'To class on a camel': The Dubai school that's older than the UAE

Dubai English Speaking School started life in a villa on the shores of Dubai Creek - and now that history is being documented

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The facilities were often basic and the hours long, but the pay-offs were immense. Long before the UAE had branches of global schools and universities, pioneering teachers put down foundations that stood the test of time. They ensured pupils did not have to leave the country and they educated generations of youngsters. To mark the UAE's 50th anniversary, The National has profiled some of these schools.

Only a few schools in the Emirates can speak of a legacy that predates the UAE, but Dubai English Speaking School (DESS) is one.

The school opened in a villa on the shores of Dubai Creek in 1963.

The pupils were taught in a rudimentary classroom and modern facilities were lacking. But change was coming.

Dubai's late Ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, in 1967 granted the school land in Oud Metha.

From only a handful of pupils in the villa, about 2,700 pupils now attend DESS and its secondary school arm, Dubai English Speaking College.

To celebrate its 58-year journey, DESS is launching an alumni project, with sixth-form students and the school's first-ever pupils contributing stories.

Some of the stories are about the kids going to schools on donkey and camels
Andrew Gibbs

“There are four sixth formers at Dubai English Speaking College who are going to be writing a book over the next 15 months," said Andrew Gibbs, principal of the college.

“This comes on the back of establishing some recent contacts with the first seven children to ever attend DESS in 1963.

“There are things I've learned with a view to capturing as many of our alumni as possible, the oldest of whom are around 64 years old."

Princess Anne, the daughter of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, opened the administration building of Dubai English Speaking School in 1987. Photo: Dubai English Speaking School

He said speaking with former pupils had corrected his knowledge regarding places, dates and times.

There was no set curriculum to begin with and a mix of British and American pupils attended the school in 1963.

The first group of 10 pupils were taught by some of the parents and by a British serviceman, Flight Lt F Loughman, from the Royal Air Force Educational Corps.

The book will show what life in the Emirates and the school was like more than 50 years ago. It will also include noteworthy visits to the school such as by Princess Anne, daughter of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, in 1987.

"Some of the stories are about the kids going to schools on donkey and camels. If you lived over the Creek, you got a boat, and then you were picked up by a donkey which brought the last few 100 yards to the school," Mr Gibbs said.

Aileen Davidson, who has worked at the school for decades, said one of the things she likes is that there are children that she taught who are now bringing their children to the school. Ruel Pableo for The National

Aileen Davidson has taught at DESS since 1991.

The primary school teacher moved from Ireland during a career break in 1989 and has lived in the UAE since.

“The school is very much interwoven within the fabric of the city, because we have endured and grown with the city despite the fact that our campuses might not look swanky," said Ms Davidson.

“One of the things I like is that there's children that I taught who are now coming in with their children.

"If I'm on duty at the gate I still meet parents and they're saying, Hello, Ms Davidson, and I'm thinking, Oh, my goodness, I taught you when you're four.

"I feel so privileged to have been able to see that and to see how the children I taught got on in life."

Ms Davidson, who joined as a year five teacher, later became a group leader and now takes care of special educational needs.

"I remember our beautiful field at the back that was sand. There was football played out there and sports days held out there," she said.

"It's been a tremendous ride over the years.

"Life was a lot simpler and a lot quieter. Some colleagues would hop into their cars and drive across desert to get to school.

"I remember my first night out in 1989. I had literally arrived to the country and was living in Sharjah and came over to the Metropolitan hotel in Dubai and had no idea where I was going and the Sheikh Zayed road was a dual carriageway."

Flight Lt F Loughman and the first class at Dubai English Speaking School. Photo: Dubai English Speaking School

After months of hardly any celebrations during the pandemic, the school will be marking the UAE's Golden Jubilee next week.

A two-day-extravaganza, complete with food, falcons, henna, music, competitions and exhibitions, has been planned.

The Emirati Heritage Festival, which will be held on Sunday and Monday, will see more than 1,000 pupils come together to celebrate the Emirate’s rich history and culture.

"We will celebrate the music and the animals and the culture and the food," said Catherine Dando, headteacher at DESS.

"It will be a two day extravaganza celebrating all things Emirati."

Designers from the Museum of the Future will also be giving a talk. And pupils will work on a project that predicts what Dubai will be like in 50 years.

'We're looking at UAE, past, present and then what the children would imagine the UAE would be in 50 years," said Ms Dando.

Updated: November 26, 2021, 4:00 AM