Kings’ School Dubai meanwhile was rated Outstanding for a perfect 13 ratings out of 13 - again, something achieved by no other school.
Even Kings’ School Nad al Sheba, set in a considerably more challenging location, achieved a Very Good rating in just its third inspection.
For the man in charge, the group’s Director of Education and CEO, a time then to sit back and enjoy the accolades then? Perhaps for most, but not for Alan Williamson, who, after scaling these heights, made the surprising decision this month to announce his resignation. He hands over the reins, smoothly, to Kings’ School Al Barsha’s Principal and Head of Primary, Rebecca Gray.
“It must appear a very strange decision," he tells us, "but I have, together with the strong team and leaders we have within Kings’, achieved the goals I set out four years ago. These were to have all three schools in an extremely healthy position in terms of inspection outcomes, enrolments and financial targets. You climb to the top of the mountain, and you see another one. It just happens that that next mountain, for me, is not within the Kings’ group of schools.
“That does not mean there are not challenges and opportunities ahead for Kings’, with a rating improvement to make in Nad al Sheba, and with a significant set of investment decisions ahead. However, a test of leadership though is to leave an organisation in strong hands… I do that with Rebecca [Gray], Bede Higgins [Principal, Kings’ School Dubai] and Michael Bloy [Head of Secondary, Kings’ Al Barsha].
In just three years Mrs Rebecca Gray has moved from Head of Primary to Principal, and now to Director of Education across the three schools. Given her experience, this stellar trajectory is perhaps not a surprise. Ms Gray began her teaching career in Tower Hamlets in East London, where she gained her first senior leadership post and progressed to further senior leadership responsibilities in Peterborough. She became Deputy Headteacher at a school in Huntingdon and has been the Headteacher of a primary school in Northamptonshire and the founding Principal of a preparatory school. Mrs Gray has also worked as an Improvement Cluster Lead for the David Ross Education Trust, where she led whole school improvement for seven of their schools.
“Often in leadership you see a Deputy ready to do the next job. They are gently nudging away at what you are doing. I saw that in Rebecca. She is absolutely ready for the next job and I think it is now right for me to step aside and let her take on these challenges…”
Schools, like all organisations, require different leadership styles as they grow. Kings’ is no different, with both the Al Barsha and Nad al Sheba schools moving past being start-ups where even infrastructure had to be navigated - the school opened without a proper access road! - to how to embed best practice across the group.
“Rebecca’s knowledge of what Outstanding looks like in a classroom is now vital, for Kings’ School Nad al Sheba, to get the same consistent quality across the schools,” Mr Williamson told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. “Rebecca has practical, hands on knowledge of what a great school feels like, looks like, and what teachers are doing in classrooms."
What though about the more strategic side of the role? Being hands on and being able to take a step back and see what the school really needs to move into another gear, are not often entirely congruous.
Ms Gray however downplays the changes to the role that being Director of Education will bring. “Being the principal of a school like Kings’ means I am already in a strategic role. I have worked within a multi-academy trust of 33 Academies. I personally had eight Academies within my patch as a Director. I had to ensure I had incredibly strong leaders within each of the schools – because strong leadership filters down through an organisation. I drove the vision, looking around the world, adopting the best practices and the innovative strategies, and brought them home to the trust schools…”
“I think the proof”, agrees Mr Williamson, is in the fact Rebecca has been chosen for the role. “Internal appointments are now a rather deliberate policy by our chairman. There is a drive to keep the experience and the knowledge we have within the group. However, if he is not entirely happy, we open up the recruitment process and look externally. He chose not to do this.”
“As a team”, Ms Gray continues, “we have clearly been doing things right over the last few years. We know what works for our schools.
“Our three schools are actually very different. The children are different. The families are different... but, we have consistent, overarching principles and policies that apply across the schools that have had a huge impact. They are one of the reasons why we have seen the rapid improvements in the three schools.
“Here at Kings’ School Al Barsha we have gone from a school, just five years ago now, that catered for groups of three classes within each year group to one that is looking at an eight and nine form entry school (nine separate class streams per year group).
