Dubai's oldest British school turns 50

Dubai English Speaking School will celebrate its golden jubilee this week, and a former teacher from 1964 will return for the special occassion.

Dubai English Speaking School celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. Students enjoy a quiet read in the school library. Lee Hoagland / The National
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DUBAI // When Harry Atkinson arrived in Dubai in 1964 to take up a teaching post at the emirate’s first British school, he was disappointed to find waist-high walls at a campus under construction in Port Rashid.

This week, when the 69-year-old returns with his wife to celebrate the golden jubilee of Dubai English Speaking School (Dess), he will be greeted by more than hundreds pupils at one of two campuses in Oud Metha.

“At the time I couldn’t even find an atlas that mentioned Dubai,” said Mr Atkinson, who got the job 49 years ago by responding to a handwritten note on a bulletin board at his university in Exeter.

“There was a general feeling that something was going to happen and Dubai was going somewhere. That’s what prompted the parents to start a school.”

The school was started by three families, with the help of Flight Lt F Loughman from the Royal Air Force Educational Corps. He and a few volunteering mums were responsible for teaching the first 10 pupils from a room in a villa.

By the following year, there were 24 pupils in need of a bigger campus and another teacher.

“When I arrived, the school building hadn’t been built,” said Mr Atkinson. “I helped build it – laying the cements and blocks. It was ready to open on October 3.”

Although he only taught there for two years, Mr Atkinson has kept up with the school’s progress – admiring photographs of its spreading campus and sports fields and reading its inspection reports with pride.

“The school is of such enormous quality,” he said. “I look at its reports, all peppered with words like ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’.”

This week, the school will travel back in time to the 1960s with lessons about important events in the decade and interaction with former pupils.

Suzie Wright, who studied at Dess in 1979 and recently enrolled her son there, said the school was all about tradition.

“When I went back to enrol my son, I got a funny feeling in my stomach,” Mrs Wright said. “Not as a parent, but I felt like I was a pupil again.”

The school body is divided into four competing houses: the Blue Panthers, Red Jaguars, Green Leopards and Yellow Lynx. Mrs Wright was a Yellow Lynx.

“This may sound pathetic but I emailed the head teacher to ask if there was a chance Joe could be in the same house. It’s about traditions and I don’t want to have arguments at home,” she laughed.

David Hammond, the current head teacher who joined in 2005, said many former pupils had returned to enrol their children.

“There is this unique pride among them,” he said. “The growth of our school reflects the growth of the emirate. We started with sandy sports fields and now we have two well-developed campuses with 1,700 pupils.”

Another former student, Marcus Smith, joined Dess in 1983 when he was five. He now owns a fitness and performance coaching company in Dubai and credits the values he learnt at the school for his success.

“The school always encouraged us to play,” said Mr Smith, 35. “My first teacher, Ms Bahia, had a great impact. She was so caring, kind and patient that I could never forget her.”

Mr Smith and Mrs Wright will be among the pupils who return to celebrate the jubilee this week. Perhaps some of Mr Atkinson’s pupils will be there, too.

“When I came here, I was 21,” said Mr Atkinson. “It was my first trip outside Europe and that made a huge impression on me.”

After deciding to travel to Dess for the reunion, he dug out his old photo albums and found a snapshot taken of the pupils at Christmas in 1964.

“I was surprised I could remember the names of at least half of the pupils,” he said. “I even remember what each was like.”