GEMS World Academy (GWA) has received a greater than average number of responses to our parent survey in the past year (to read a number of these comments, and see our parent feedback scores, visit our GWA School Review). Many of these survey responses have focussed on recent changes to the GWA leadership and there is a distinct difference of opinion as to whether these changes have been positive or not.
Keen to understand what lies behind this varied feedback, we paid a visit to the school to meet with parents, teachers, students and school leaders.
We began our visit to GWA by meeting Dr Saima Rana, Principal/CEO of GWA and the Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation.
Dr Rana joined GWA at the height of the Covid19 pandemic, perhaps one of the most challenging times in memory to become the leader of a new school, in a new country. Responses to our parent survey indicate that Dr Rana has created both positivity and frustration in almost equal measure since taking up her post.
Dr Rana exudes a polished confidence and a brisk, purposeful energy. She clearly relishes the opportunity to discuss her work, saying that education is “my passion, my love…I can’t think of a better job”. A British born Mathematics, Economics and Computer Science secondary teacher by training, Dr Rana tells us that seeing “compassion from teachers” change the lives of her childhood friends led her to a career in teaching. Alongside education, Dr Rana is involved with a number of charitable projects, including The Shahnaz Foundation, named after her late mother. The Foundation builds schools for girls in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kashmir, Palestine, Sudan and Kenya.
Dr Rana joined GWA from an outstanding state school in London. Describing both her former school and her aspirations for GWA, Dr Rana frequently refers to the concept of ‘guardianship’ within schools and the equal importance of both academic attainment and pastoral care for the students she calls “my children”.
As the impact of the pandemic recedes, Dr Rana wants for “parents to come in and feel this place is theirs again, and to see that the spirit and magic of the school is still here”. Her team are planning wellbeing, mental health and community initiatives that will connect parents to the school once more. Dr Rana’s intent is clear. “This school has a simple mission and vision. To become the best school on the planet” .
A laudable ambition, of course, but embedding that ambition appears to have created issues within the team that have resulted in a significant number of teachers and senior leaders having departed for new horizons. Dr Rana is keen to clarify that staff turnover has been impacted by factors other than just change, however.
“Many of those teachers that have left us, had in fact planned to do so at the end of the previous academic year. When Covid hit, a good number of those people asked to be allowed to stay on for one more year, due to the difficulties in changing schools or relocating countries during the pandemic. This of course then impacted our teacher turnover figures come June 2020”.
Dr Rana acknowledges that “change and transition can be difficult for everybody” and tells our team that staff wellbeing and mental health is a “huge priority” at the school for the coming year. She describes her newly created team of senior and middle leaders as the “engine and the background” of the school’s success.
A renewed emphasis on student behaviour has also been a cornerstone of Dr Rana’s time at GWA. She tells us that she deals with any serious behavioural issues personally. “If, as a child, you think there is injustice, and the most senior person in the school steps in, it gives an important message: you are safe here”.
Another noticeable change has been the renovations made to the décor and facilities. As a result, students can now make regular use of the (huge!) and updated reception/lobby area. “My students can dance and cartwheel here” says Dr Rana. “We haven’t invested in this school as we have just to lock it away from them!”. The curriculum and timetable are further aspects of school life that have had recent overhauls. The timetable has been ‘simplified’ and the curriculum offer expanded and upgraded, says Dr Rana.
Looking back at the challenges of recent times, and ahead to the future, Dr Rana tells us,
“When you are trying to create excellence, you need to ensure that the picture is being articulated properly to the community. That is my challenge. I’ve had parents who have previously complained about me, now come to me to apologise!
“Parents wanted me to ‘open the doors’ so they could see the changes that were happening, but I couldn’t do that because of Covid!
“My kids thought I was this strict British head teacher coming in and saying things like “you will all wear bows and ties”…no! I was simply implementing an existing school policy on uniforms. Perhaps that policy hadn’t been thoroughly implemented in the past, but that is what I do, I work with policy and rules because if you don’t, it will be chaos!
“I need to make everyone see where we are headed as a school”.
We meet a lively and engaged panel of parents with children spanning both the primary and secondary phases of the school. A number of our panel had been part of the community since GWA opened in 2008, some were members of the parent association and one father was the Chair of the school’s Local Advisory Board. More than one of the parents we met pointed out that comments in the WhichSchoolAdvsisor.com Review did not reflect their own experience of the school and they were keen to show the “other side”.
