Cover interview: Marco Longmore and Janecke AarnæsNovember 2, 2017, 10:30 am GMT
Dubai is no stranger to premium school brands setting up branch campuses in the emirate. However, while most schools that have set up shop in Dubai are from the UK, September 2018 will see the first time a US brand a New York based school, backed by a 150-year heritage enter the market.
Both Brighton College UK and Dwight School New York will open branch campuses in Dubai September 2018 as part of Bloom Education's growing portfolio of schools in the UAE.
Brighton College Dubai will offer the National Curriculum of England all the way to sixth form, and Dwight School Dubai will be an International Baccalaureate continuum school, offering the Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme and Diploma Programme.
Both schools will be located within what is being billed as a "super campus" with a combined enrolment capacity of up to 4,000 students. The 89,000sqm campus will also accommodate the Centre of Excellence for Arabic Language, Culture and the Arts.
While Brighton College currently has two campuses in the UAE in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain this will be the UK-based operator's first school in Dubai. And although Dwight School does not have any campuses in the region, it has international campuses in locations such as London, Seoul and Shanghai.
Heading up Brighton College Dubai is headmaster Marco Longmore, who joins the school after completing nearly nine years as rector at The Edinburgh Academy, one of Scotland's leading HMC schools. At Dwight School Dubai, Janecke Aarnæs will lead the team as head of school. She joins Dwight Dubai after serving as head of school at Oslo International School in Norway, another IB World school with 650 students representing 52 countries.
For both, this will be their first educational role in the Middle East, which means the principals will be counting on support not just from their home schools but also the international branch campuses. That being said, both Longmore and AAarnæs are keen to highlight their enthusiasm for their respective schools.
"I'm excited by how much care, attention and focus is given to education in Dubai, and it's an exciting prospect to be part of that. Edinburgh is unique within the UK 24% of secondary-aged children are educated in an independent school… there's nowhere like it, so I'm used to a competitive marketplace. But what I can see here is the diversity of independent schooling is even greater than that and caters for a wide diaspora of the world that come and live and work here in Dubai. So to know that in due course my school will play a part in that is a great prospect," Longmore enthuses.
Given the competitive landscape in Dubai's school sector, we're naturally curious how the two new heads plan to ramp up enrolments at their schools, particularly given the schools' premium-plus price points, and the market's shift towards mid-market demand.
Brighton College Dubai will open with classes from FS1 to Year 9 in its first year, with a new year group to be added every subsequent year. Fees at the school will range from AED 64,000 in FS1 to AED 107,000 in Year 13. [Founders' discounts will be offered, but the school was waiting on KHDA approvals when Education Journal went to print]
At Dwight School Dubai, fees will range from AED 114,000 in pre-KG to AED 130,000 in Grade 12. In its first year, the school will offer places from pre-KG to Grade 9, with new year groups to be added every year. By the time the school faces its first round of inspections, every year group will be open.
Aarnæs acknowledges the marketplace does hold challenges. However, she's confident that with Expo 2020 preparations ramping up, and the resulting demographic growth, the school will have a place in the market.
She explains: "We're aware of the challenges in the market at the moment and while any market goes through financial fluctuations, demographically there is still huge growth in Dubai and in the UAE. So the demographic growth should, in itself, indicate that there is a need for a number of schools to open every year. Of course, there is a market need to be met that's not necessarily all in the premium range… but with the Expo 2020 coming and the bottom having been met and the market now climbing up again, we do not see it as a negative challenge that the market is at it is. And I do believe the strong influx means that people will always be on the lookout for premium schools. And I think with both schools being extremely strong branches in themselves is enough to meet the competitive market."
While the schools have ambitious targets for enrolment numbers, for Aarnæs, the goal, ultimately, is sustainable growth, which she attributes to the home school, which was founded in 1872 and has been owned by the Spahn family for over three generations now.
"The good thing that also speaks to the quality of the schools that we're opening is the long-term sustainability of the schools. We both represent branches that think long term within education and that's one of the more important elements it's not to enter the market and to be flying as a school because it was so popular, and then suddenly disappear; but to be part of this vision to create a significant difference in the educational market in the Middle East for the generations to follow," she says.
