Dubai inspires

Russell Speirs, Founder and Chairman of RSAcademics is a great admirer of what Dubai has achieved in the education sector. This year he wanted UK-based educators to see for themselves why he was such an enthusiast.

Why Dubai Inspires

I will never forget my first trip to Dubai in 2016.  I was so swept up by the energy, ambition, and pace of change and so inspired by the corresponding innovations in its rapidly growing schools market, that I kept going back and we now have a thriving business there. Having made so many friends and learned so much in Dubai, I decided last year that I wanted our clients and friends in the UK to have the same opportunity.  The aim of what we called ‘Dubai Inspires’ was therefore to organise a tour of Dubai schools for UK educators which would expand their imagination, widen their points of reference, and enrich their professional networks.

Visits and symposium

Our tour group comprised eight educational leaders from the UK: 7 Heads of schools and one person with sector-wide responsibilities.  We began our tour on a Monday with a visit to the private schools regulator, the KHDA, to set the scene and then visited 9 schools over the next three days.  On the Thursday morning we held our symposium: a chance for our guests, people from each of our host schools and other experts from the Dubai education sector to come together and discuss the key learning points from the week.

What we learned

Perhaps the most important conclusion from the week is that the tour lived up to its name.  Dubai does inspire!  Below are some of the things which struck our guests as particularly noteworthy.

1. Brand differentiation

Although all our host schools in Dubai were British ‘premium’ schools, we were struck by the very different emphasis and tone in each. It was a living case-study of the power of differentiation, crucial in a market where families have so much choice.

2. Inclusion and wellbeing

Not all independent schools in the UK have a selective entrance procedure but a lot do.  The schools we visited in Dubai were strongly identified with the broader community they served, as almost all international schools are. Our tour taught many of us that inclusion and wellbeing are inextricably linked and that there is integrity, richness and joy to be gained from a truly inclusive community.

3. Frequent, rigorous inspections

We learned how an annual inspection regime can be a spur for innovation, ambition and evidence-based leadership. We were also struck by the widespread culture of self-review and reflection among the teaching staff.

4. What a motivated and dedicated team can achieve

We witnessed the incredibly impressive results that can be achieved with dedicated and hard-working teachers, TAs and large numbers of motivated support staff. This was most evident in the quality of displays and the design and preparation of learning resources, which were staggering.

5. A clear, unified ethos

It might have been because of the need to unite diverse student, parent and staff bodies but whatever the cause, we were struck by the clarity, visibility and authenticity of each school’s ethos and values.

6. The attractions of working in Dubai

Most of the leaders and teachers we met really enjoyed working in Dubai.  Key reasons were the openness to different educational approaches, the level of ambition, the focus on research-led practice, the inspirational learning and working environments for children and staff and the continuous innovation.

7. Recruiting from abroad

One of our party said that he will always look favourably in the future at an application from a teacher looking to return to the UK from Dubai.  He admitted to previously being prejudiced against such applicants.

From inspiration to action

Of course, it is one thing to have been inspired, to have learned and to have picked up ideas, but for the trip to have been of value, the learnings needed to translate into actions back home.  How did the eight leaders do that?

Claire Robinson Headteacher at Holme Grange School in Berkshire was quick to follow up and found that her visit had sparked real interest on her return:

“I prepared a presentation for governors and senior leaders, exploring how some of the key ‘take away’ lessons could be used to support, guide and inform school improvement, highlighting areas of learning and for celebration. Curiosity ignited, we then engaged in debate and discussion regarding strategic development of the school, reviewing how this can be further enhanced through collaboration and dialogue with global partners.

“The plan now is to build on the visit, research further and ensure the visit is a focus of meetings at staff, parent and senior leadership level. Key areas of focus for me are:

  • Wellbeing and Happiness Initiatives
  • Accountability and Governance of Schools
  • Early Years Education and Provision
  • Diversity and Provision for Pupils of Determination (SEND)
  • Staff Development”

Having structured his learning points from the visit, Richard Backhouse, Principal of the Berkhamsted School’s Group in Hertfordshire, has used them to inform Berkhamsted’s active programme of school development:

“It took at least half of the return flight to order the many pages of a notebook and hundreds of photos into a simple table, which holds references to 42 ‘Lessons from Dubai’, hyperlinked to 23 Powerpoint slides of photos, grouping ideas thematically, verbally and visually.  These files were shared with my senior team on my return and form a regular agendum when we meet.  10 weeks later, we are starting to move from ‘what will we/you do?’ to ‘what have we/you done?’.

In truth, I suspect it will take us at least six months to employ or put to one side all the ideas we picked up. Not one of the ‘benched’ ideas lacks value, but we are adamant that it is best to do the best 10, or 20, things excellently than all 42 averagely. The choice of which to employ, and which to pause on, is a team effort.”


Russell Speirs is joined by Claire Robinson and Richard Backhouse at the IPSEF Global Conference on June 28th in London, where they will discuss why ‘Dubai inspires’. 



FEATURE IMAGE: by Sandeep C V from Pixabay  (‘The Waterfall’ also referred to as ‘Pearl Divers’ – Dubai Mall )

Support Images with kind permission from Richard