When asked why they chose GWA, the staff and curriculum were stand out decision points for parents. One parent had interacted with 10-15 class teachers during her children’s long tenure at the school, and they had all had been consistently excellent. For another new-to-the-school Mum, the personal attention Dr Rana had shown both to her and her children during the admissions process had given her great confidence in the school. Her family’s move to Dubai and to GWA had been a difficult decision and she became emotional when describing the care she had been given from the beginning: “Look at me, I’ve got goosebumps!” she said.
Parents were aware of the complaints that had recently been levelled at both Dr Rana and the changes that had happened since her arrival.
One mother explained the turbulence as she saw it;
“You cannot bring in a new head of school and lots of changes without issues. Yes, there have been hiccups, but they have been dealt with. For example, the new management have handled bullying really well. I don’t believe there is any school in the world without bullying, but what matters is how these things are handled. Dr Rana has really come down on behavioural issues and some parents may have felt “what is going on?” as a result. For my son, an issue he had was resolved in just 24 hours and they ended up being friends for the rest of the year!”.
For another parent, the changes had begun with the previous leadership but flourished under Dr Rana.
“Mr Walker steadied the ship but Dr Rana has made a tremendous change. I say that wholeheartedly. We have seen the curriculum become better organised. Before we had different timetables for different weeks. Now we have a more systematic approach and the information flow between teacher and parent is on point.
"To me, in the past, some teachers had become entitled. Some saw the school as a ‘pit stop’. Today, staff adhere to the rules and have the proper credentials to teach. The parent complaints last year were confusingly vocal! Once you understood, it was petty stuff like the uniform or decoration. Some parents felt angry about teachers they had liked being upset. A lot of it turned out to be gossip more than tangible education issues”.
The question of whether the school offers value for money caused a lively discussion, with the eventual consensus that all schools in Dubai were very expensive, but that GWA is “moving closer” to offering good value for the high fees. The parents acknowledge that the school had undergone significant investment during the past the year. For those whose children required additional learning support, the fact that this is included in the GWA fees also represented good value. All agreed that the school offered a high standard of ‘individualised’ learning for their children.
We met a number of friendly, well-spoken students from Grade 4 through to Grade 12. Most of the students in the group held some form of leadership position within the school. Several began by explaining their school as a place that has a “homely, family” feel. As group, they felt that “morale and community spirit” had improved this year. Students agree that they have a “voice” and that their concerns are usually acted upon.
Older students felt that “transparency and communication” in their relationships with teachers was good, with one going as far as saying that “there is now trust here, and not fear”. They liked that Dr Rana had met with every Grade 12 student to discuss their future hopes and aspirations. She was praised as being a role model who had created a better atmosphere in the school and more chances for student leadership. Overall, the students would describe GWA as a fair, encouraging, efficient and united community.
Our last meeting was with a group of senior and middle leaders. As with the others that we met, they all acknowledged that the school had been through a period of significant upheaval, but were keen to move forward and look to the future. There had been a “shift in our vision” and a “reworking of norms”, but staff appreciated the school’s renewed focus on policies, which they said had given them greater clarity in their own roles and eliminated some of the “grey areas” which had existed before. They agreed that the school’s leadership was now “much more visible” and that an emphasis on being “one school” had ensured alignment in focus areas between the primary and secondary phases. Looking ahead, the group were excited by the relaxing of the Covid regulations in Dubai schools, and were especially looking forward to taking students out on school trips again!
In school, the team felt that they were now better able to make connections between subject areas and to utilise the full spectrum of resources that the school had to offer. The school’s improvement plan was clear and gave them a focus, the team felt.
Evidently, this is a school where recent changes have impacted every member of the community. Some have felt the positive impact of the changes, and some have felt that their school and community has changed for the worse. A number have turned to our survey to offer their anonymous feedback. Those we met at the school showed great positivity and enthusiasm for the future and had sensible reasons for why change had been necessary. GWA has historically been a happy, successful and well-loved school, and we are hopeful that this positivity will outweigh complaints in very near future.
GEMS World Academy Dubai is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
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