“There’s no such thing as an easy business trip,” a friend of mine once declared. For the main part, I’ve never agreed with him. Whilst they can be gruelling, I am still of a childish enough disposition that I find airports and hotel breakfast buffets exciting. This particular trip, however, is testing my patience. I am on a tour of The Gulf region promoting a medical school applications course and in the last four days I have visited 15 schools in three countries. Today is a Wednesday so we must be in Dubai. Just to add to the fun, our driver has no idea where he is going, a sandstorm is about to hit town and we’ve run out of water. Believe it or not, my temper is shortening by the minute and my enthusiasm is starting to wane. That is when I see it. As we cross the part-desert, part-building site which makes up the outskirts of Dubai a mirage floats into view. A giant blue building shaped like a wave seems to be sitting on a road in the middle of nowhere. We draw to a halt and I look up at the outside of Dubai’s singly most desirable school, GEMS World Academy.
GEMS. Whilst the name might mean little to parents here in the UK at the moment, the world’s largest school brand is a byword for quality and innovation across the globe. Its origins are a proper “dollar and a dream” story, starting from a single school opened by KS and Mariama Varkey to meet the needs of migrant families unable to access quality education in Dubai. Today the organisation, run by their son Sunny Varkey, has built, owns and runs schools in 19 countries. It also acts as consultants to governments on educational best practice. If that wasn’t quite enough, the Varkey GEMS Foundation was started in2010 withthe aim of helping some of the world’s poorest children to gain an education. On a superficial level, their schools look amazing. The most impressive is GEMS World Academy (or GWA to its friends) in Dubai. Walking round it is an open-mouth experience, from the soaring ceilings to the planetarium and top-end sports facilities. Quite simply, it is the school of your dreams.
Dubai is a heaving mass of people chasing the black gold rush, and there are over 150 private schools of all shapes sizes and prices jostling for the children of the burgeoning migrant worker population which is growing at a rate of 2,000 a month. Needless to say, it’s a tough market. This makes GWA all the more impressive. In a cost-conscious environment, the school was built in 2009 to push the price ceiling in the region by offering a premium product and thrived. It has enjoyed almost 400% growth over the last four years and everywhere I look as I walk around I meet happy students, happy parents and, most unusually, happy staff. Everything, it would seem, is in its proper place.
The head, Jason McBride, has the easy confidence of someone who’s doing a good job and knows it. I am also surprised to find that his enthusiasm for the GEMS brand is genuine and, whilst steeped in the company rhetoric, he comes across in no way false, exclusive or pompous. He is the perfect mix of the committed educationalist and a salesman you might actually trust. Try as I might, I find it very hard to do anything but like the man.
As we talk, I ask him what he thinks the secret of the GEMS success story is. On this, as well as everything else, I find him reassuringly candid. He backs his teachers. “GWA-Dubai has a nearly 90 per cent retention with our teachers and they really work hard. They are subject to a high level of challenge in their jobs but in return we offer a high level of support. The average annual turnover in the GCC for teachers annually is 30 per cent, teachers here vote with their feet so I guess we must be doing something right.” The importance GEMS place upon developing and supporting their staff cannot be underestimated. With over 200 CPD programmes on offer annually for the average GEMS teacher, many of them delivered by other GEMS teachers, they take staff development seriously.
In fact, you would be hard pushed to find any aspect of school life that GEMS don’t take seriously. They are keen to stress that whilst each of their schools may come with a different price tag to cater to a different market, the quality of the teaching remains the same. Results and contextual value added are broadly the same across GEMS students and the values-based approach to education, born of a desire to raise global citizens with a solutions-based approach to life’s challenges, add a quiet credibility to the brand.
McBride talks like a man on a mission and he clearly is. From opening the school with an already impressive 450 students and taking it to 1,860 and counting, he talks earnestly of having a time of consolidation and reflection. A breath later, he then stresses the need to push forward the technological aspects of the curriculum, raise the environmental agenda further and establish the school as the hub of a series of GWA copies around the world. It’s big stuff and unashamedly so.
I like GEMS. They prove the point that doing things on a large scale with a homogenous approach doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all. That evening I head off to a Syrian restaurant I know down in the marina. As I drive down the motorway I pass several other outposts of the GEMS brand, monuments to the Varkey dynasty’s unerring ambition: each with a different price tag, each with a different image, all of them holding to the same values and rigorous approach to teaching. I can’t help thinking how this model might fit into our education landscape here in the UK. The traditional independent school will always have a place and a customer base, but affordable private education, delivered on a large scale for a mass market, could well be something that could take off over here as more and more families look for an alternative to their local comprehensive school. GEMS have already established a foothold here in the UK and will open their first free school in Oxfordshire next year. Pretty soon there could be one down the road from you. I, for one, would be happy to see them.
Ted Underwood has over 13 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools