From a room in a villa to more than 1,000 pupils: Dubai English Speaking School turns 55

When DESS first opened in 1963, Dubai wasn't even marked on a world atlas

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It is a year of birthdays for a group of the UAE’s best-known, not-for-profit British curriculum schools: Dubai College celebrates its 40th birthday in 2018, the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi turns 50 and Dubai English Speaking School is 55.

DESS, one of the oldest schools in the country, was established in 1963 in an upstairs room of a residential villa in Dubai. The year before DESS was born there were just 20 schools in what was then the Trucial States. By way of comparison, more than 25 new private schools opened in Abu Dhabi and Dubai alone last academic year and today the UAE is considered one of the most dynamic and diverse education environments in the world.

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

Within months of opening its doors, more than 20 pupils had joined and new premises had to be found in what is now the Dry Docks area of Dubai. A young man named Harry Atkinson was subsequently appointed as the school’s first full-time teacher.

Mr Atkinson revisited the primary school in 2013, as part of its 50th birthday celebrations, and told this newspaper that “I couldn’t even find an atlas that mentioned Dubai” before he travelled to take up his employment in the Sixties. He had got the job by replying to a handwritten advertisement that had been stuck to a noticeboard at Exeter University, but when he arrived in the city he sensed that “something was going to happen and Dubai was going somewhere”. He stayed for two years.


Read more: Dubai's oldest British school turns 50


The school moved to its present site in the Oud Metha area of Dubai 51 years ago, to a plot that had been allocated to the primary school by Sheikh Rashid, Ruler of Dubai. DESS was formally registered as a legal entity in June 1969. Today, around 1,000 pupils, aged three to 11 years old attend the school, a far cry from those earliest years. The last Knowledge and Human Development Authority inspection rated DESS as “very good” and praised its “strong culture of innovation”.

Dubai English Speaking School marked its 55th birthday with a global picnic attended by parents, children, staff and alumni. The school has also been connecting with former pupils via its Facebook page. More than 1,000 ex-DESS pupils have so far joined the group. Jane Shaddick-Brady, deputy head teacher, said “it’s amazing to see how many memories have been shared so far and how emotional it was for the alumni who attended our picnic.”

But the school won’t be dwelling in the past for long. Mrs Shaddick-Brady said DESS will seek to “maintain its reputation as a forward-thinking, innovative organisation and a centre of excellence” in years to come.