Giles Pruett: An Educational Leader

Arcadia School, Dubai was founded by its inspirational Chairman Mohan Valrani. After chairing the Board of Governors at the Indian High School in Dubai, the only Indian curriculum school to gain an ‘outstanding’ government rating, and after 40 years of business management in Dubai, Mohan came up with the Arcadia vision to ‘nurture lifelong learning’ within a school context and they haven’t looked back from that point. Arcadia is more than just a school, it is an educational experience that brings learning to life, challenges the thinking, and shapes creative and confident students into lifelong learners.

To bring this to life has taken collective wisdom to create some unique attributes, including integrated enrichment, an extended school day, a well-being and happiness program, Apple Distinguished digital status, and an entrepreneurial learning program, all wrapped around a high-quality English National Curriculum delivery. The final point is perhaps the most distinctive. The primary school Junior MBA was designed by the school CEO Navin Valrani, who holds an MBA from London Business School, and who also delivers some of the teachings. This has its own standalone curriculum which is delivered to years 3-6 and then dovetails with the CEL (Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership), a co-constructed curriculum to develop entrepreneurial instinct in the secondary school. And now, it comes down to the Executive Principal Giles Pruett to make sure that the institute achieves its mission.

Evolving as an Educational Leader

Giles’ journey into education was through sport and from a relatively young age. After delivering his first short-tennis lesson at the age of 14 in his local club, Giles was drawn to coaching as a device which gave him as much pleasure as competing. Through his formative years as a tennis professional and coach, whilst juggling GCSEs and A levels, the qualifications gained through the National Coaching Foundation programme in the UK were invaluable and helped him prepare for his Bachelor of Education in Sports Science and Humanities which was completed in the 1990s. The journey into education was then a natural segue. His first post was as a Director of Sport and Geography teacher at a fantastic independent school in the city of Bath, England and there he was well supported to start his career development and to transition into leadership.

As an educational leader, when you join a new large organisation, there is a tendency to go too fast and too soon without truly understanding the nature of the organisation itself. Within his current role as the Executive Principal at Arcadia, Giles tried to avoid this through the implementation of some quick and effective wins, that were non-invasive and then longer-term strategies that have now had some significant impact on children’s learning. Quick wins included the strengthening of middle leadership to distribute responsibilities more evenly, improving the communication processes to ensure the right information was getting to the right people, reorientating the assessment schedules and cycles of reporting and spreading the student cohort across two campuses during Covid for greater protection of the students.

The most unique longer-term project was looking at the extra-curricular programme and further merging it into the full academic day. Most schools offer ASAs (after-school activities), but they start after the day finishes early and children don’t always have the chance to take part, due to

buses departing, lack of offering and clashes with other clubs. Arcadia already had a built-in enrichment programme, but they needed to scale this up into secondary school, by frontloading the lessons and adding in areas such as STREAM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics), entrepreneurial leadership, life-long learning skills; including coding, ceramics, cooking, oracy, games and performing arts. This integration of enrichment has meant every child accesses the co-curriculum, lessons are protected, parents get an extended day with no extra cost and the quality of performance has dramatically improved in areas such as sport, music and drama.

Facing the Pandemic Challenge

While Covid sure stood out as the biggest challenge for any headteacher across the globe, Giles had an additional set of challenges in the form of a new school, a brand-new campus, declining enrolments, supplementary academic planning, staff not being able to join and the looming impact of a global pandemic that was not understood. The single biggest learning, in this case, was ‘you can’t control what you can’t control’. This was unchartered territory for everybody and they, like everyone else, had not had a chance to prep or look at scenarios, so they simply felt their way through the journey step by step as if blindfolded.

Fortunately, due to the work of the UAE government agencies and the stage of growth of the school, Arcadia didn’t suffer as badly as other educational organisations around the world. They were able to stay open fully for two years, implement some very positive safety measures for their community and keep a relatively similar academic programme. “We were lucky to be in the UAE, as the government handled the pandemic processes well and it allowed us to keep our school open fully for two years, a feat that I believe was not matched in this country.Overcoming the collective anxiety and significant day-to-day challenges was challenging, but the message was clear – stay calm, communicate quickly and with transparency and work together. I hope we never have to face this level of global uncertainty again, but we are stronger for it,” shares Giles.

