Abu Dhabi// The UAE will become one of the world's "idea capitals" as it develops into an educational and cultural centre, according to a leading US academic. Dr John Sexton, the president of New York University (NYU), told the first International School Leadership Conference that the opening of NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi would provide the impetus to propel Abu Dhabi into the ranks of a small intellectual elite.
NYU plans to build a multimillion-dollar, 3,000-student campus on Saadiyat Island, which will be funded by the Abu Dhabi Government. The Paris-Sorbonne University is also building a campus in Abu Dhabi. "The leadership of this emirate has looked beyond where we are, to see the world we're moving into," Dr Sexton told delegates yesterday. He said at some point in the future, no more than a dozen cities would dominate world thought and culture and would be recognised as intellectual capitals.
"They will have taken their citizenry and moved them as far as each individual will be moved, up the thought mountain," Dr Sexton said. "They will operate at the very best level at which humankind is capable of operating. They will magnetise talent from around the world. "The possibility that the leadership puts before us is that the UAE will be one of these six, or eight, or 10, or 12 [cities]." He believes that New York will also be one of the world's idea capitals.
"We'll be building a backbone of intellectual activity that runs from New York to Abu Dhabi." Dr Sexton also spoke about the 15 years he spent as a high school teacher. He said he started his career in 1960 as a "naive, idealistic and unrealistic" teacher, educating the daughters of working-class families in New York. His experiences taught him that teachers should set high expectations and never underestimate their pupils.
"I was oblivious to the limitation on the expectations for them, so I naively set for them the same goals that I had been lucky enough to achieve myself," he said. "I said to them this is what you will do. They did it, and they did it because they didn't know any better. So the first guiding principle is never underestimate our students, never place ceilings on them, expect a lot of them and, more often than not, they will deliver."
Organised by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), the leadership conference has brought together principals from UAE schools and international education specialists. The theme of the conference, which is being held at the Emirates Palace hotel, is "Achieving Excellence in School Leadership Practices". It is the latest ADEC initiative to improve government schools, which many Emirati parents feel have fallen behind private schools.
Mariët Westermann, the vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, told delegates that being an effective principal demanded more than just "good management". "Ultimately, leadership is not all about the internal management of the organisation, as important as it is," Ms Westermann said. "To begin to be leaders, leaders have to develop a vision for their enterprise, for their particular school." Principals had to bring out the vision in those around them in the school - and that included parents, pupils and teachers, she said.
"Developing a vision is not just saying, 'I think this should be done'. The vision has to be shared," she said. The conference was opened by Dr Hanif Hassan, the Minister of Education, who said school leadership was "at the centre of school and student improvement". He said improving leadership in schools was one of the government's priorities to reform state schools, and this included better selection of principals. A system of certification for headmasters had also been implemented.