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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: Meet the consumer champion helping parents pick the perfect school for their children

James Mullan launched a comparison website to help navigate the UAE's myriad of school networks and fee structures

James Mullan, co–founder of whichschooladvisor.com, launched the site after a family friend sought his wife's advice about a school in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
James Mullan, co–founder of whichschooladvisor.com, launched the site after a family friend sought his wife's advice about a school in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Anyone searching for information about private schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will ultimately land on WhichSchoolAdvisor.com.

The site was launched five years ago by two residents seeking to fill the information void parents often encountered when researching prospective schools for their children in the UAE.

The idea for the website came to co-founder James Mullan after a family friend who is a teacher sought his wife’s advice about a private school in Dubai.

“I happened to be booking a holiday at the time and I thought, ‘There are all these sites available for booking holidays offering information and reviews,” said Mr Mullan. “So I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be useful if you had something similar for schools?’”

As he and his partner David Westley began to research the market, Mr Mullan said he came across of a lot of user-generated comments, but no local sources offering reliable information.

“There was a lot of stuff out there, but there was nothing that was written with authority and that people could really trust in relation to schools,” said Mr Mullan.

His team began to compile data on private schools using existing Government inspection reports published by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority and Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge and other publicly available information from the schools’ websites. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com also began sending staff to tour school campuses and meet with officials in an effort to gather its own independent data.

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“Initially, there was a certain degree of wariness, I think, about who are these guys and what are they up to?” said Mr Mullan. “It was a gradual process of gaining trust. The key thing that we always said was, ‘Look, we’re just helping parents to make the best informed decisions for their children.'”

The website features profiles of school leaders, neighbourhood guides, reports on international assessments, rankings and other schools-related news. Some of the content is independently written and others are paid or sponsored, and are labelled as such.

It has been such a success that a second site, schoolscompared.com, focusing more on raw data was recently launched to complement whichschooladvisor.com.

Since the site’s launch in 2013, Mr Mullan regularly appears at education conferences and forums across the country as a local expert on the private education environment in the UAE. He is also a frequent guest on local radio programmes.

“If we’re talking about costs in education, the emails go nuts,” said Mr Mullan.

For someone who has spent his career in public relations – working for a decade as a director for Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Dubai during a period of rapid growth in the emirate – the communications skills comes naturally to the Irish expatriate.

Like many expatriates, Mr Mullan moved to emirate in the late 1990s with the intention of remaining up to two years. But the thrill of the city and the opportunities afforded by his profession to work on some of the emirate’s most exciting projects kept him firmly planted here.

“Looking back, what was exciting about that particular time was this sense of possibility,” said Mr Mullan, 53. “That was an incredibly exciting time in Dubai.”

After a decade with the international consulting firm, Mr Mullan decided to leave the corporate life to set up his own communications company and have more time to focus on other interests. He helped launch the Emirates Festival of Literature and continues to be involved as a moderator, interviewing some of the greatest living authors of our time.

“One of the joys is I’m sort of given material that I wouldn’t normally choose, and then you have to read it and then you go, wow, this is amazing, I wouldn’t have chosen this,” said Mr Mullan. “It’s opening my eyes to completely different worlds and that’s what I love about being involved in the Lit Fest, for instance. I get to meet fantastic people.

“The great thing about stepping off the corporate treadmill, if you like, is getting the opportunity to do stuff that I really enjoy doing.”