Can This Dubai Headmaster Get Your Child Into Harvard?

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Jun 12 2016 / 14:13 PM

Bazaar's editor-in-chief and mother-of-two Louise Nichol meets the new school head promising to revolutionise the way Dubai schoolchildren are educated

Can This Dubai Headmaster Get Your Child Into Harvard?
Ethan Mann
Can This Dubai Headmaster Get Your Child Into Harvard?
Ethan Mann
Tom Farquhar, principle/CEO of GEMS Nations Academy, enlightening young minds in Dubai

There’s an awful lot of buzz around Tom Farquhar and the school he is helming when it opens in August, GEMS Nations Academy. He doesn’t like to sell himself on it, but Tom, along with his wife Mary, arrived in Dubai in August 2014 fresh from a four-year stint as headmaster of Washington institution Sidwell Friends School, stewarding the Obama children through their education. Sidwell Friends was also the Clintons’ academic institution of choice for their daughter Chelsea, and schooled the grandchildren of American vice president Joe Biden. Mr Farquhar – Tom for the purposes of this interview – may not shout about his pedigree when it comes to educating the offspring of the world’s most powerful, but parents at the school gate are showing no such compunction.

Digital pioneers
When it opens at the start of the new academic year, initially accepting children from age four-to-14 at its Barsha campus, Nations promises to revolutionise education in Dubai. “Schools need to reexamine educational practices in light of new realities in society,” Tom says. The reality he is talking about is the digital revolution that is disrupting everything from businesses to career choices to children’s learning and leisure. In a bid to prepare its pupils for a career in 20 years’ time that probably doesn’t even exist now, all Nations' students will be given a school-issue iPad Mini or Pro to integrate digital learning into the curriculum. Every class will have both a lead teacher and a co-teacher, the latter a so-called digital native employed straight out of university in the US and on hand to support the lead teacher with computer coding, programming and website building – all of which will be implemented from kindergarten.

“Many schools are trying to deal with problems of students’ over-exposure to screens,” Tom explains, “if the approach is to keep children away from screens in school then they race home to their iPads.” By integrating screen-time into the school day (which starts at a child-friendly 8.30am) he hopes that children will not only use their leisure hours for socialising, sports and reading "a physical book", but will also be able to harness technology for their own creative expression rather than falling prey to computer games programmers intent on creating addicts chasing the next dopamine hit. “There are people behind these digital devices who would like to take our time and attention away from us for their own purposes; software developers, computer game people. There are agendas embedded in this world that may not be in our best interest. Your digital diet is something we need to be educating children about – what’s good for you and what’s not good for you,” Tom says. One of the school’s mantras is ‘program or be programmed’ as children are guided to become digital content creators rather than consumers. “I don’t believe in having TV sets or screens in bedrooms,” he adds.

Get good at learning
The learning process itself will be based on a more integrated, social model. Think children grouped around tables rather than at rows of desks. “Children will not sit still for the boring one-way delivery of information from the teacher to the child,” Tom states. And while digital processes and learning will be embedded in the school day, creativity and ‘right brain’ activities will be encouraged in tandem. “If all we do is march children through this treadmill of producing linear results then we choke off that creative potential, which is where they will be able to do what these things,” Tom explains, waving his iPhone, “cannot do.” This from a man who practises what he preaches, spending his free time writing computer programs to solve Sudoku puzzles.

Nations will follow the American high school curriculum with options for International Baccalaureate and some AP (advanced placement) courses. However, the emphasis will be on the ongoing process of learning rather than the retention of learned facts. “Most of the skills that people use at work were learned at work, not at school,” Tom says. “The key when you leave school is not how much do you know or what do you know but how good are you at learning? What skills that translate into adult success have you developed in school? Skills of collaboration, resilience, picking yourself up after failure.” He maintains that often the top test scorers at school can wither in the workplace because they are simply not used to anything other than success, resulting in a state of paralysis, afraid to take risks and push boundaries for fear of failure.

“It’s not enough now to just be in possession of knowledge, you need to be able to interpret, to analyse, to synthesise, to persuade, to collaborate"

"We should be focusing on how to develop those skills all the way from kindergarten,” he asserts.

Entrepreneurial vision
The parents that have bought into this vision are, many of them, entrepreneurs who have built self-made businesses and are experiencing the disruption of the digital revolution firsthand, which means, Tom says, “They are inspired by the vision of a school that will take seriously the reality that education needs to change in response to a changing world.” He adds, “It’s a very sophisticated parent population. These are all people that have been successful in their own careers, in their own lifetime, and they are eager to support their children in having the best future they could have.”

One such parent is Sima Ved, vice chairperson of the Dubai-based Apparel Group, which runs retail operations for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Aldo and Nine West across the region. She plans to send her 10-year-old daughter to Nations at the start of the new school year, followed by her young son who will join the following year.

Sima Ved, vice chairperson of Dubai's Apparel Group, who will be sending her children to GEMS Nations Academy when it opens in August 2016 

“I consider myself a veteran/new age mum with an 18-year-old, a 10-year-old and a three-year-old,” Sima tells Bazaar. “Having seen my 18-year-old go through her struggles with the British system, I decided I wanted to try a different route for my middle one for her secondary school. Meeting Tom and Elizabeth [Nations’ vice principal] was an eye opener. I had never come across an educator who ticked all my three Ps – Tom was passionate about the curriculum, progressive in his attitude about how adaptive a school needs to be and lastly believed in personalising education.” Sima says that she was particularly impressed by its headmaster’s conviction that Nations will embrace digitisation and prepare its pupils for the workplace of the future, as well as its provision of a college counsellor to address university choices from grade eight [age 13]. “I look forward to seeing how many boundaries the new GEMS Nations school will push,” Sima adds, “At home this is all we talk about.” 

Forging a world class education
Annual fees at Nations range from Dhs84,000 for kindergarten to Dhs118,000 for grades six-to-eight (rising to grade 12 as children progress through the school). Nations’ headmaster makes no bones about the fact that his is a premium educational institution. “Dubai is a world capital and we just don’t have schools that are recognised at providing that level of education,” he says, “There’s a tier in the market place for a truly world class private school education and Nations is intended to fill that niche.”

Tom believes that Dubai is uniquely placed to harness what he believes will be a global revolution in learning practices. “Dubai is this very mobile, transitional, modern city where the opportunity to employ the best current thinking in education is actually greater than the opportunity in more established communities, where it’s harder to break out of the traditional modes of delivery,” he says, “Here, we’re actually racing to get education to catch up with the dramatic changes in society."

"Dubai is a hotspot in the effort to innovate in educational practice”

Harnessing global education initiatives, Nations has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero think tank and Lego Education to support its curriculum.

Innovate for the future
Despite its global outlook, Nations is very much a product of Dubai and the vision of GEMS founder Sunny Varkey, whose Global Teacher Prize recently recognised Hanan Al Hroub for her work in Palestinian refugee camps. Parents to a 33-year-old daughter and a 30-year-old son who were educated in the US, Tom and his wife are nonetheless vocal in the positives of raising children in the UAE. “The themes of tolerance and diversity in Dubai seep into the children very organically,” he says. Tom believes that Nations’ modus operandi is entirely in sync with that of the emirate’s leadership and its focus on innovation. “You hear this language from the UAE government all the time. Sheikh Mohammed’s rhetoric is always around innovation, inventing the future,” he says, “The theme of Expo 2020 is Connecting Minds, Creating the Future. Imagine taking that theme and putting it into a school; that’s what we are trying to do.”