School stands by experience

The new headmaster of Dubai College says UAE branches of British private schools cannot yet match the quality of the country's established schools.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Sep 16: Dr Carlo Ferrario, Headmaster of Dubai College at Dubai College campus in Dubai.  (Pawan Singh / The National)
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The new headmaster of Dubai College says the UAE branches of British private schools cannot yet match the quality of the country's established schools. Dr Carlo Ferrario said Repton Dubai and planned new branches such as the UAE offshoot of Oundle School might not be able to compete with established schools immediately.

He made the comments three weeks after starting at Dubai College, where he replaced Eric Parton, headmaster for 18 years. "A school cannot transplant from one environment into a totally alien environment and expect to be producing the same thing right from the start," Dr Ferrario said. "Just because Repton has 450 years of tradition in the UK, that doesn't mean it will immediately reproduce that tradition. You don't create quality straight away. It takes time to establish a reputation. Dubai College has been doing that for 30 years."

Repton Dubai opened in 2007 as an overseas branch of Repton School in Derbyshire, UK, which dates back to 1557. Another prestigious British private school, Oundle, based in Northamptonshire, UK, plans to open in Dubai in 2009, and a third, Dulwich College, is interested in launching in the UAE. Dubai College, which follows a British curriculum, was set up as an independent school and is not a branch of an overseas institution.

The opening of branch schools mirrors the situation in higher education. Many foreign universities have set up campuses in the UAE and several other institutions are due to open. Dr Ferrario said he did not intend to criticise the new branch schools and added that Dubai's rapid growth meant there was "a place" for different types of schools. "I don't feel Dubai College is threatened by the establishment of these schools because they will cater for different needs and expanding needs."

Dr Ferrario has extensive experience in the British private school system, having taught at Sherborne School in Dorset before becoming a deputy headmaster at Clifton College, Bristol, and St Benedict's School, Ealing. He described Dubai College as "very much" in the model of a British private school. He himself was educated at a state-funded school, the London Oratory, which was attended by three children of the former British prime minister Tony Blair.

A geography graduate of Christ Church College, Oxford, Dr Ferrario has a PhD from University College London, where he studied the industrial and economic development in northern Italy in the 16th to 18th centuries. He is "very open-minded" about Dubai College introducing the increasingly popular international baccalaureate (IB) examination, which has replaced A-levels as the final school qualification in many British schools.

"My ideal scenario would be to offer both. So many schools in Britain are taking up the IB that doing it is not against the British curriculum," he said. He said the IB was externally managed and did not suffer the "government meddling" that people are "fed up" of seeing with the A-level. "Some people feel it's offering something better balanced and more holistic. It has a wider range of subjects and pupils are challenged in different ways."

He described Dubai College as "probably the most successful school in Dubai" in terms of academic results, but said he was ambitious for further improvements. The school, which takes children aged 11 to 18, is heavily oversubscribed, with about 450 applications each year for 120 places. "I challenge people to look at how they do things and how can we make them better," he said. "There are always ways. The school has a very established teaching population, but they have to be inspired to look at how they are doing and how can we do things better."

Dr Ferrario insisted, however, that academic success should not come at the expense of developing rounded individuals. "We're not an exam factory, although others may believe we are. I have no sense of that," he said. For the moment, Dr Ferrario is concentrating on the transition from being a deputy headmaster to headmaster. "I found myself at the start thinking that I should be doing other things. I am so clued up to doing things a deputy head should be doing, but it's not my job to be doing these things," he said.

The "day-to-day management" of the school is carried out by deputy heads, leaving Dr Ferrario to concentrate on "strategic planning and vision". "You change from being a manager to being a leader of the school. It takes time to drop the other things and adopt the mantle of the new role. It's a bit like dressing with new clothes," he said. Repton Dubai and Oundle School were unavailable for comment on Dr Ferrario's remarks.