Dubai College, one of the oldest schools in the emirate, marks its 40th anniversary on May 4 with a gala dinner at the Atlantis hotel on the Palm. More than 900 guests and dignitaries are expected to attend, including Tim Charlton, the school’s founding headmaster, although even that illustrious title rather downplays the galvanising role he played in DC’s history.
As a teacher in Sharjah in the late 1970s, Mr Charlton noticed that many expatriate children left the Dubai education system at the end of primary school, often to return to boarding schools in the UK. At the time, there were few secondary school options for British curriculum students in Dubai, except St Mary’s Catholic High School in Oud Metha, which this year celebrates its 50th birthday.
Mr Charlton resigned from his job in Sharjah in 1977 and went back to the UK to sell his house and raise funds for his school project. A period of false starts and frustration punctuated his time when he returned to Dubai as he sought meetings with potential partners and banks - “our ears rang with remarks of expansive gloom”, he recalled later - until his plans were given the go-ahead by Sheikh Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in May 1978. “I was handed a plan of Plot B141 by Sheikh Rashid … the instructions were quite simple: build us a school here.”
Michael Lambert, the current headmaster of DC in Al Sufouh, describes the not-for-profit school as a “very good example of a home grown educational success story for the UAE”.
There are more than 900 students registered at the school between Years 7 and 13 and, according to a recent report, the school receives around 2.75 applications for every place it offers. That statistic is not all that surprising given DC regularly receives an “outstanding” rating from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority inspection reports.
The school roll is likely to swell by 25 per cent over the next seven years - the Year 7 intake has recently increased to 160 pupils - as DC embarks upon an expansion and refurbishment of its facilities, including its sports and performing arts spaces. Mr Lambert says this is part of an anniversary building programme for the school’s 19-acre site.
“I think Dubai is now quite possibly the world's most competitive schools market,” he says, referring to the rapid expansion of the education landscape and the need to keep improving what DC offers.
“There's pretty much a new school that opens up, on average, about once a month in Dubai, and quite a few of them are opening up in the top-tier bracket.” North London Collegiate School opened to much fanfare last autumn in Dubai, charging up to Dh130,000 per year for a place. Others have joined or are joining the market – including Kent College and Brighton College Dubai – and, says Mr Lambert, “there is an element of us being aware that we need to ensure that the families who would historically have chosen us continue to do so given the wealth of choices that are now on offer.”
For now, Mr Lambert is, understandably, more focused on the upcoming celebration of DC’s 40-year heritage and, indeed, looking forward to the next phase of the school’s development.
Those celebrations, which include the recent publication of a commemorative book, culminate in a weekend of festivities: a 40th anniversary concert will be staged at the school on May 3 featuring, among others, DC’s concert and jazz bands and its orchestra. The following night the party switches to the Atlantis hotel on the Palm Jumeirah for the gala dinner. The event has been a sell-out for weeks and at least four of Mr Charlton’s successors as headmaster will be in attendance, as well as alumni flying in from all over the world.
That it is a sell-out at such a big venue is testament, he says, “to the strength of feeling which those associated with Dubai College both past and present have for this iconic institution. We're using the 40th anniversary gala dinner as a springboard to reconnect with as many members of the alumni network as we can”, says Mr Lambert, “and to engage with the school of the future.”
The future includes a Dubai College Foundation, which the school will seek to register under the umbrella of International Humanitarian City, with a plan to set up a school overseas. But it won’t be a “mirror image of Dubai College or a franchise”, says Mr Lambert. Instead it will be a registered charity school. DC already has close links with an orphanage in Delhi. Old friends of DC have also already established an independent registered charity in the UK called the Dubai College Foundation.
He also hopes that more not-for-profit schools will be established in Dubai to join DC, and a handful of others, including Dubai English Speaking School, which celebrates its 55th anniversary this year.
He dreams there will be “a rediscovery of that pioneering, foundational spirit that created these not-for-profit organisations that have lasted so long and so well. At the time there was no need to import [schools from overseas], there was a self-confidence about the place. It would be great to see that self-confidence reborn in a new not-for-profit school. That would be a great vision, I think, for the future.”