Principal interview: Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth

Principal interview: Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth
Principal interview: Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth
Published: 15 May 2017 - 6:10 a.m.
By: Parinaaz Navdar

As the school year draws to a close, one principal is preparing to leave the premises for good this time. Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth, who has led Repton Dubai since 2010 is set to retire at the end of the academic year.

"After 22 years of being a head, the time comes when actually you need to leave a party when you're enjoying it. I'm loving the job I do, this is the best job in the world with lovely people, and I'm going to miss the people most. But ultimately, I know from experience it is far better to leave while you're perhaps at the top of your game than to go on too long. After 22 years it's quite easy to become slightly cynical I don't want to become cynical, I want to still be enthusiastic and energetic, and thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing, which is what I'm doing at the moment," D'Aeath tells Education Journal Middle East.

Hughes-D'Aeth began his teaching career in the late 1970s as a classroom teacher at the Rugby School in the UK, where he spent 15 years, working his way up to the post of housemaster. Following a stint as headmaster at Milton Abbey in rural Dorset, Hughes-D'Aeth eventually moved to Dubai to lead Repton's Dubai campus two years after it opened, an opportunity that offered "a totally different proposition", he recalls.

"Repton Dubai was a brand new school of 2000 students. At my last school, the oldest building was just under 1000 years old, and I came to a school where the oldest building was just under three years old... so it was quite a contrast. The size of the school was considerably different. But the similarities were there children and teachers are much the same the world over," Hughes-D'Aeth states.

"The other aspect which was interesting was I had arrived just after the crash, and therefore tight financial management was really important to get right. It's very easy to mistake new schools for being endless sources of wealth built on huge amounts of invested resource. But those resources are limited, and it's about how you use those limited resources to best effect. It was interesting moving into a for-profit, as opposed to a not-for-profit school. But the point about that is that it enables the educational ecosystem of Dubai to really develop and grow.

"And whilst parents are concerned about a for-profit model, actually without the for-profit model, there wouldn't be the range of schools which are available. In fact, very few of the for-profit schools are making much profit in their first few years of operation. It took Repton School in England about 450 years before it began to really develop and flourish. Obviously the returns will come rather quicker in Dubai, but it's a long term prospect it's not a quick return," Hughes-D'Aeth notes.

Arriving at a time of instability in the region could not have been easy. Hughes-D'Aeth agrees, saying: "When I arrived in 2010, we still hadn't adjusted to the new economic landscape, and there was a degree of adjustment... rents had plummeted, and yet we needed to make sure that we were paying appropriate rental allowances to staff, etc. So it was about adjusting to that, and finding the right status quo within it."
Upon joining Repton Dubai, Hughes-D'Aeth's task was clear bringing stability to a new school at a time of economic uncertainty. So how, then, did he set about stabilising the school? For this, D'Aeth set in place systems to address concerns about the progress of pupils, including pupil tracking, introducing effective assessment systems, and making sure the curriculum being taught is appropriate "challenging, and yet at the same time enabling a degree of transferability on an international stage", he says.

Additionally, Hughes-D'Aeth notes, he also prioritised hiring teaching staff that would commit to longer tenures at the school. He explains: "The founding head and his team were around for the first two and bit years. He left in the middle of the year, and subsequently there were changes in the headships of the junior and senior school. And it's now, only after about 10 years, that we're getting a very stable platform from which schools can move forward. And that's inevitable, because new schools are bound to attract a staff and heads who are naturally more aware and more seeking the exciting challenge of establishing a school, whereas actually running a school requires a different skill set.

"Sometimes parents tend to appreciate that to be a pioneer member of staff requires a particular type of personality. It's pretty brave to move into a school which is brand new. Most teachers and students don't move into brand new schools; it takes an adventurer to do that. But that adventurist spirit doesn't necessarily make for great long-term commitment... they're far more interested in the next challenge rather than the challenge which is a five-10 year development of seeing a school grow. But stability is important we are much more stable in terms of staff than when I first arrived.

