Staying powerJanuary 14, 2018, 4:05 pm GMT
GEMS Founders School had everyone in the in the industry talking when it opened its doors with 1800 students in September 2016. The number was notable for several reasons: firstly, it was a record within GEMS Education for a new school, and most likely for the UAE too. But more importantly, Dubai itself saw a record number of schools open last year. While the majority of the 14 other schools that opened in 2016 would have considered themselves lucky to hit 150 students, Founders opened with more than 10 times the number during an enormously competitive year.
But the first year wasn't a fluke, we learn during a visit to GEMS Founders School. In fact, in its second year, the school enrolled another 1360 students, with the total student body standing at 3242 at last count.
Just like last year, the foundation stage makes up the bulk of the student body at Founders. In FS2 alone, the school has 22 sections with 25 children in each class, accounting for 550 FS2 children alone.
Founders has also opened its Year 9 group this year, principal Matthew Burfield tells Education Journal ME. The school has received formal accreditation from Cambridge International Examinations and is now working on approvals for Pearson's Edexcel and BTEC courses, we learn.
During EJME's visit, Founders was also waiting on KHDA approval to open a pilot sixth form with Year 12 next year, in addition to Year 10 that will open as part of the school's natural progression.
"The plan is to open a small pilot sixth form with our Year 12 because that will give us the chance for our oldest children – those in year 8 – to not always be our oldest children, but to have something to aspire to. And I also think in our marketplace there isn't a school that will offer A Levels in the way that we will offer them, particularly in our fee market. I think it's something that the market needs and the community needs – an A Level offer which starts at AED33,000, which is what we'll be charging for Year 12 and 13. I don't think there's anywhere that does that with our facilities, teaching make up and everything else," Burfield says.
But how small is small for a school like Founders, we wonder.
"We're looking at only between 60 to 100 children. That's the sort of level I'm looking at. We're going to bring in a very good group of children who will be high achieving and will want to go to the best universities in the world; they're the small group that we want to design and make our sixth form. It's not that we'll be exclusive, but we are going to have really high criteria for them to join us – they've got to have good IGCSE grades – we're really looking for simple criteria because A Levels aren't easy, so we want to make sure that those children are capable. It's not about filling the class, and we've been really clear about it and [GEMS Education CEO) Dino Varkey has been really clear about that when I talked to him about it. Student numbers don't matter in the first couple of years for us, we want to make sure that it's right for those children that come in, and that's critical – the numbers may be less or more, but we're looking at around 60 to 100 children," Burfield notes.
With the additional 1360 that joined the school this year, Founders has also had to launch phase two of its campus a lot earlier than the school originally planned – in fact, the new building wasn't due to open until the school's fourth year of operation, Burfield tells us.
"Phase two was originally meant to open between year three to five in the business plan. We were meant to be at 1500 children at the end of year three, and we'd said if we got to that, then phase two would start to come online. That was the original plan, but obviously it was realised last year. So we broke ground on phase two in March this year and they handed over the building to us on August 1," Burfield says.
Given the school's remarkable opening numbers and the rapid growth since, it would be fair to assume there were several bumps along the way. In fact, at education conferences Burfield has spoken at, he's been candid about the challenges, from lack of internet connectivity in the first few weeks to teachers and senior leaders working around the clock to get the school ready for opening.
"I suffered a bit of PTSD I think," Burfield laughs. "We weren't expecting the numbers when we started working on the school, back in December 2015. When I signed my contract our target was 400 children in the first year. But on our first assessment day in January 2016, 560 people turned up on a Saturday. And that's when we realised maybe we'd have more interest than we thought. And from that day until when we opened in September, there was a huge amount of work that went on behind the scenes within GEMS to adjust and change. After the first assessment day we hit 1000 enrolments, and by the time we reached early April, we thought the number would be around 1500, but even that number kept growing. So it was a very busy summer for us. The staffing, for example – I suddenly had to visit England again and we went all over the world for recruitment."
While the first year was a steep learning curve for the team, the second time around was slightly easier, Burfield says when asked how the school has coped with almost double the numbers in its second year.
"One of the things that's really important to understand is that while we doubled the number of children, we also doubled the number of staff. So you also increase the capacity that you have within. For example, our PRE from last year is now our head of admissions and communications with a team under her. It's the same within our academic team. I was nominally head of secondary and the vice principal was nominally head of primary last year – now we have dedicated heads of secondary and primary, and the principal and vice principal. So all that capacity at every level has come in, and of course we've welcomed 104 new teachers and 36 more teaching assistants than we did last year. Our operations team has doubled in size.
"So all those things have added to what we do, and we've had a few what I would call luxury positions as well for our model of school. For example we have a UAE liaison, who makes sure that our school fits in the emirate and it works in the UAE and it represents where we live, so it's not just a British international school, but it's a British international school in Dubai, in the UAE," Burfield explains.
A large portion of teachers at Founders are also either NQTs or early in their careers, which helps keep costs down for the mid-market school. Teachers are also a mix of native English speakers and a mix of other nationalities.
"We're happy to take young UK-trained teachers, we're happy to take young non-UK trained teachers. We're happy because we've built in a training programme in the school because that's what we're used to; that's what we've done. I know there are some principals that want teachers with 10 or 12 years' experience, but I love working with young teachers. They bring a dynamism, they bring great knowledge from straight out of university. And yes, we need to help them develop some of the skills in the class, but they have willingness to do it; they want to be here. Teachers want to be a part of it because they don't have that cynicism that sometimes older teachers can have built into them. And we made sure the leadership structure has a lot of experience. So all the leaders and extended leadership team particularly have hundreds of years of experience between them. But our teachers come in with that young, fresh energy," Burfield enthuses.
Teachers also receive additional support from the TELLAL Institute that GEMS Education works with.
With the school only 1000 students away from hitting capacity, it's clear that demand for the school isn't about to slow down. In fact, Founders had to close admissions for its September 2018 intake within a day of opening registrations for FS2 to Year 4, with very limited capacity still remaining in Years 5 and above.
However, Burfield says the school is in no hurry to hit capacity very soon, and will focus instead on specialist provision for GCSEs and A Levels.
"To be honest, what I'd like is do is hit that in year five because what we need to now do is manage to make sure we've got that specialist provision for our A Levels and GCSE. And with us opening Years 10 and 12 next year, hopefully Year 11 and 13 will come after that. So that's when I'd like us to be at full capacity.
"I don't want to just fill the classrooms and then not have space for our own children growing through. And then the bulge will manage and we will eventually become the sort of standard growth school with each section where they're meant to be. But I'd like to hit that capacity when we're at year four or five," he explains.
Furthermore, given the large number of students currently enrolled in foundation stage that will progressively move up through the school, we ask whether there's more room to build capacity on the school's current site.
"There isn't more room currently at this site. There are discussions about where that could be possibly added because there's always ability to grow," Burfield states.
"I don't think there's any need at this stage, because what would actually be preferable, and what we're already doing is opening a new Founders in Mizhar, which will launch in September 2018. And then there are one to two more planned the year after that and then there will be loads more beyond.
"I think as a brand, whether it's Founders or modelled on Founders… it's shown it works really well in this particular market for what parents are looking for. We don't ever use the word affordable really I know it's used on some of the marketing, but it's not a word we use. For us it's just the best value for money. They come here, they get these amazing facilities, they get amazing teachers, they get all these opportunities, and they get it for this price tag. There is no school in the country that is better value for money at this point in time. I'm certain of that. And that has shown there need to be a few more," he asserts.
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