ABU DHABI // Founded just two years ago, the Raha International School, located on 5.6 hectares near Khalifa City A, already feels like a community. Students' artwork lines the halls, the principal is passionate about his job - and students from 40 countries all study Arabic.
Now, the man behind it, Ziad Azzam, plans to use the school as a model for others across the country and the region. In 2004, Mr Azzam, 38, and three former colleagues from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm known for launching the careers of dozens of high-profile executives, founded Taaleem, a school management firm, with the goal of revolutionising private education in the Emirates. Their idea? To open international schools of "the highest calibre" that maintain a strong link to Arab culture and emphasise the teaching of Arabic.
Sitting in his modest office in the Jumeirah Center, Mr Azzam said the company expected to open its seventh school in the Emirates next autumn and would venture outside the country for the first time in Sept 2009 with a school in Bahrain. "Traditionally, the very good schools that have been around, the DESS's, the JESS's [the Dubai and Jumeirah English Speaking Schools], were created 20, 30 years ago with a very particular mandate, which is to serve the particular community that they were created for. If there is room, they will cater to other nationalities," said Mr Azzam, who added that when Emiratis and other Arab nationals began to demand education of the same quality, their choices were limited and community schools were not always the best option.
"The children tend to lose the connection with their culture and their language," said Mr Azzam. "They end up sacrificing Arabic language and Islamic studies." Another issue, Mr Azzam believed, was that, prior to 2004, Arabic was not a mandatory subject in private schools through to grade 12. "Imagine if you moved to Germany and you spent 10, 12 years there," he said. "Can you imagine that your children would come out with not a word of German?
"When people come to this part of the world, to the Arab world, there is this notion that, to be very harsh, maybe the Arabic language is not that relevant in the world today, which is not true. "Or simply from the Arab mindset, that Arabic is just such a difficult language ... so why would anybody bother?" Mr Azzam is proud that Taaleem offers a strong Arabic curriculum at all its schools. "We meet the requirements of the ministry, and secondly the investment that we make in ensuring the way Arabic is taught isn't foreign from the experience that those same children have when they are sitting through a maths or a science class," he said.
"Imagine being in an environment where you're being taught every other subject in a very interactive way ... and then half an hour later, Arabic class starts and it's rote memorisation. You're not going to fall in love with the language." For Mr Azzam, the building of Taaleem has been a long, winding - and very personal - journey. In 1993, he was a doctoral candidate in theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States when his father fell ill and he decided to return to the UAE. He planned to resume his studies the following autumn.
To his surprise, a summer job developing the algebra curriculum at the Choueifat International School in Abu Dhabi turned into a six-year commitment. While 11th-grade algebra failed to excite him, curriculum development did. "It's a challenge in a different way, because it's creating the building blocks for students," he said. When he was offered a job heading Choueifat's Dubai campus in 1996, Mr Azzam - who graduated from the school's Sharjah branch in 1987 - jumped at the chance.
Four years later, he left for a consultancy job at McKinsey's Dubai office, where he helped to design education policies for the governments of the UAE, Dubai and Kuwait. "It gave me the chance to be involved in education from a completely different perspective, from more of a macro view," he said. But while at McKinsey, Mr Azzam began to consider problems unrelated to his work at the firm, including the disparity in the quality of education offered by private schools. As a young, intellectually minded Arab thinking about starting a family, he began pondering the importance of education.
In 2003, he left the consultancy and started Beacon Education with three like-minded partners: Helal Saeed Salim al Marri, an Emirati and the current director general of the Dubai World Trade Centre; Waleed Ahmed Salim Khalifa al Mokarrab, also an Emirati and a director at Mubadala, who graduated from, and later taught at, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; and Dr Mohamed Mustapha Khemira, a Canadian with a PhD from MIT, who is now a director at Emirates Islamic Bank.
Within four years, Beacon was acquired by Madaares, a private joint stock company launched by the National Bonds Corporation, which is part-owned by the Dubai Government, to improve quality and standards in schools. Both entities were incorporated a few months ago under one name - Taaleem - which means education in Arabic. Asked if he had ever had second thoughts about leaving McKinsey, a company that Fortune magazine once dubbed "the best CEO launch pad" based on its reputation for producing Fortune 500 executives, Mr Azzam said he always knew his path was education.
"Had I completed my doctoral programme," he said with a mischievous look, "I would be teaching at a university now and making the lives of some students very miserable." Mr Azzam and his partners also made a decision early on to work hand-in-hand with property developers to build schools in new communities. Such partnerships, the company believes, not only make it easier to obtain land to build new schools, but also increase property values.
"It's always difficult to get land, and it's becoming more and more difficult now. When it comes it is also coming at a very high cost." Prior to the creation of Taaleem, he said there were limited avenues for people who wanted to invest in education. "There was another motivation for us," he said. "That's on the investment side. It was an opportunity that we thought people should have in order to plough their wealth into investing in the education of future generations."
Asked why Taaleem was not created as a not-for-profit entity, Mr Azzam was frank: "Anyone who is going to put their money in any venture expects a return. Now there are checks and balances to ensure that parents are getting value for money." But he adds: "The danger of for-profit is if your mindset is not the right one and you start cutting corners, then the quality starts to suffer."