Two high-achieving headteachers hailed as the best in the UAE have told of their journey to the top of the class.
Dr Saima Rana, principal of Gems World Academy in Dubai, and Mark Leppard, headmaster of the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, shared the title of best principal in the Top School Awards 2023, announced last Thursday.
The school leaders said putting pupils first was key to sustained success in an ever-evolving education sector.
Mr Leppard has led the British School Al Khubairat, named best school in the annual awards, for nine years.
Dr Rana took charge at Gems World Academy in 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Leppard embarked on his career in teaching 30 years ago and was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2015 for his services to education.
“To be a strong school leader, you have to put pupils at the heart of everything you do, you have to listen, and be an active listener,” said Mr Leppard, who is proud to be leading a school established in 1968.
British School Al Khubairat through the years – in pictures
He said teamwork was an essential part of running a school as “days of the lone-ranger head riding off into the sunset are gone.”
“Schools are complex organisations, and it takes a lot of teamwork, and I think my role in that is to identify and nurture that talent, and use it as best we can. It's a complete team approach.
“With a school which has a 54-year legacy, I came in at say year 44 and it's been doing great work for many, many years. So I don't think there were things to come in and change, I think it was to be to be part of the development and to continue that strong journey.”
The role is a privilege
He spoke of the challenge of building on the legacy of one of the oldest schools in the country, while also helping it to grow further.
“You're dealing with children's lives and staff lives and, you've got to remember that it's a privilege. So, for me, knowing the privilege, that's a pressure as well because you want to do the very best for your teachers, who will in turn, do the very best for the children,” said Mr Leppard.
“The other challenge is coming into a school like The British School Al Khubairat as it does have a strong reputation sitting on a strong legacy. So coming in, you don't want to be the one who drops the ball.”
For the headmaster who has worked in the UAE, Qatar, and UK, teaching was something he gravitated towards after travelling and doing voluntary work in education.
“Something I'm very proud of is that I come from a working-class background in the UK. My parents weren't wealthy and my older brother and sister were fantastic siblings to me,” said Mr Leppard.
“We came from a very loving family and I look back and think I had a lovely childhood.
“It wasn't about money or things, but it was about time with my family. That's something I try to do with students. I give them time because that's one thing you can't buy.
“For me, it's not a cliche, but I think my upbringing shaped who I am today and I think that does influence how I try to lead the school.”
Shaping young minds
Dr Rana's first call of order was to help navigate the school through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced schools around the globe to close classrooms and switch to remote learning.
“We were wearing masks even when we would see the teachers. There were signs everywhere, saying ‘keep your distance’. It was just a new normal and it lasted two years,” said Dr Rana, who also serves as chief education officer at Gems Education.
“But, there was a huge change management and transformation job to be done so we continued with that, from the ergonomics to the aesthetics, to the design of the school building, to the teaching and learning policies.
“We were able to deliver and, today, we have a phenomenal school of more than 2,100 children.”
She said her priority from the start was to provide the best education possible to learners.
“You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, you can challenge the status quo – and that’s what we did.”
For Dr Rana, who runs a charity in the UK, the Shahnaz Foundation, teaching pupils to be kind is as critical – if not more – as academic results.
“There's so much happening in the world that is unjust, unfair and heartbreaking, in particular, when children are impacted,” she said
“Most of us are currently feeling hopeless and helpless. I think the best thing I can do at this moment is to make sure that my children, the children in my care, are able to leave school and just be brilliant, kind human beings … citizens who want to make the world a better place for everybody, not just for themselves.
“We want to ensure that our children regardless of age, race, gender, nationality, have a kind heart for others so when they see those that are less advantaged than themselves, they're able to help and support.”
For Dr Rana, teaching continues to be a vocation and an opportunity to make an impact in the world.
She is inspired by the example of her mother, who was also a teacher, and Dr Rana still finds time to teach her pupils.
“I just felt there was a pull towards teaching and it really was that magical. I fell in love with teaching from the minute I stepped into that first class. I still remember it,” she said.