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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Aldar Academies has big plans 10 years after starting from humble beginnings

A push into mid-market affordable schooling and technical skills is in the pipeline for the Abu Dhabi education group

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Aldar Academies Chairman, high-fives year 2 pupil Alexander Mansoor at the Pearl Academy in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Aldar Academies Chairman, high-fives year 2 pupil Alexander Mansoor at the Pearl Academy in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

Much like the history of Abu Dhabi itself, the story of Aldar Academies begins with a pearl.

The year was 2005 and the Government had just created a new agency to run public schools and regulate private schools – the Abu Dhabi Education Council. Until then, the education landscape in the capital ran a bit like the Wild West, with many schools operating out of residential villas without a proper licence.

At the same time, Aldar Properties was literally paving the way for the emirate’s future, building new communities and redeveloping old neighbourhoods across the capital.

Then, in 2007, a novel proposal brought the two entities together, recalled Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh, who was then chairman of Aldar.

Adec offered to give Aldar one of the emirate’s surplus government school buildings if the development company agreed to renovate and operate it as a private school.

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“At the time, this was something that no one else was doing,” said Mr Al Sayegh, who is now chairman of Abu Dhabi Global Marketplace.

For Aldar, who understood schools are the pulse of thriving communities, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“Aldar board at the time wanted to invest in education because it was part of our corporate social responsibility mission, and it was also a way to give back to Abu Dhabi,” said Mr Al Sayegh.

Aldar radically renovated the school, adding a swimming pool, playground and co-working spaces for each year group.

“That’s how Pearl was born,” Mr Al Sayegh said of The Pearl Academy, which opened 10 years ago. The school is marking the occasion on Tuesday.

The school was staffed with experts in the much-coveted British national curriculum and it was an instant success, said Mr Al Sayegh.

“It was fully full in its first year,” he said. “We talked to Adec again and said, ‘Look, this is the intake of UAE national students.’ We showed them the numbers of the waiting lists and we asked for another school, and they said yes.”

Ten years later, the company that is now known as Aldar Academies continues to operate The Pearl Academy along with six more private schools across Abu Dhabi and Al Ain that are among the country’s best.

The seven Aldar Academies cater to 6,554 pupils and employ more than 950 teaching and support staff.
The seven Aldar Academies cater to 6,554 pupils and employ more than 950 teaching and support staff.

Al Bateen and Al Muna academies have each been ranked as “outstanding” by government inspectors. The Pearl, Al Yasmina and the Al Ain academies are “very good.” The latest additions to the Aldar Academies family, West Yas and Al Mamoura academies, were both recently assessed as “good” schools.

Together, the seven schools cater to 6,554 pupils and employ more than 950 teaching and support staff.

“Around 10 years ago, there wasn’t an abundance of quality type of schools in the emirate of Abu Dhabi,” said Aldar Academies Chairman Mohammed Al Mubarak, who is also the CEO of Aldar Properties.

“We were brought in to basically start considering how to solve this situation.”

But a decade later – after the need for high-quality British-curriculum schools was met by an abundance of new private schools – Mr Al Mubarak’s sights are being cast in a new direction, to address a new need in the community, he said.

“We are really working to see what the demands are for the city and what the needs are for the city,” said Mr Al Mubarak. “A lot of our schools, especially the primary levels, are oversubscribed.”

The company recently expanded its academic offering by adding the American and the International Baccalaureate curriculums to its portfolio. Next year, it will launch its first nursery in Al Forsan.

Conceptual plans for more affordable private schools are also in the works, with a targeted opening date between one and two years from now.

“In regards to looking into the mid-market demographic, that’s absolutely something we’re looking at down the pipeline,” said Mr Al Mubarak. “We have worked vigorously in 2016 on a strategy to focus on the mid-income and low income schooling. Our focus from Day 1 is the same level of educational level we have within our schooling system –so that does not change.”

Aldar Academies CEO Nilay Ozral said another challenge that the company plans on addressing, possibly as soon as next year, is related to curriculum.

“Today, there is only one pathway, and that’s the academic pathway, but not everybody can become doctors and can become lawyers,” said Ms Ozral. “I think that is the biggest challenge that we are facing – we need to have more vocational studies, or a combination of vocational and academic studies – to offer students different pathways.”

Next academic year, Aldar Academies will begin offering its secondary school pupils the option of studying BTECs, which is a career-based qualifications designed to give students vocational skills.

Aldar Academies also recently entered into an agreement with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) to manage and operate its four school campuses in Ruwais, Madinat Zayed, Ghayathi and Abu Dhabi.

“I think Adnoc schools campuses under our direction is something that we are all proud of,” said Ms Ozral.

“We will be able to help Abu Dhabi to deliver its vision. It’s also in the mid-tier [market], where we want to be. I think it’s nice to be able to transfer your knowledge where you have built a trusted brand and further improve the quality of the Adnoc schools.”

“They have amazing buildings. They have spent a lot of money behind Adnoc schools, in their technology, in everything that they have. So, all that we have to do is bring our operational expertise, bring our know-how in how to improve the quality of education and I have no doubt that we will become the premier education provider in Abu Dhabi in this sector of mid-tier schools.”