Interviews Mark Steed

Meet the Headteachers – Mark Steed – Director of Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) – Dubai

Mark Steed brings over 30 years of experience in the education sector to his position as Director of Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) in Dubai, UAE. During his 2+ years as Director, JESS has been judged ‘Outstanding’ by Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau and by British Schools Overseas 2015-2016; and voted the top school in Dubai and Abu Dhabi 2017 by JESS is not-for-profit HMC COBIS school with an international curriculum, and the aim of providing an education that extends beyond the classroom. Mark hails from Essex, England. He enjoys his time outside of school at Dubai’s beaches, opera house, swimming, and spending time with his family.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

Like many people who end up in education, I was inspired one of my teachers at school. While I was studying for A Levels, I had a teacher who made a huge difference to my life. As a career choice, I think it’s been a fantastic one, because it has evolved as I’ve grown older.

When I was a young teacher, I was lucky enough to teach my academic subjects in the mornings and teach games all afternoon. As I slowed down a bit and had a family, I was a housemaster in a boarding school, and able to spend a lot of time with my children as they were growing up.

Now, I’ve moved into school leadership. I’ve been a head teacher for the past 17 years. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the combination of the educational side and the operational business side of an education career. It’s been a very stimulating journey.

How did you end up in the UAE?

The reason I’m in Dubai and running JESS, an international school, now is because I’ve previously run two schools in the UK. I ran Kelly College, and then I ran Berkhamsted School, which was a rather large independent day school.

I wanted the new challenge of applying all that I learned in my career in the UK to an international context. It was partly an intellectual challenge, and partly the attraction of a hugely attractive opportunity and lifestyle. It’s a very exciting time to be working in an international school in the Middle East, and particularly in Dubai.

The UAE is such an inspirational country to live in. It has such a can-do attitude towards everything, and that makes it very exciting. It’s very fast moving, and ambitious. Increasingly, really good people are moving here to work. Once you’ve lived here, you realise this is where it’s happening.

How are you applying your experience as a UK boarding school headmaster to the international educational space?

I think the British schooling system, particularly its independent schooling system, is the best in the world. The reason is that it’s holistic – it extends beyond the classroom. The education that you get teaches you that what goes on outside the classroom is as important as what goes on inside the classroom. This combination of both academic and personal development, along with sport and competition and wider things, is the key to a genuinely interesting education that makes you an interesting person. You don’t just leave school with a set of exam results. You’ve actually had a whole load of experiences that have developed you as a human being, and shaped the adult you’ve become. It develops people who can run the world, make decisions, and be creative. A disproportionate number of people from the UK independent sector end up running things.

There’s great value in bringing that kind of education to the Middle East. UAE is a very aspirational country, but also a country that prizes STEM and all the sciences. I feel it’s valuable to bring to it an educational philosophy of a broad education, the value of creative subjects, and the value of a lot of human interaction. This is the essential philosophy of JESS – the focus on STEAM not just STEM.

The thing that makes this school, and the students who leave here, particularly interesting, is that they have the advantage of growing up in a very dynamic and forward-looking environment. One of the key concepts we have at JESS is of being future ready. We use the hashtag, #FutureReady, an enormous amount. Future ready young people are people who are very skilled at technology, and they are people who are very adaptive. They can work with anybody from anywhere. I often say, “Well what’s your best outcome for a JESS student?” The answer is, “I would want to be able to transport them to the streets of Calcutta at the age of 18 and they would have the skills to be able to cope with that environment.

I don’t think that can be said about a lot of educations around the world. I think our young people are genuine global citizens. You see it, too. I was watching a football match the other day, it was halftime, and the team we were playing was an Islamic school. The entire other team did their daily prayer during halftime of the game. It’s an extraordinary experience as a schoolboy when you’ve got all these kids who’ve been knocking seven bells out of each other on a football pitch, then they go off and pray on the side of the pitch, and then come back on and continue knocking seven bells out of each other. You sort of feel, well, that’s how it is, why not? These are just normal kids who have a particular religion and that’s what they do. Those sorts of experiences are really quite formative.

How have your skills and experience as a headmaster at an English boarding school translated to the UAE and international schooling?

Authenticity is the real key to the issue. Unless you’re authentic – your true self – you become a terrible leader. I was one of those kids growing up who really didn’t enjoy the academic side. I think you look back on your education and say, well what are the things I remember from school? I don’t look back with fondness on the exams.  I look back with fondness on the fact that I scored a few tries in key games, and took a role in the school play, and spoke in debating competitions. I think those sorts of experiences are formative and really shape you. You’ve got to have that philosophy of education and be authentic to it. I bump up against people occasionally because they want me to just teach maths, physics, and chemistry. I say there’s more to it, because we want your kids to go off and do something interesting.

What gives the students from your school character and values that would allow you to, as you say, drop them on the street in Calcutta and have them thrive?

Like most successful schools we’ve got students from 70-80 different nationalities. We need that. Our students grow up with friends who are from all around the world, have different backgrounds, and have different aspirations and stories. I think that’s part of it.

I also think one can then give them experiences. One of our big things, in year 12, is that we have a Vietnam trip. It’s called The International Award (IA) here, and The Duke of Edinburgh Award in the UK. The IA treks through the Vietnam jungle for five days. Then, they do house building in the Mekong Delta. They will literally build houses that are replacing some really, really fragile wooden shacks. These are the homes of some of the poorest people in the world. My son has just come back from Vietnam and it has actually changed him. He’s never seen people that poor in his life. He’s never worked so physically hard in his life as he did building that house. Recently, we had 70-odd kids building four houses and going through that experience together in Vietnam. Our overriding mission as a school is to send kids out who will make a difference in the world. That doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to give them experiences, make them do stuff, in order to be able to do that.

