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Paul Coackley, principal at the British School Al Khubairat, seated in the oversized chair that is an instantly recognisable feature of the new primary school library. Delores Johnson / The National
Paul Coackley, principal at the British School Al Khubairat, seated in the oversized chair that is an instantly recognisable feature of the new primary school library. Delores Johnson / The National

Principal of British School in Abu Dhabi to depart

The principal at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi is leaving his post after eight years to return to the United Kingdom, writes Nick March

Eight years after his arrival, Paul Coackley, departing principal of the British School Al Khubairat (BSAK), will leave Abu Dhabi later this month bound for the altogether chillier climes of Wales, where he will shortly take up a post working for Powys County Council's school improvements team.

He will be replaced at BSAK by Christopher Ray, who joins the school following a nine-year stint as high master at the well-regarded Manchester Grammar School in the north-west of England. The grammar school's campus, with its beautifully manicured cricket pitches which once played host to former England captain Michael Atherton, sits a short distance from Maine Road, Manchester City's once famous and now demolished old ground, a reminder perhaps that Ray's appointment represents only the latest in a growing series of ties that bind these two cities together.

Since arriving in Abu Dhabi in 2005 after a six-year period as headteacher at Welshpool High School in Wales, Coackley has witnessed some profound changes in the capital's education landscape.

Upon arrival, his first task was to hand out A-level results to the initial clutch of 30 students who had stayed on at BSAK to sit their final exams in the newly formed sixth-form. This year around 100 pupils have sat A-levels, an indicator of both the school's health and its growth in the past few years.

BSAK's site has also been completely transformed since the turn of the century.

The new secondary school was finished in 2001, followed by the Jubilee Building (for primary schoolchildren) in 2002, both completed while Jim Harvey was principal.

A third phase of construction - adding an auditorium, library and other facilities - opened in Coackley's first term. In a neat piece of symmetry, the final phase of redevelopment (a new building for FS1 to Year 2 children), was opened at the beginning of his final academic year at BSAK.

It has been a "massive building programme. We have tried to maximise the footprint," he says, in reference to those four phases of development which together make the most of the school's 33,000 square metres of real estate, pushing its facilities to the extremities of the Mushrif plot BSAK has occupied since moving from its original site, close to the Corniche, in 1980.

There are now approximately 1,800 pupils at BSAK, around 60 per cent of whom are British, the remaining 40 per cent hail from more than 50 nationalities around the world, according to statistics presented in an Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) report filed after it last inspected the school in 2011.

That same ISI report rated BSAK as "excellent" in a variety of categories including academic achievement, personal development and the quality of its teaching staff and facilities.

There have been major shifts outside the school gates too.

Where once BSAK was almost the only British school in town, those ranks have been swelled in recent times by a handful of education establishments owned and operated by Aldar Academies, as well as Brighton College Abu Dhabi and the British International School Abu Dhabi. Cranleigh-Abu Dhabi, a branch of the British public school, is scheduled to open next year on Saadiyat Island. Repton College, which already has an international footprint in Dubai, will open its new Reem Island campus in 2013. This is quite apart from general and sustained growth throughout the sector. Abu Dhabi Education Council estimated earlier this year that approximately 100 schools will need to be built in the next seven years to keep up with anticipated population growth.

Coackley only sees benefits in such increased competition.

"It is good for the city that more schools are coming and it is good that parents have choice.

"When you have more schools you have more scope for interaction in those schools across a whole range of functions. For example, you can increase the amount of sport, you can increase the amount of musical cooperation, you can increase the experiences of the children by being part of a larger community of schools," he says.

Despite having only days left in the job, Coackley remains both firmly engaged in the school's day-to-day running and charmingly humble about any notions of what his legacy might eventually prove to be.

"Being part of a school is special," he says.

"You look at the things the children do and their achievements and I will miss that. Abu Dhabi has been a happy time for us - we came for three years, we stayed for eight - and it has been a very positive experience."

He is, nevertheless, keen to get back to the United Kingdom. For a variety of reasons - the pull of family ties at home being chief among them - now is, he says, the right time for him and his family to take their leave.

"I think it is time for me to move on," he says, " and I think it is good for the school to have new eyes looking at it and taking it forward."

But what of legacy? How would he like to be remembered by the BSAK community, past and present.

"I see myself as a custodian," he says, elegantly dodging the question.

"I see myself as having looked after the school for a period before handing over to someone else. It is a privilege to have had the opportunity to make a small contribution to a great school.

"One of the things I always tell the students is to try to do your best in whatever you do. I have tried to do my best. I have tried to create opportunities and a very positive environment. I suppose I'd hope that people think that I have achieved some success in that."

When pressed he amplifies that last sentiment a little.

"I'd like to be remembered as someone who has made an important contribution to the school's development, who has built on what has gone on before and put it in a good place to move forward."

He is quick to acknowledge the support he has received during his tenure.

"I fundamentally think that schools are based on successful teams. What I have tried to do is to build successful teams at all levels so those teams can deliver success.

"My job has been to set some parameters to try and guide those teams in the right direction.

"It has been an absolute privilege to lead that set up and to have led a school where parents want to send their children."

BSAK remains popular in the capital because of a combination of "hard and soft indicators", according to Coackley. Hard indicators include exam results and the school's track record of helping to develop students who go on to study at "top-class institutions" around the world, including Ivy League universities in the United States, Russell Group universities in the UK, as well as McGill University in Canada and the University of Queensland in Australia. Soft indicators are harder to quantify but easier to spot, such as whether children are happy to get up and go to school in the morning.

Very soon, of course, he will take his leave from all those indicators and, indeed, Abu Dhabi itself.

"Time is marching on, he says of the round of farewells he has begun to bid. "I hope it is au revoir rather than goodbye and I hope I have succeeded - but it is for others to judge."

 

Nick March is editor of The Review.

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