The Abu Dhabi school with a royal seal of approval celebrates 50 years

Built on land donated by Sheikh Zayed, the British School – Al Khubairat predates the formation of the Emirates

Sheikh Zayed visits Al Khubairat Community School, as it was named then, in January 1968. Courtesy The British School Al Khubairat
Powered by automated translation

When Sheikh Zayed met with children and staff at the Al Khubairat Community School in January 1968, the visit would be one of many royal tours of the British private school in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Abdullah, Sheikh Nahyan and Sheikha Lubna are just some of the noble Emiratis to have walked its halls as special guests. Some of their children have been pupils.

England's Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit twice. Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Princess Eugenie and Princess Anne all followed in her footsteps.

“There are always emails about people coming in to visit,” said Clare McCabe, who has worked as a teacher at the school for 20 years. “And they can just appear.”

The memories and photos of these historic events are being compiled by parents and staff as the school gets ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.

“You can see the excitement building up already,” said Hannah Robb, an Irish teacher who has worked at the school for 18 years.

“It’s going to be big. Bear in mind, Abu Dhabi is only 46, and now we’re going to be 50.”

Al Khubairat Community School started out as a small cluster of prefabricated buildings in 1968 on a parcel of land on the Corniche donated by Sheikh Zayed. The school was located next to a ladies’ park known as Khubairat, hence its name.

The original primary school was formed as a merger of the British Political Agency school and the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company school, which each had about a dozen pupils, mostly children of British government or oil and gas workers.

Sheikh Zayed pictured with pupils at the school's original campus near the Corniche in 1968. Courtesy BSAK
Sheikh Zayed pictured with pupils at the school's original campus near the Corniche in 1968. Courtesy BSAK

By 1975, the small campus was bursting at the seams with nearly 500 primary school pupils and in 1980 it relocated to its current location, in Al Mushrif, on land once again donated by Sheikh Zayed, who was its original sponsor. The school has since been renamed as the British School – Al Khubairat and is more commonly known as BSAK.

Mrs Robb remembers first visiting the school as an invited guest of a teacher about 31 years ago. She had just moved to Abu Dhabi from Ireland and was feeling homesick.

"She said, 'You've got to come to the choir service around the swimming pool'," said Mrs Robb.

The school’s swimming pool was a de-facto meeting place for the British community in Abu Dhabi in those early days of the UAE’s development, especially during the holidays. In December, the pool area would be decorated in tea lights and lanterns for special occasions.

“You would bring a cushion, you would get mulled grape juice on the way in and mince pie,” recalled Mrs Robb. “That’s when you knew Christmas had arrived in Abu Dhabi. It was very much a community and we were at the heart of it as well.”

Some early photos show Santa Claus arriving by camel. In another, he landed on campus in a helicopter.

Queen Elizabeth II meets pupils during a visit to the school in 1979. Courtesy BSAK
Queen Elizabeth II meets pupils during a visit to the school in 1979. Courtesy BSAK

A large water tower in the centre of the school served as a notice board where parents would meet and exchange news.

“Do you remember, Clare, when it rained, there were no drains around Al Khubairat, so the cars would be abandoned for weeks with the water over the wheels,” Mrs Robb said to Mrs McCabe as they reminisced about the early days. “Do you remember that? And we just soldiered on. It was very sandy around here was well, wasn’t it?”

“There weren’t as many parking issues and things like that,” said Mrs McCabe. “Parents would come in with their children and I got to know them quite well.”

None of the original buildings at the school have survived the various phases of development. Secondary school classrooms, a gym and the Jubilee Building were built in 2001. In 2012, the original storied pool and surrounding staff accommodations were demolished to make room for a primary school reception, classrooms and replacement pool.

The school, which is one of a handful of non-profit community schools in the country, now has 1,900 pupils from 53 different nationalities, 210 teachers and 80 support staff.

“I think we are part of the fabric of Abu Dhabi,” said Mark Leppard, the school’s 11th headmaster.

“We were founded as Abu Dhabi was growing on the international scene and more and more expatriates were making this their home. We wanted to set up our roots and I think the school provided that opportunity, and that’s actually why we were founded, out of that need.”

Hannah Rob, Year 4 Teacher at The British School Al Khubairat.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/ The National)

Reporter: Roberta Pennington
Section:  NA
Hannah Robb, a year 4 teacher, pictured this week with pupils, has worked at BSAK for 18 years. Reem Mohammed / The National

Emiratis make up the second largest demographic in the school population behind British. Thirteen per cent of the pupils are Emirati.

“We’ve got some really well-established influential families from Abu Dhabi where their children either have come here or are here at the moment,” said Mr Leppard.

"When you talk to people, they know this school. It's not because we put a big banner up, they know it by reputation and those roots going out into the community."

The school is writing a commemorative book to mark its 50th anniversary. Staff also plan a series of events over the next months to celebrate the occasion.

Although the buildings and location have changed over the year, Mrs Robb said one thing has remained the same: the sense of community.

“The environment is lovely,” said Mrs Robb. “We feel we make a difference. The late Sheikh Zayed said success of the people is measured by the standard of their education, and I think we feel that we have been successful.”