Longmore echoes Aarnæs' sentiments, adding that it ultimately comes down to value for money and the experience students have at the school.
"What I've seen in my own previous charge is that parents will buy into the quality of the experience their children are getting from that school. And the task at hand is to deliver that at an early stage, and I believe therefore that we will see the school filled in its planned growth model. The scalability, I think, is very sustainable. Yes, affordability as a whole is a concern, but value for money is seen at all price points," he notes.
When it comes to school performance, having a brand name school doesn't automatically mean it will be successful. While some schools have successfully hit the ground running, others have struggled in their first years. Brighton College, however, has already established itself in the UAE with its two existing schools the Al Ain school has been rated Outstanding by Abu Dhabi's Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) and the Abu Dhabi school has been rated Very Good. Brighton College Abu Dhabi also achieved the top A Level results in the emirate in 2017.
"Brighton College has a strong brand recognition and reputation in the region and globally, but the parents will expect to see that manifest here. And it will be nuanced by context because there will be particular needs and aspects which will be specific and unique to Dubai. So making good on promises is probably really a focus," Longmore says.
For Dwight, the first order of business, really, is to build awareness of its home school's legacy Dwight New York was the first school to offer the complete IB curriculum in the United States and the school was only one of six original schools selected from then 3700 IB World Schools to pilot online IB courses.
Dwight Dubai will also offer the inclusive Quest and Spark Tank programmes offered by Dwight New York.
Quest is Dwight's learning support programme, which is designed as additional support beyond the provision the school will routinely offer in terms of differentiation, learning intervention and specialist support. The programme is planned in collaboration with parents and faculty and replaces the need for outside tutors by using a Quest mentor who works with teachers.
Dwight's Spark Tank programme offers a think tank approach to nurture innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership among students based on their interests and strengths.
With the schools still early in their pre-opening phase, the priority for both Aarnæs and Longmore is recruitment.
"Recruitment is a massive priority because you are as good as your team is. And we have to secure a fabulous team in order to open a fabulous school," Aarnæs states.
Both schools will be recruiting over 40 teaching staff and while Longmore has already recruited a head of prep and is in the final stages of appointing the deputy head for Brighton College Dubai, Aarnæs says recruitment will begin in early November for Dwight School Dubai.
Another priority for Longmore is to build strong relationships with the other Brighton College schools in the UAE and the UK. In fact, Brighton College UK headmaster Richard Cairns and Longmore were previously colleagues when both served as head of history in different schools.
"I know the characteristics of his school, where there is a breadth and depth of education, which is not just high academic attainment but is balanced with huge involvement in co-curricular engagement with the wider community of Brighton UK and the world. So when it comes to the USP, one of the key aspects is that we're part of a family of schools; that the link is very strong not just to Brighton College UK, but to the two other schools in the UAE, and the school in Bangkok. So the opportunity to share at all levels – not just headship, but best practice, experience, and among staff, working very closely is exciting.
"The other aspect which has been critical, at least in terms of my own introduction to the country is to establish working relationships with colleagues at Bloom Education, to understand that progress is being made on preparatory work for the physical opening of the school, that the quality of the facilities will be to the standard that will be expected by me personally and our parents and staff. All of that has been hugely reassured by the last two months I've had in the country," Longmore says.
Looking to the future, Aarnæs wants to ensure that students and staff hit the ground running without any hitches from the first day.
"I think the first year, as any year, for my sake is to focus on student learning. For Dwight School and for me personally as the leader of the school, the focus on the individual student and ensuring that the individual student is safe, feels happy and thrives in the school both personally, physically and academically is of importance. It is not unique to the first year because it will always continue. But when you start a school, hitting the ground running as if you were a school with a history of 150 years is really important because we cannot experiment with students; we need to feel that we can provide something which is as solid for the first child who starts with us as it will be for the one who comes in three generations later. So that's my priority to ensure that we have a school environment that is as established as it can be for every student," she says.
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