However, Hughes-D'Aeth is also quick to note the "advantages of a turnover". "You get very fresh, innovative teachers who can come in and do their thing, and that becomes a very positive approach. But again, parents worry about it," he says.

Given Repton Dubai's hefty fees for its time (today, fees at the school run from AED60,072 for FS1 to AED120,145 for Year 13), the school was also an easy target for critics, most notably when the first round of school inspection results were revealed in 2008/09.

Repton Dubai was rated Good from 2008 until 2014, when it improved its rating and moved to Oustanding status. While a "Good" rating in DSIB inspections is perfectly respectable, critics were quick to point fingers at the school's less than stellar rating considering the fee structure.

Hughes-D'Aeth is quick to defend the school, noting that school improvement takes time, adding that it was "naive" for people to expect Repton to be rated Outstanding after only one year of operation.

"You can't have an outstanding school to begin with. The school improvement journey is developing a maturity in our understanding, and a cohesion of the team. It's quite difficult after a year or two to get the whole staff of 200+ teachers working together. You've got to develop a particular spirit of the school, an ethos, a nature of what is expected. It takes time to develop a team.

"The expectations of people to think that dropping even a great school like Repton into Dubai was going to be an instant solution was naive. It's unlikely to be brilliant from day one, but give it time, and it will mature. And Repton, to a certain extent, has always been seen as the target people have a go at. Even though we're not the most expensive school in Dubai, we're always perceived as being the most expensive school. It's fun for some to throw stones at an organisation, but the school is full of very nice, perfectly normal children. It's full of very supportive, excellent staff, it tries to be the best at what it does. It is a school which is slightly different in its approach, but at the same time has been a target because of its particular excellence that other people don't necessarily like," Hughes-D'Aeth states.


Things have since been on the up, and while Repton Dubai has come a long way since its early days, so has the emirate's education landscape in general. Today, there are more than 170 private schools in Dubai, with 15 schools having opened in during the 2016/17 academic year alone.

Commenting on the growth in the emirate, Hughes-D'Aeth says: "Any change is exciting increased competition is a good thing to have, and I think the factors there are in place... one is the increasing development and maturity of the KHDA and DSIB system, which has become much more sophisticated and appropriate to where we are. Obviously, no one likes annual inspections, but it's a factor which has really brought about significant improvement in the quality of education in Dubai.

"It's been interesting to see the competition, with the growth of new schools coming into the area to deal with the growth of population and demand. That is a good thing... initially Repton was challenging some of the older, established Dubai schools. The rise of new schools reflect the change which is taking place in the demographic, in terms of the affordability of schools, and what parents are wanting. And therefore, it's making us all develop our USPs within that."

However, there are certain drawbacks that come with increasing competition, Hughes-D'Aeth acknowledge. He says: "There can be a problem whereby we're all conscious of the effectiveness of costing... that's not a bad thing comparability of fees is important... but at the same time, we're all providing high quality education, and a lot of our costs are pretty fixed. When you have a school fees 'war', there are limited ways in which you can make further savings without dropping the quality of the education you wish to provide. It means that as a person running a school, we've got to be very efficient at running our schools."

"The other factor that has to be borne in mind is the nuclear war about resources and facilities. Schools feel they need to make sure they've got the latest running track, equipment, etc. But I've seen brilliant teaching in Dubai as part of the Abundance Group, in schools who work on incredibly low margins and have got dreadful resources. I've also seen some dreadful teaching in schools that have got superb facilities. So sometimes parents need to be aware that it's the nature and quality of the relationship between and its families."

So what's next for Hughes-D'Aeth then? "We'll probably stay in the UAE for a bit longer; it's a very addictive place. There's lots to be done, and the great advantage of having the privilege of running a school is that you've learned a huge number of different skills, whether it be financial management or how to make teams work. So it will be good to pass that on to other people in one form or another. I'll miss teaching greatly, but I actually won't miss some of the bits and pieces that make life frustrating," he smiles.

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