A focus on discipline and participation at morning assemblies may not sound incredibly exciting, but getting the fundamentals in place at Ajyal International School will be key to moving from its current Acceptable rating to being Very Good its new leadership team tells us.
The school, with almost 90% Emirati students, aims to move up two ADEK inspection grades in one cycle, Mark Whitfield, its Education Director, told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. Whitfield had been the Acting Principal at the school but has just handed over the reins to Neal Maxwell.
Neal previously worked in Hong Kong where he was principal of Yew Chung International School, and as a head in Jordan and Australia. Neal was also a "Cluster Manager" for the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEK) where he worked with principals and senior leadership teams to raise the standards of teaching and learning in the emirate as a whole.
In his last head's role Neal grew used to achieving international accolades such as ‘Top of the World’ and ‘Top in Hong Kong’ at the the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Awards, prizes he hopes, eventually, to be bringing to Ajyal.
We met both Neil and Mark to find out how they plan to drive improvements at the school.
WSA: What are the first changes you have attempted to make at Ayjal?
Neal: I have been here only three weeks as a principal, out of which the first week was just wandering around, observing and 'high-fiving' the kids.
I have since started working on the fundamentals, with the morning assembly and the National Anthem. Children were not participating, largely because they could get away with it, be invisible. Certainly the way they were lined up meant they were not encouraged to get involved.
Now, instead of a very long row of children, with half of the kids beyond the line of site, we have students in a square where everyone is seen. When the teachers and students see order and discipline coming into the school it lifts them. This is especially the case for secondary boys. When they look at primary kids and how they can be an example, they begin to fall in line.
Changing the assembly may be a small thing, but with it we have seen kids becoming more settled. We are also working on basics such as entries and exits. After school there is an hour and a half for activities or extra lessons. Previously the exit was unsupervised. We did not know who was even in school, or where the students were. That is no longer the case.
Mark: When I first came in, my first job was to begin to sell a dream to parents – 'what was the vision of the school, what were we going to do'.
This was all about the transformation of the school. Selling a dream, with expectations of stability. We achieved an ‘Acceptable’ rating at the last inspection and the school's improvement process is now about how we reach ‘Very Good’. The number of schools that have risen from Acceptable to Very Good in one cycle is rare, but we are very ambitious for for Ajyal's students.
We currently have about 95% Emiratis, and we are focusing on the idea that learning is for life.
What kind of leadership and leadership style are you introducing to Ajyal?
Neal: This is my 10th school as principal. If I were to describe my leadership style in one word, it would be collaborative. I am a fully qualified leadership principal team mentor.
In schools I like to work with leaders with skills that are different from mine, personalities that are different... My job is to create a team from individuals, who then work well together. When students and parents see a team that is working as a unit, and that is delivering and dynamic, it gives everyone a lot of confidence. That's why I always want my schools to offer transparency. When you are transparent, people believe you. They might not like what you say, but they understand the context and why it’s happening that way.
Mark: I have focused on trust, clear expectations and setting goals. It is direct and purposeful. Always employ people that are better than you, that can shine, grow and develop. To some extent, I try to create an umbrella under which people can flourish by experimenting and not having the fear of "getting wet"...
Are you introducing any changes to the curriculum, will there be new subjects or more emphasis on sports, music, arts etc.?
Neal: We are working on ways to deliver more sport, music, performing arts and arts in general, not only in the curriculum but also as after school activities. How we do it has still not been decided. Our extra curricular activities are not strong. We know we need to improve, while ensuring we always follow ADEK guidelines.
Mark: I would say it’s about an improved skills curriculum as much as academic course work.
Our current arts & performing arts offering isn’t as extensive as we would like but for next year we’ve got wonderful facilities that we’ll bring to life.
We see arts and performing arts as much about employability as anything else. We also recognize that those are subjects that need more focus.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) are also important of course, however as a school we need the right balance between the academic, arts, and vocational subjects.
Having a majority of Arabic speaking children, is English a more of an additional language at the school?
Neal: I am only 3 weeks in the school; so what I can say is that we are clearly focused on English and Arabic. Parents want their kids to be good in their mother tongue. These two languages are our focus. If we add more languages, clearly we lessen the time we have for the these two core subjects.
Mark: We do offer French as well. Developing English language is important in order for students to better access the curriculum, but we all know that people who speak more than one language have a more developed intellect than those who are monolingual. If we get our kids to function in three languages then of course it would be super - but we know where the fundamental need is. We need as many kids as possible in the lower end of the school functioning and learning well.
Once we have everyone working well at this level, when we close the gaps, we can move on to delivering more and closing the gaps with higher achievers.