We were only three weeks into the new academic year when Education Journal sat down with Taaleem CEO Ros Marshall. But as we recapped the previous academic year an extremely busy one for Taaleem as well as the supposed summer lull, we realise the school operator was working around the clock on new initiatives, scholarship programmes and more.
Taaleem was one of only two operators invited to take part in the Mohammed Bin Rashid Distinguished Students Programme, which was announced before the summer break. The programme offers top performing Emirati students scholarships to study in Dubai schools rated Good or better.
In the first year of the programme, Taaleem has offered 112 scholarships across three schools Uptown Mirdif, Al Mizhar American Academy, and Jumeira Baccalaureate School.
"The aspiration is to help the fortunes of these Emirati students with a strong academic programme so they can achieve their choices for universities, while also looking at their ambitions as future leaders of this country. It's a very exciting programme to be involved in," Marshall says.
But the scholarship programme wasn't the only pilot programme the school was part of. Jumeira Baccalaureate School was also a pilot school for the wellbeing census that was announced last year.
The Student Wellbeing Census, run by the KHDA in partnership with the Department of Education and Child Development (DECD) in South Australia, will include 70,000 students in Grades 6, 7, 8 and 9 (equivalent to Year 7, 8, 9 and 10) from every private school in Dubai when it is fully rolled out from November 2017.
Census data will provide schools with an in-depth understanding of how students feel about their school life, home life, themselves and their relationships with others. The data will also provide insight into student attitudes towards their experiences in and out of school.
Taaleem schools are also focusing on furthering the positive education agenda. Marshall explains: "In August, when we had our senior leadership team come back, we had a two day-retreat and training session on the positive agenda, happiness agenda, moral education, and wellbeing. Some of our schools had already started on that last year, most notably Greenfield Community School where they set up a mindfulness room for students in the primary and secondary school. And we've been looking at how teachers maintain the positive energy in the classroom with things like exercises and brain breaks... it's covered extensively on social media and we're hoping parents will engage with that and understand a bit more in depth about how to motivate their children and inspire them to learn."
The Jumeira Baccalaureate School was also part of the teacher licensing pilot, with principal Richard Drew and other senior leaders participating in the process too. The school recorded a 100% pass rate of teachers in the pilot programme, and with more than 25% of Taaleem's teachers due to go through the process this year, Marshall is hopeful the perfect record will continue.
Most notably, Taaleem announced late last year that it would freeze fees across its entire network for the 2017/18 academic year.
Explaining the rationale, Marshall says: "Last year was a very challenging year, particularly for some of our families and parents because of the pressure on the economy and job losses. So our main focus there was looking at how we could support our parents, and we made a decision to hold our fees for this year. We were nine of only 22 schools in Dubai who have held their school fees this year. And we felt that it was important to support our parents and show continuity of the children's education in quality schools. Another policy change we introduced was to have sibling discounts for families with three children and more."
Fee increases in Dubai are calculated on the basis of an Education Cost Index released by the KHDA, and a school's DSIB rating, which means any change in fees is usually announced closer to the summer holidays. By announcing the freeze on fees within the first term in 2016, the operator gave families time to consider their options for the 2017/18 academic year.
The move, Marshall notes, helped retain families to a large extent. She says: "First of all, the visibility in terms of knowing what the fees are and planning for them helped by giving them more assurance and security. Typically, in the wave of the cycle, the DSIB results aren't published until May and the fees are announced then, so it's quite late in the school year. By anticipating that and bringing the decision forward by announcing in November of the previous year just gave parents a longer view of whatever happens and they knew what the fees is going to be next year. And I think it's been very welcome and we've had good retention of our families this year. In a year where we've seen a higher number of people leaving the UAE because of their job circumstances, the retention of the families has been good and we've had growth as well across the group."
Retention is also important given the competitive nature of Dubai's school market. While Taaleem hasn't opened a new school since Dubai British School Jumeirah Park opened in 2015, there are no plans for opening any schools in 2018 either, Marshall tells us. However, the school group is mulling expansion through inorganic growth, we learn.
"We've got some opportunities to look at something slightly different for 2018, so we may have another announcement in a different guise, but that's yet to come to fruition," Marshall says cryptically.
"There is a market now where people have put a lot of money into investing in a building but are not seeing those early returns, which they were getting previously. When Taaleem was first starting, we had over 300 students in the first year at JBS you typically opened with 400-500 students in the old days. And now, from what we hear from other schools, you'd be lucky if you had 100 just getting to three figures. That puts a much longer payback on investors, so there are some investors who are actively concerned and talking to us and looking at the market. And certainly from Taaleem's growth perspective, there are two ways of doing it either organically or inorganically. Looking at mergers or acquisitions of schools that are potentially a good fit is something that we'd be interested to pursue," she adds.
Because we've got nine schools in Dubai, we're also looking very closely at opportunities in Abu Dhabi as well to leverage the results of the Outstanding-rated Al Raha School. So we're looking at our portfolio across the two emirates in terms of our growth," Marshall says.
Within its own group, there's also scope for growth, particularly given Dubai British School Jumeirah Park's impressive growth. "Jumeirah Park has far exceeded its enrolment target year on year. They've grown 300% every year, so that's been amazing growth for us there," Marshall reveals.
Since the Jumeirah Park school serves as a branch campus of the original Dubai British School in the Springs, Marshall says Taaleem is looking at ways to leverage the partnership between the two schools.
Jumeirah Park will also open its sixth form this year and face its first round of inspections. "Dubai British School Jumeirah Park will be inspected for the first time this year, so there's a lot of structures and processes they've been following since day one and they're in a very good place in terms of offering a high standard. It's great to have that community stand on the back of DBS and DBSJP operating independently but working together on all sorts of things, so there's an opportunity to develop that further I think," Marshall notes.