It was 18 years ago that Julie Richards stepped into an Abu Dhabi classroom. Since then she has won accolades for her work at the blackboard and in the boardroom. Plaudits from those in the UAE have been matched by an MBE in the Queen's Honours List. Laura Collins reports
Eighteen years ago Julie Richards stepped off a flight from London into an Abu Dhabi night.
Barely six hours later she was standing in the front room of a converted villa. Behind her was a blackboard and some chalk; before her a class of 20 boys - some Emirati, some Syrian, some Egyptian.
She was there to teach them a subject she had never taught, in a land she had never heard of before responding to the advertisement for teaching job. Her only aids were the handful of family snapshots she had brought and the outdated textbooks on each boy's desk.
She wondered what she was doing there. She wondered if she would last the month.
Last week Mrs Richards, 53, was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Honours List for her contribution to UK education overseas. The honour was in recognition of her work as chairwoman of the board of governors at Abu Dhabi's British School Al Khubairat, a position she has held for eight years.
Ask Mrs Richards to speak about that school and she is perfectly at ease. She lists the academic achievements, the high "A" level results (each year students are put forward for Oxford or Cambridge University), the sports that are nurtured and the theatrical productions staged.
She trots out statistics for the school's latest addition, Dh20 million worth of building that will soon open to 400 pupils. She beams at the memory of visits from the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, who brought his daughter Princess Beatrice along when he visited in 2008.
Mrs Richards relates the importance of the school to the expatriate community, swiftly adding the 1,800-strong student body is made up of many nationalities and includes members of the Royal Family.
But ask her to react to her own recent achievement and she is on less certain ground.
"I'm thrilled," she begins. "But I can't quite believe it. The investiture at Buckingham Palace will be in November or December I think. This is something that happens to other people, important people."
Yet, for all her modesty, this Hampshire-born teacher is eminently qualified for a role on any school board, not least that of the school at which her children Catherine, 11 ,and David, 12, are pupils.
Mrs Richards taught geography for 10 years in the UK before moving to the UAE, where she spent four years in high school classrooms before joining the faculty at the Higher Colleges of Technology (Abu Dhabi Men's College). She has taught English there for 14 years.
And although it is her role at the British School that has led to the honour, her contribution to education in the UAE, and her ability to comment on its successes and remaining challenges, goes beyond those school gates.
"Teaching English as a foreign language at HCT means that I'm entrenched in both educational communities," she says. "That's one of the things I am very proud of, that I have these very diverse roles."
Education is a topic under almost constant debate in the UAE. Take this week. Three days ago it was reported that the Ministry of Education was rewarding 7,782 teachers in government schools with a pay rise and promotion.
This came a day after Peter Hatherley-Green, a leading academic who has taught at federal colleges since 1995, claimed that for Emirati schoolboys, the prospect of being taught in English at college represented a "cultural border crossing".
That 40 per cent fail to make the crossing, dropping out in the first months of their foundation year, is due to poor standards of English teaching in schools and a lack of parental input, Mr Hatherley-Green says.
These are matters close to Mrs Richards's heart and they are, she says, directly linked.
"There is a whole pool of very talented Emiratis who would make fantastic teachers," she says. "But a lot of them are lured into other professions, because if they work for an oil company or a ministry they can earn two or three times as much as they can in education. Who can blame them?
"But if more Emiratis were teachers, then of course you would remove a lot of students' disengagement problems because the teachers would have a far better understanding of the students."
As it is, the notion of a cultural border crossing is one with which Mrs Richards is familiar and which, she points out, works both ways. Emirati students arriving at the doors of HCT face it, but so do the expatriate teachers who stand to meet them.
"There is definitely a gap to bridge," she says. "I see people come to the college and it's so obviously not what they're expecting. Expatriate teachers here have to adapt.
"I was thrown in at the deep end when I arrived all those years ago because there was just such a shortage of teachers, but these days there is more mentoring of students and teachers.
"New staff have to understand that they're not at Nottingham University. These students haven't just come from Manchester Grammar School. They may have just come from a government school in a very remote area.
"The teachers have to always bear in mind that they're in a completely different country and culture, and there are simple things that you can do straight away, like knowing how to dress appropriately and be respectful. But it goes deeper than that.
"You've got to understand that the students who are in your class may have family pressures and responsibilities unlike anything you would encounter in your average UK college class. Some of my students are older and returning to study after already being out in the workforce.
"They have their job from 7am until 2pm, then study from 2pm until 8pm. I have enormous respect for them. The point is when they go home their time isn't necessarily their own."
As Mrs Richards talks, issue flows into issue - from family pressures comes talk of parental involvement or the lack of it.
In a young country with a rapidly evolving school system parents may very well not have gone through formal education. If they did, it may well be one that followed the sort of outdated model that has fallen from fashion in favour of more inclusive, active learning.
"If a parent's experience of school is that you go there, you learn whatever you're taught by rote and you're tested on it, then it's asking a lot for that way of thinking to change overnight," Mrs Richards says.
"In the time that I have been here the developments in higher education have been very, very successful," she adds. "The Higher Colleges have benefited hugely from Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister for Higher Education, and his forward thinking.
"But it will take time for us to really see the benefits from the changes to the government school system."
Mrs Richards's abiding impression of her time in an Abu Dhabi high school classroom all those years ago is of how very different the expectations of her UAE students were from those of the average UK teenager.
"I taught geography for 10 years before coming here and the culture I was used to was of a lot of project-based work and independent learning.
"What I quickly realised here is that the children really couldn't work on their own. They needed a teacher to guide them every step of the way simply because that is what they were used to. So you have to recognise that and work with it."
Mrs Richards calls it "scaffolding" - supporting a student in what they do bit by bit, stage by stage. That it is still necessary when students arrive for their courses at HCT is not, she insists, cause for despair, simply a reflection of that fact that it will take a long time for higher education establishments to see the benefits of foundations laid today.
"It takes 12 years to educate a child and really you want to get them fully engaged from the age of four or five. That's when the model is really set and when you show them that education is not something that's done to them, it's something that they're at the centre of.
"As a teacher it's your responsibility to engage your students. It doesn't help if the material is too Eurocentric because that doesn't relate to their experiences."
Again the spectre of cultural borders rises. But if there is a circularity to the challenges outlined by Mrs Richards, the solutions she envisages are similarly holistic.
When it comes to education, she says, success can't be measured only in terms of test results, nor can it be guaranteed by legislating for what goes on within span of a school class.
It must involve parents and pupils and teachers in equal measure and encompass almost every aspect of life in and out of the classroom.
"You need sustained investment and you need to look very carefully at monitoring your teachers, recruiting the best and continuing the process," Mrs Richards says.
"Abu Dhabi has the great advantage in that there's the will here to do it and there's the money. When it comes down to it there is nothing more important than investing in your youth.
"On a personal note Abu Dhabi's given me a lot," she adds. "I met my husband Clive here. My daughter was born here, both children have been raised here.
"I have my work and life here and I'm glad to have the chance to give something back."