An inside look at Durham School
Sponsored: This month we talk to Mark Atkins, the principal of Durham School in Dubai, about what makes a good education, what challenges students are facing today and how to keep pupils motivated in the classroom.
Mark Atkins graduated from the University of Birmingham and has been a teacher for 36 years. He still makes sure that he teaches as “frankly, it’s the best part of the job” he says, while also acknowledging that it is essential he demonstrates that he can ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’. In his career, Atkins has held numerous school leadership positions, including headships in the UK and the Principal role in a number of international schools.
He has become something of a specialist in establishing international schools and, as Chief Operating Officer of a large UK international school group, has worked to help set up British curriculum schools in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt and China. Atkins is also Chairman of Governors for a specialist UK pupil referral unit (PRU) that was established to provide for behaviourally challenged pupils in a deprived area of north Kent.
What inspired you to want to be a teacher and a principal?
There is no more important job than teaching. Teachers who connect with pupils, take the time to understand them, to guide them and appreciate their talents, have a profound effect on the rest of their lives. We can all remember the great teachers that helped to shape our future and we should be thankful. As to being a Principal, that just happened over time, I most certainly did not set out to become a school leader – I am happiest in the classroom.
Can you tell us about the curriculum and how it differs from other schools?
All schools that teach the English National Curriculum are broadly similar in the content and subject matter taught. Where schools can be very different is in the standards and expectations that are placed on the pupils and the staff. Durham is a school that believes pupils thrive in structure, respond to high expectations and learn best when they are fully engaged with talented teachers.
Durham eschews over-reliance on technology, preferring instead to concentrate on delivering the basics thoroughly, with pupils producing work in books that are shared with their parents. In keeping with our proud 600-year history, we offer a traditional approach to education, replicating an authentic English independent school experience in our standards, expectations and ethos.
What qualities does Durham school try to develop in its students?
The school ‘MARK’ values underpin everything that we do. Of course, academic success is important but without Moral Integrity, Ambition, Responsibility and Kindness, qualifications alone count for little. Durham sets out to produce confident, socially competent, empathetic young men and women, who see and value others. In an increasingly self-obsessed ‘selfie’ world, we want to develop decent, emotionally intelligent and kind human beings of great character and personality, who can make a meaningful contribution to society.
Why should parents pick Durham school for their children?
Parents should only pick Durham if they subscribe to our values and standards. They must be comfortable with and support our ‘old fashioned’ values, our high expectations in terms of pupil (and parental) behaviour and our traditional approach to teaching.
What are the key challenges you face as a school in Dubai?
I am delighted that parents have so much choice in terms of the huge variety of schools available in Dubai. Competition has to be a good thing as it ensures that schools are focused on delivering quality education, while also making sure that they give the best value for money at the same time. Competition is a challenge, but one that we embrace. It is also a challenge to recruit and retain the finest teachers. We invest a huge amount of time and energy in finding the very best teachers for our school and making sure that we look after them.
What steps do you take to ensure children settle in well, when moving to your school?
This comes down to the ethos of the school. Yes, we have structure, discipline and rigour but ultimately, we are a kind and happy school where the teachers and management take a keen interest in every single pupil and their families. Our small class sizes and skilled staff help pupils to adjust quickly to their new surroundings. We also give parents every opportunity to meet face-to-face on a daily basis with the teachers, ensuring that high quality communication is a feature of the school.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges students face today?
Social media and online dangers. I am not sure if parents fully understand how dangerous the online world can be and the pressures that children face every day through social media, online bullying and pernicious algorithms that target the vulnerable, including children.
How do you motivate children to be active learners in the classroom?
It all comes down to the quality of the teachers. Teachers get to know the students, what makes them tick, what interests them and how to capture their imagination. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to teaching. Every child is an individual and must be taught as such.
What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
For more information about Durham School, please visit www.durhamdubai.com.