x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Gems sets target of 300 schools

A former chief of the UK's school regulatory regime brings his experience to a Dubai company building schools from scratch.

Mukund Patel says schools should be places where pupils want to be.
Mukund Patel says schools should be places where pupils want to be.

A year ago Mukund Patel was managing an £8 billion (Dh50bn) annual budget for the British government that funded the building of 500 new schools and extensions to 1,500 existing ones. Today, as chief officer for educational infrastructure at Global Education Management Systems (Gems), his primary goal remains expansion. But this job, he said, is "fast-moving" and "much more exciting." His brief is to help Gems expand, and he said he would be disappointed if the Dubai-based group did not triple its tally of schools in the next few years.

Run by the entrepreneur Sunny Varkey, Gems owns and manages 75 schools worldwide. A third of them are in the UAE, with others in Kuwait, Jordan, Libya, India and England. The company also helps run 23 government schools in the GCC. "If we don't hit 300, I would perhaps feel we didn't achieve what we set out to achieve," said Mr Patel, 59, who joined Gems in March. He finds the business environment in the Emirates much more dynamic than in London, where he worked in the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

For one, the weight of planning regulations here is "far less" than in England, where a "huge regulatory burden" can delay projects by two years. "In England, planning approvals take 16 weeks. Here, if it takes a few weeks, we start jumping up and down. We are comfortably able to do a school from scratch within two years. In England, if you get three years you would consider yourself lucky." However, unlike some - Thom Mayne, a prominent architect, recently said there was "no planning" in Dubai - Mr Patel said the rules are not lax. "For our schools, we're doing traffic impact studies," he said. "We're very keen our buildings are sustainable so we send the right message to the children about the importance of the environment. "There's a lot of awareness amongst the authorities that what's going up must be thought through and is right for the context." Mr Patel was born in India, raised in Kenya and moved to England in his late teens. He began his career as a mechanical engineer and early on worked on heating, ventilation and alarms. Each year he would service the alarm system at the Tower of London, where many of Britain's greatest treasures are kept. "If anyone had kidnapped and tortured me, I would have been able to tell them how to rob the Crown Jewels," he said. Twenty-six years ago he joined what is now the DCSF as an engineer. He moved up the ranks until he was put in charge of the regulatory regime for school buildings, their funding and design. He remained in that job for a decade. He enjoyed the job and had regular contact with government ministers. The one who impressed him most was David Miliband, a former schools minister who is now Britain's foreign secretary. "He was so engaged. He took interest in everything. He would stop in the corridor and say: 'How is this going?' He was friendly. I think he's brilliant." There were downsides, though, including too much bureaucracy, too few pilot projects and a lack of innovation in school design. That, Mr Patel felt, resulted in excessive reliance on the traditional classroom model of a teacher at the front instructing a group of pupils. "We should train pupils to become learners and build schools that personalise learning," he said. "That doesn't mean pupils should be taught on a one-to-one basis, but it means people learn in different ways. Some learn by discussion, by talking with their friends." There should be more areas where pupils can just sit around together, making schools places "where pupils want to be". "Schools shouldn't be somewhere you go to from nine to 3.30. They should be somewhere the whole community is proud of and the parents are an integrated part." Mr Patel said he is trying to use those ideas in the giddying number of new schools Gems is creating. Buildings are going up at seven sites in the UAE and there are schools planned or being built in India, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, South Africa and Singapore. That means Mr Patel has to consider the regulatory regimes and cultural preferences in several countries. There are differences in how schools are designed in different nations, he said. "In India, we wouldn't dream of having a school without a cricket pitch, but in the UAE you can get away with it," he said with a smile. dbardsley@thenational.ae