“The formula is a strong, shared ethos, and undeniable passion, Kings’ is in our core. It is in our blood. So, to bring someone to Kings’ from another organization with a different way of doing things, yes, could have been good in terms of giving us a shake up but already we are very dynamic – and successful. We actively seek new ways of doing things and bring it back into the organization. So, one of the biggest reasons to go external just wasn’t there.”
So, what does a Kings’ experience mean for the new Director of Education? What are the overarching principles that transcend the differences between the three schools? What is the elevator pitch to parents - and prospective students - for the Kings’ experience?
“Simple,” says Mrs Gray, we deliver the best by every child.
“As a school we treat each child with respect.
“Each child has his or her own needs, desires, interests and our mission is to broaden every child’s horizons as to their possibilities.. We are fortunate in that we have great facilities within each of our campuses to help us make this happen.
How do we do it? We focus both on now, and the future. A child may want to become a doctor. That is their desire. The pathway to get there begins with the here and now, and we meticulously plan with each child their path, their direction.
Of course, things may change on the journey and a student may change his or her mind as to what he or she ultimately wants to do, and that’s absolutely fine. But I know that within all of our Kings’ schools, because we provide our students with the confidence to embrace the endless possibilities out there, we are setting them up to be successful in the outside world.
'Tailored', 'whole child', 'bespoke', 'holistic'… WhichSchoolAdvisor.com hears the same words from most premium schools. The key however is how schools delivers its pathways. We asked Mrs Gray for a concrete example. Just how would the school support an aspiring F1 racing driver, or a future Stephen Hawking?
“The professionals under this roof are highly skilled and are instrumental in being able to guide children along their pathways. In the case of a mathematician, we have the More and Exceptionally Able (MEA) pathway which supports individual students needs. In the case of an F1 driver we would be able to support them, not just in terms of an academic programme, but holistically, identifying the specific skills that they need to achieve their ultimate goal. We would support the whole child development, delivering “results [for them] the right way”.
At Kings’ we are not driven by testing - we prepare students for life beyond school by encouraging them to fully understand who they are as an individual. Specifically for the budding F1 driver, we would support their interest, give them the courage to embrace them, and because we have links with organisations across the local community, and internationally, we can support the specific interests for that child with external as well as internal programmes.
“Academic and non-academic programmes that they then take, follow on from the interests, and goals…”
Given the recent successes of Kings’, explaining how leadership change is good news, can be tricky. Clearly the new Director will want to stamp her mark, but at the same time, a key message has to be that the trajectory will not change too much. It’s a line followed by Mrs Gray, with some conviction.
“Given the successes we have had, I do not need to come in and start ripping the carpet out from beneath people’s feet.
“What we have to do is recognise that each of our schools is different, and look to continue to elevate the best practices that we have across all of our schools; those practices define who we are and deliver outstanding experiences for our children.
“We will continue to identify the amazing opportunities that we have in each school, and then open them up to all of the children within the Kings’ community.
“At Nad Al Sheba we need to ensure we get to an Outstanding status. To be honest, Nad al Sheba is already on the journey to achieving that.
“The next academic year will be about bringing the school community even closer together, and running initiatives group wide. So, the Scholars Cup could be a Kings’ cup rather that as it is currently, an Al Barsha one. Equally the drama and the arts offering that we have in Barsha, which is now very well established, will become something that all the schools will be able to take part in.
“We will identify the amazing skill sets we have in each school, and then open them up to all of the children within the Kings’ community.”
Even when WhichSchoolAdvisor.com prodded Mrs Gray on more ambitious longer term plans the new Kings’ Director refused to be pulled – too far.
“The education world changes so rapidly, who knows what the new, exciting thing will be in three-years-time. The long-term vision is just to continue to ensure that Kings’ continues to be recognised as a centre of excellence for many things. Sports is huge already within the group. This year we have really focused on elevating the arts including drama and music – and that is something we will continue to invest heavily in.
“We will continue to not just follow those around us and move with the times, but will continue to aim to be one step ahead. As a group we look at what is out there, resource initiatives to bring innovations in house, but also always make them our own.
