'Strong Growth at Taaleem' - New CEO

The departing CEO of Taaleem and her replacement are bullish about the immediate future for the school group. They spoke exclusively to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com
'Strong Growth at Taaleem' - New CEO
By James Mullan
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It’s change at the top for two of the UAE’s leading education groups. Ros Marshall is stepping down as CEO of Taaleem, the country’s second largest school provider and her position is being taken by Alan Williamson, formerly CEO at King’s Education.  WhichSchoolAdvisor.com joined both Ros and Alan to reflect back on what’s been achieved at Taaleem during her six years at the helm and to find out how Alan views the future for the organization.

So Ros, why did you decide to leave?

RM:  My contract ended last year, and the board has been looking around for my replacement for a while and finally found Alan to take Taaleem through its next period of development. I’m now looking to ensure that we have a smooth transition as we’re in a period of rapid growth.  We’re in the process of launching a brand-new school which will be the largest project we’ve ever undertaken – Raha International School, Khalifa City Campus. That’s currently under way and will open in September 2020.

We’ve also got new and exciting projects and partnerships in the pipeline, expect announcements on these in the very near future. 

Our own schools are also developing well. We’ve opened two schools in the last six years, which are performing very well; Dubai British Foundation and Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park highlighting the success of the ‘Outstanding’ Dubai British School brand.

What achievement are you most proud of during your time in charge of Taaleem?  

RM: Developing the team.  We’ve focused on taking the schools from operating as individual organisations to collaborating effectively and blending their skills and experiences.  We’ve developed a strong sense of community across the schools and we now have the opportunity to benefit from that.  We have put in place new systems, structures, and talent development programmes allowing for significant progression for employees at all levels across the Company enabling top talent to develop their skills and knowledge and grow within the organization.

And Alan, how did you come to take up this new position?

AW:  The Taaleem reputation is fantastic, in particular among the Dubai community.  One of the things I was aware of from my dealings with both ADEK and KHDA was the high esteem in which the group is held. This applied to the schools and the people within the schools and the corporate organisation. I’ve massive respect for what Ros has achieved. Taaleem is at a really exciting point in the organisation’s development. In this economic environment, how many other companies have such ambitious expansion plans and sound balance sheets?

In that regard, the sound finances of the company were also a significant attraction. I was inspired by the shareholders and board members whom I met during the interview process.  It’s a homegrown organisation and that is something I get passionate about. It is also a corporate organisation that is fundamentally very values driven in its decision-making. As someone who’s largely from the education background, that's also very attractive.

Though Taaleem has schools offering the US, IB and English National curricula, the IB is seen as a particular strength. How do you view this?

AW: A big draw in my joining Taaleem is the opportunity to work with schools across curricula. One of the exciting challenges is the development of our IB portfolio and brand. I think Taaleem is well placed to have an all through IB school gaining the 'outstanding' rating through KHDA. 

What have been the main challenges over the past six years, Ros?

RM: We’re in a very secure position and have a strong balance sheet and one of my areas of focus has been to improve our operational efficiencies. Apart from the growth of schools and enrolments, putting the money where it matters most, creating outstanding learning environments has been the driving force. Children come first and the profit will follow if you focus on the needs of the students and school communities as the top priority. If you get that right all else follows. 

Looking at the last six years we prioritise the investment in our teachers and learning resources to ensure they have what they need. We don’t refer to the organisation as having a ‘Head Office’; it is the ‘Central Office’, which exists to serve the school teams. The Central Office team is much smaller than the one I inherited, having automated and improved key back office functions to ensure it is now lean, efficient and fit for purpose.

What have been your first impressions from getting to know the team at Taaleem, Alan?

AW: I can’t think of an organisation I’ve worked with, which has included running a multi-school organisation in the UK, where all of the Principals, without exception, have nothing but positives to say about the CEO, the group company and the service being delivered from Central Office.  There is a real sense of identity, collective efficacy, togetherness and sense of shared purpose at Taaleem, while acknowledging the importance of the fact that, first and foremost, the Principals and school leaders are passionate about their own school. 

How do you see the school market in the UAE at the moment?

AW: There’s no doubt that the market in the premium sector is challenging for the schools that were not already established before a plethora of schools opened in the more recent past. I believe the best schools, the established ones that are delivering high quality education, will survive and indeed will continue to prosper. It’s a difficult time though for new schools to establish themselves in this section of the market. Taaleem is well placed with the Dubai British School brand and their established IB Portfolio to continue to excel, even in the most of challenging market conditions.

RM: We successfully opened Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park in 2015 and there were 24 schools in total opening that year. Since then the market has become a lot more challenging. A key factor when you are looking to attract the top teaching talent is that the staff trust that you are a strong and stable organisation. That’s where I believe the financial strength of Taaleem and the commitment of the investors has been so significant in helping us to attract the best people.

AW: There is a surplus of supply in the premium school market and there may well continue to be a re-calibration of fees.  Providers like ourselves at Taaleem have chosen not to increase fees this year across most of our schools.  However, you’ve still got to invest in your teaching staff. The quality of the school will never exceed the quality of the staff, and that is always a rising cost. In that respect, schools in the premium sector must take a sensible approach to fee increases within the context of the new framework provided.    

We also believe that the ‘mid-market plus’, as we call it (with fees around AED 35-40K) represents a possible opportunity for growth.  We have the finance and support from our board to look at the possibilities there.  Abu Dhabi also provides us with a chance to further develop. The success of Raha International School Gardens Campus and the undoubted success of our incredible new campus at Raha International School, Khalifa City puts us in a very strong position to look at other possibilities in the capital.

What about other emirates and indeed other regional opportunities such as Saudi Arabia?

AW: As far as other emirates are concerned; we will keep an eye on the market and the possibilities that are available there.  Saudi Arabia is a very unique market and it’s in a very different place from the UAE. 

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