’ stage. You have a cycle in schools of do, review, refresh. So we have been ‘doing’, we are ‘reviewing’ at the moment and then we are refreshing. Then we want to take things to another a level.

What I really like about the schools in Abu Dhabi is that the leaders of the various schools don’t ‘sit and grin’ behind a façade. We really support each other. This helps when looking at things like sport and music. We can work to raise the bar together. For example, our under 14 netball squad are in a competitive league where there are four other teams that are about ‘level pegging’ with each other and it’s really driving up the standard of netball. That’s what I want for the future. I want us to work with other schools and collectively say ‘we are going to lift the standard of education in this country’.

Each school might all do things slightly differently, we might take a particular area of and make it our ‘unique selling point’ but we can only do this brilliantly if we work together.

What have been the school’s biggest accomplishments to date?

I think the biggest accomplishments so far has been how successfully we have translated the UK school.

I think it is also retention of staff – this has been fantastic. People sometimes ask you who the most important people in a school are, and you are supposed to say it’s the children – but it’s not! It’s the staff. If the staff are happy then by definition the children will be too.

In fact, this is such an important point to us that we are now looking seriously at opening a teacher training school, here in Abu Dhabi. To have a teacher training school means that not only are you training teachers, your whole school is always learning.

How do arts fit into the curriculum here?

We are delighted to have won the ‘Best School for Theatre and Performing Arts’ in the 2019 Top School Awards (click here for the complete list of winners).  Cranleigh UK has always had a strong tradition in this area and we are delighted to see this become a key area at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi.

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