From desert classrooms to Oxbridge, Dubai College marks five decades

One of the emirate's oldest schools went from a few hundred pupils to more than 1,000 - and now teachers are looking to the future

The facilities were often basic and the hours long, but the pay-offs were immense. Long before the UAE had branches of global schools and universities, pioneering teachers put down foundations that stood the test of time. They ensured pupils did not have to leave the country and they educated generations of youngsters. To mark the UAE's 50th anniversary, The National has profiled some of these schools.

Surrounded by desert sand and sea views, Dubai College was nothing more than a block of buildings in its early days.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, veteran teachers at one of the city's oldest schools have seen Dubai develop around them.

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On the first day I walked in the front entrance of my department and out the back I was literally looking at sand dunes and a couple of viper snakes came to greet me by the back door
Ian Jones, Dubai College

Skyscrapers, shopping malls and motorways mushroomed, and the size and reputation of the school grew at a similar rate.

Founding headmaster Tim Charlton set up the institution in 1978, so British secondary school pupils would not have to return home to the UK.

The teachers have always had high standards, said Mark Donovan, the head of the English department, who has worked at the school since he arrived in the emirate in 1984.

“From the beginning, the school offered a standard of education which meant that people didn't have to leave Dubai. There was a sense of belonging to a school community and that has been important to the city,” he said.

“I always remember the fact that in Dubai, there were no traffic lights and then there was suddenly the arrival of traffic lights and proper roundabouts.

Dubai and Dubai College have been on the same kind of journey, I think we value what we've come from in the past, but we also look to the future.”

At the time, Dubai College was on the edge of the city, with just a few 100 pupils and a small number of staff.

The school's annual cross country run had pupils jumping over the school wall and running around the desert.

That quickly changed, and the school now has a thriving community of 1,043 children.

“We felt like the city was creeping out from the Creek towards to meet us, but all of a sudden, there was this awareness that there was almost an entirely different city with its skyscrapers and skyline,” said Mr Donavan.

“All of a sudden, Dubai College was in the middle of these things whereas for a long time it had been a journey out through the desert.

“I've enjoyed every stage of Dubai … it was very special to be here and witness its development from the times when the Sheikh Zayed road was just a two-lane road.”

A desert school

Design technology teacher Ian Jones has taught at the school since 1986.

“The first day, I walked in the front entrance of my department and out the back I was literally looking at sand dunes, and a couple of viper snakes came to greet me by the back door,” he said.

At the time, the school consisted of only four red buildings and 450 pupils, but he was excited to teach design technology in a new department.

“We had one classroom with one workshop and I think within about three or four years, we planned to extend it to a second classroom and second workshop,” said Mr Jones.

“After four or five years, we extended it again. So the building has just grown … It's like a small mirror image of Dubai.”

Mr Jones said he is often asked what it is like living in Dubai now compared with 1986.

“I can't really answer that, because Dubai has changed so much since like the 60s that it's like living in a completely different place.” he said.

Looking to the future

With the UAE turning 50 this year, Dubai College has embarked on a project to refurbish and renovate their buildings by 2030.

“We are now starting effectively on a complete ... refurbishment and rebuild of the entire Dubai college campus,” said Michael Lambert, the college headmaster.

“Block A, which was the first block built at the school is 40 years old now. It's been baking in the UAE heat for all that amount of time, it's the dimensions aren't quite as big as a modern classroom would be.”

Dubai College has also established the Dubai College Foundation, a registered charity in England and Wales with a branch in International Humanitarian City here is in Dubai. It allows the school to raise funds to build schools overseas. The first project is a school built in partnership with United World Schools in Nepal. Dubai College additionally plans to open a centre for teaching excellence soon.

The college will also be marking the UAE's Golden Jubilee with several special events, including a UAE at 50 Founding Fathers lecture series and a House competition, where form groups will submit short videos talking to their future selves about what the UAE will look like in 2071.

National Day celebrations will also be held, with food, dances, quizzes and calligraphy sessions planned. A falconer will also visit with his birds.

Mr Lambert said the school - known for how many of its pupils secure places to elite UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge - is still expanding pupil numbers and planning for the future.

“We are as a school immensely grateful to he founding fathers of the UAE and for the decree that allowed us to come into existence,” he said.

“I think everything about Dubai and the UAE speaks of foresight.

“We're constantly aiming for the stars, and I think because of that, Dubai College has remained as ambitious as it has been for the last 43 years.”

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Updated: November 25th 2021, 12:51 PM
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