As educators, they did, however, see the psychological impact on the children in their care through a deterioration in socialisation, ability to confidently communicate, greater stress and erosion of wellbeing. This has been their main focus over the last six months and their counselling and pastoral teams have doubled their efforts to make sure that every child has been supported in reconnecting their emotional processes and learning to behave as all children should. They have also noticed an over-reliance on social media as a platform to connect, as for many children this was their only avenue for social connection. Now back in the moment, they have focused hard on unpacking that process and giving the students the tools to reconnect face-to-face.

Preparing Students for the VUCA World

There is no contention that the world is becoming a more complex place and levels of uncertainty are at their highest because there is so much information and disinformation at our disposal. Being agile and adaptable are not traits that are clearly represented in curriculum and assessment and therefore it is the responsibility of the school to support parents in ensuring that their children are upskilled and supported to grow with these vital tools at their disposal. Giles believes that schools can teach important skills within core lessons, but it is through the broader programme that they are really inculcated and transformed. “Real-life learning experiences,

critical and creative thinking development, oracy, and challenging activities such as Olympiads and Model United Nations all have a part to play in building resilient young adults who can adapt. These are all blended into the Arcadia co-curriculum, but are also cemented by quality pastoral care, counselling and career management,” suggests Giles.

Technology as an Educational Tool

From a learning perspective, the speed of collecting feedback, the process of collaboration, checking for understanding and accessing resources has been vastly improved by the development of technology, feels Giles. Arcadia has also started the journey into the utilisation of AI through integrated systems that allow students to solve problems and be assessed remotely as a second pair of eyes, which has also been a real support for teachers. Arcadia achieved Apple Distinguished status for the second time in 2022 and the training of teachers to a high standard is implicit in this process and means they have confidence in their team to deliver high-quality technological guidance to every child. Learning platforms such as SeeSaw and Nearpod also add real value to live and remote lessons and communication to families becomes much easier when sharing information.

Probable Impact of Current Technology Trends

AI is currently at the forefront of educational thinking for many educators. What impact will this have on our learning? How will children use it for assessments? How will we protect learning integrity? These are just some of the questions that will need consideration over the coming years. Giles hopes it will have a transformative impact on assessment capture as his concern is we are still capturing summative information of high-stakes tests almost fully through written exams. As technology has progressed and collective cognition is changing, full-written papers surely can’t be the future. On the converse side of uncertainty, he gets the sense that the well-being agenda of young people can only have a positive impact on personal development. Every child does truly matter and we must do our utmost to ensure their emotional wellbeing is being considered. “At Arcadia, our team of experts are constantly checking in on child personal development and using a series of toolkits at their disposal we want to ensure nobody is left behind,” he says.

Becoming the School of Choice

Being a relative newcomer to the Dubai premium school market, Arcadia wants to be the school of choice shortly for every family. The competition is strong with some established players who have history on their side, but they are constantly looking to genuinely focus on each child by creating a learning programme that is fit for the now and the future, whilst maintaining strong traditions such as a house system, pastoral wrap-around care and enrichment facility of sports, performing arts and many others. Giles believes they have created a team of innovative and agile school leaders who are at the top of their game and hope to see them leading practice across the Middle East and in Dubai alongside the role they play in Arcadia.

“I always tend to default to Aristotle in this case, who stated – Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. I have always been a believer in genuine holistic education where simply teaching classes of knowledge and content is not enough. We all strive to grow young adults who are kind, altruistic, collaborative, aspirational and empathetic and this

cannot be done through information exchange alone. We must give our children a chance to be better people to ensure the world can function and nations can co-exist in peace and harmony,” concludes Giles.

Quote: “My Clifton Strengths tells me that I am a disciplined, competitive, achiever, who thinks strategically and activates others, however, over the years of leading schools I feel that persona has mellowed a little to a collaborative planner who inspires others to do the best they can. “