“We will always continue to invest heavily in our staff and develop our own expertise. We already have, I think uniquely in the UAE, our own Specialists Leaders in Education (SLE) programme. We have many very talented practitioners, and teachers with specific skill sets, which we deploy in other departments to deliver in-house professional development. Currently the Kings’ SLEs are based at Kings’ School Al Barsha, however we want to grow this to be group wide. I want to mirror the Teaching School initiative based in the UK, across our organisation.
[Teaching schools in the UK are good or outstanding schools that are working with others to provide high-quality training and support for school improvement in their local area. Launched in 2011, there are now more than 800 teaching schools in the United Kingdom.]
Kings’ is also one of only a handful of schools WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is aware of that has a considerable amount of land available to it to expand. The decision as to what to do with it could well define Ms Gray’s tenure. Does she currently favour any of the ideas the school has no doubt debated at to what to do with it…?
“You just have to look at what is in Dubai already, there is such a huge variety in terms of offerings. Clearly we have lots of ideas. What we do have as an advantage is the availability of this vast area of land. As and when we do see something that will enhance us a group, we are in the fortunate position to make it happen.
One thing that will clearly change is Mrs Gray herself. She will be in charge. Her personality will affect or infect the school… What can students, parents and teachers expect?
“I am incredibly passionate about getting it right. I do have a big personality, but it is important I think for people to see the real you. It is ok to be the real you. That is, after all, what we should be modelling for our students. One thing I can guarantee is that there will definitely be a passion.”
Do you think the teachers, students and parents will be happy with that passion, with the big personality, we asked?
“I came here three years ago as a Primary headteacher, I became the Principal, and now I have become the Director of Education, and I would like to think I have always had the support of those around me. I have had very positive feedback already from families and within Kings’ School Al Barsha.. It is nice to know that I have that support.
While Mrs Gray may be keen to be measured with changes within Kings’ what cannot be controlled is what happens outside its walls. Over the last few years private school education in the UAE in general, but specifically in Dubai has become far more competitive. What we ask, will be the ramifications of that to Kings’?
“The changes I have seen in the last three years have been incredible,” admits Mrs Gray. “However we have been able to continue to grow despite that. Yes there is competition, and we will continue to see new schools popping up, but we will continue to carve our own path, endeavour to be one step ahead of the market, and to deliver excellence in education.
I do not mean to sound arrogant, but I am not overly concerned about competition. Kings’ School Al Barsha is five years old, and we already have 2,000 children and operate wait lists - as does Kings’ School Dubai, while Nad al Sheba continues to grow. I am not so arrogant as to say our parents are never going to be tempted to look elsewhere, but if we continue to keep abreast of what is happening in the education world, continue to develop our own practitioners, and ultimately provide the ‘best by every child’, then I see no reason as to why parents will not continue to choose Kings’.
What about changes in the UK in terms of curricula – the introduction, or focus on more vocational qualifications, the continual revisions of GCSEs and A’ Levels… play out in the UAE in all-through UK schools like Kings’?
“We look closely at what is happening in the UK – across phases, across the group.
“As an organization we are fully inclusive. At Kings’ we have a Life Skills classroom, for children with various levels of autism, and that will be expanding in the next academic year. We are introducing a ‘Gateway’ provision within our Early Years phase for children who are not able to access the National Curriculum in a mainstream setting. We are looking at a BTEC offering as an alternative pathway at year 10 and 11. Our sixth form already offers two elements of the BTEC. So, in terms of the focus on more vocational based pathways, we are there, and it is down to the wants and needs of the children under this roof as to how we refine this.
“Last year every student under our roof with a special need, achieved the GCSEs outcomes that they were aiming for. This is something that makes me incredibly proud. What an incredible achievement for our students. It is something that we need to continue to do and if we need to look at other pathways and curricula to ensure every child achieves, that is something we will do. It is something we have already committed to, and have done so since Day 1.
“Ultimately, we want to provide all of our children with the choice to go onto the university of their choice. Our current sixth form are headed to 13 different countries for further education next year. This really does celebrate the diversity of the school.
“Providing students with the confidence to achieve more than they ever thought possible – and more than their expected progress – and to give them skills to make a difference to the world, is how we as Kings’ achieve. It is also why we come to work every day.”