What’s special about the environment at JESS?

Most schools, in general, are big boxes, and we really look more like a holiday camp. We don’t have any corridors, and we’re a very al fresco school. It does have a wonderful atmosphere, and it’s a lovely learning environment, physically.

It’s also the way we go about teaching. For example, in years 7 and 8 we’re totally paperless. All of the students do everything on a MS Surface and we work in OneNote. The students do an enormous amount of collaborative work with each other and with their teachers. I think we’re pushing them forward in how we do that.

The other side of things is we run a project called the Making a Difference Project or as it gets abbreviated, the MAD Project, which is really about giving young people experiences that will prepare them so that they can land on that Calcutta street and know what they’re doing. This spans all the way to year 13. In the primary school we have them, for example, learn to load and empty a dishwasher, or they learn how to use a washing machine, sorting clothing by colours – that sort of stuff. They might be laying the table, and when they get older they might have to iron a shirt, or prepare a meal. It’s a whole range of life skills that grows with them as they get older. They also have to film these achievements , and then upload it to a platform as evidence that they’ve done it. The MAD Project is an antidote to what I’d call the “expat brat pack” approach.

What kind of students attend JESS?

We’re very much an expat school. The majority of our students are European expats. That’s mostly because of our location, but we do have students from all over the world. We have a few locals from UAE in the school, but they tend to be students with one European parent. Our primary school is very British. Secondary school is a bit of everything. By the time they’re getting ready to leave, our curriculum is very international.

What are the main challenges to education?

I’m passionate about IT and the future of technology, and how technology is shaping the world. I speak at conferences around the future of education and preparing young people for the future of work. I think the greatest challenge we have in education is undoubtedly the fact that we’ve 263 million children in the world who don’t go to school. If that problem is going to get solved, it’s by technology. That’s why I’m very interested in how we use and embrace technology within the school, so we run a few projects around that.

What other trends are you seeing in education at the moment?

Teacher recruitment is becoming more and more challenging. It’s become a global fight for talent. We’re chasing people from all around the world. I also think that, increasingly, the examinations system is out of kilter with the world of work. That’s causing big problems, so much so that we may get to the point where a traditional university education becomes almost meaningless. The idea that a set of degrees, or an IB plus a degree, is a ticket into a profession is probably not going to last much longer. I think that people are going to be judged by how good they are, rather on what pieces of paper they have..

What are the particular principles and philosophies behind JESS?

We have what we call the Five Skyscrapers. The thinking of skyscrapers is that when you look at a skyline, you can recognize whether it’s New York, London, or Dubai by the skyscrapers. What happens on the ground in New York, London, Dubai or any other city is fundamentally the same. People do the same things – buy stuff, travel to work, bring up families, and all the rest – but it’s skyscrapers that make the cities stand out. Schools, likewise, do the same sort of stuff. The areas where you want to stand out from the crowd are skyscrapers.

We’ve identified Five Skyscrapers that we want to stand out from the crowd. One is our International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is the best in the Middle East. We want our IB to take a leading role within the region. IT and Education is another massive skyscraper for us. We’re building one in Arabic language education, and really making sure that people learn Arabic. The fourth skyscraper is a centre of excellence for teaching and learning in the professional learning community where we aim to lead in offering ongoing professional development for teachers within the region. The last one is the Making A Difference Project, which is a very distinctive piece of what we’re trying to do in education.

Those are our Five Skyscrapers. We put additional resources into theseand have people who are responsible for developing these areas.. We’re really trying to build an international reputation in those spaces. We’re already one of the leading IB schools in the world; have a phenomenal reputation for IT; and we’ve got a regional reputation for Arabic teaching and learning. The MAD Project may well be the thing we’re famous for in 10 years’ time.

How do you get students to do their best academically around those five skyscrapers?

We’ve remarkably improved the academic results since my arrival 2 ½ years ago by raising aspirations. We use target grades in the secondary school based on the University of Durham Canton Project, Midges Alice Project. When students arrive in year 7, they have a baseline test. From that test, it projects a chances graph, which says what their most likely grade in different subjects is going to be. We then add a grade onto that, so if their most likely grade is a B, we’d say your aspirational target grade is an A. Then we report against the aspirational target all the way through their seventh year.

What this has done is raised students’ expectations of what they’re capable of doing. Two years ago, JESS received eight stars, which is 20%; two years on, statistically we got 33%. We’ve massively improved top grades from 54% to 66% in two years. We’ve done that just by raising aspirations, raising expectations, setting high standards, and bringing parents into the journey. Everyone understands the aspirational grade. Everyone reports and works towards the aspirational grade, and lo and behold, they then go and get their aspirational grade which is really quite good fun. We’re on track for better results and higher grades again this year. There’s no alchemy to running schools. Keeping it simple, setting an aspiration grade, get everybody behind it, and that’s it.

By International School Parent Magazine Editorial Team

International School Parent Magazine is an Online and Print Magazine for International School Parents and Teachers alike. Our mission and message to readers is to highlight the excellent opportunities that an international school education offers and to help provide them with the information they need at critical points in a child’s education. For schools and educators, our goal is to be a platform where they can communicate with parents and others about news, updates, and expertise.

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