Sixth Form students at Dubai College who received offers from Cambridge and Oxford.
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A quick dip into the archives reveals that Dubai College was founded by the gracious consent of HH Sheikh Rashid Bin Zayed Al Maktoum in 1978 for the purposes of providing “within the emirate of Dubai, a modern secondary education in the British style, to the highest academic standards” for “those children whose families are on short or long-term contracts, and for those UAE children whose parents wish them to experience this type of education”. Our founding head Tim Charlton understood that for the school to be a success according to this founding mission, we would need to create “a very real alternative to sending children back to boarding school in the UK”. From that day on it became clear that Dubai College would not be trying to compete with local schools or other international schools but with the very best of British schools back in the UK. This year, after 38 years driven by the educational vision of seven headmasters and the steady hand of three bursars, Dubai College finally feels like it has come of age.

This year’s annual research survey conducted by COBIS (Council of Overseas British International Schools) of its 271 members in 70 countries reveals that Dubai College is the number one British International School in the Middle East and the 3rd most successful in the world for A Level and 4th most successful for GCSE. Additionally within The Times league tables we would rank 22nd most successful coeducational independent school at A Level and the 15th most successful coeducational independent school at GCSE.

Rankings in and of themselves, however, mean very little. Our role here is to ensure that each and every one of our students fulfils their own ambitions whether they are sporting, creative, philanthropic or academic. As a selective school there is also an additional expectation that we will maximise the potential of our bright students, enabling them to access the world’s best universities. For this reason we implemented a TopUP programme in the school four years ago. TopUP stands for top university preparation with the students defining for themselves which university will be their top choice. Inevitably with a very bright cohort this means that many of our students aspire to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and LSE in the UK and the top 30 universities in the US.

Oxford and Cambridge in particular are especially competitive. With over 36,000 applicants worldwide and an average success rate for UK applicants of just 22% and for overseas applicants of 11% our students really are applying to two of the most competitive universities in the world. This year for the first time in the school’s history 20 out of our 36 applicants received offers, that is around a 55% success rate and represents 16% of our entire cohort. When you compare this with UK schools it puts us right up in the top 30 or so schools in Britain which is no mean feat when you consider the comparative paucity of access to extending and enriching activities such as lectures, courses and residential events which exist in the UK.

There is no real secret to our students’ success rather there is a combination of features and systems all of which complement one another to help them achieve their end goals. Firstly there is the environment: Dubai College is certainly not the newest and definitely not the shiniest school in the UAE. What we do provide, however, are sports fields, courts and halls, performance spaces including music centres, drama studios and a 900 seat auditorium, as well as art and design studios, study spaces, social spaces and at the heart of the school a library. Within that environment we also bring together some of the brightest and most talented students in Dubai in the belief that by creating an environment for like-minded individuals to thrive they will bounce off one another and inspire themselves to achieve new heights. We have all been in the situation when we have run with a quicker person, or played sport against a better team and have lifted our game accordingly.

Simply putting the students together in a well-resourced environment, however, does not inevitably lead to success. The dedicated staff at the college engender particular behaviours in the students neatly epitomised by the school’s unofficial motto: work hard, play hard, be neat, be civil, be cooperative. Staff have high expectations of students safe in the knowledge and experience that students can achieve far more than they often believe. Not only are the expectations high, however, staff lead the students towards high-value, high-impact opportunities for the students to extend themselves beyond the work they do in college. Examples of this include the excellent range of Olympiads which currently exist in a growing number of subjects. For several years now every single middle school student at Dubai College has taken part in the ISMTF competition. There is also a Maths Olympiad, Physics Olympiad, Biology Olympiad, Chemistry Olympiad even a Linguistics Olympiad. At the top end the universities of Oxford and Cambridge themselves run essay competitions in almost every subject and every one of our students whether aspiring for Oxbridge or not are encouraged to enter one. It is this behaviour of seeing the exam curriculum as simply foundation on which to build a greater subject experience which really helps prepare students for these competitive university applications.

Knowing what to do is fine, but also teaching students how to approach these activities is also key. In the Sixth Form at Dubai College students work together in focus groups called TopUP sessions to tackle some of these Olympiads and essay questions together, to ask questions of one another and themselves to understand how to answer challenging questions and how to articulate their answers well in these situations. The fact remains that you can prepare for these situations. Too often there is a belief that those who deserve to get in to these universities will do so on their own and those that don’t won’t. This is simply not true and is actually quite an irresponsible mindset for teachers. By teaching students what opportunities there are, and how to access the best outcomes from them, we are serving our students the best we can.

Beyond environment, behaviours and capabilities comes something even more important, however: values and beliefs. As a school we try to foster confidence and an open mindset in the pupils. As they say if you think you can do something or you think you can’t then you are probably right. If our students do not believe they can succeed and access these universities then they will not even try. As our success rate at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge has grown year on year for the past 4 years our student body has grown in confidence. Younger students have now seen what it is possible to achieve at Dubai College and now they too believe that they may have a chance of accessing these top universities.

By following these logical levels of environment, behaviour, capability and beliefs it is possible for any student and any school to maximise their chances of success in whatever endeavour it is that they hope to succeed.


By Michael Lambert

Michael is Headmaster of Dubai College.