Having joined Taaleem as CEO in July 2019, Alan Williamson discusses his ambitious agenda for expansion, further improvement and innovation, as well as his own personal journey and vision for the future.
Dubai is a microcosm of what the rest of the world should be like
Tell us about the start of your professional career?
The inspired and passionate teachers at school really guided me to love education. A highlight of teachers who made a difference that I vividly remember was the ones that led a school trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. At the time it was the Cold War in the 1980s and it was partly this experience that led me to go to university and to join the Royal Navy; this was my original ambitious career path and one that I was recommended to take by my school.
After qualifying for Officer Training at The Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, I joined the Royal Navy Unit at the University of Glasgow to study a Master’s in History and Russian Language. As my career developed, I realised that I was losing my passion for being isolated in the middle of the North Atlantic on a Type 42 Destroyer! Although the navy would have been an interesting life and it is both noble and honourable to serve your country, my heart was increasingly set on a teaching career. I still believe that it was being part of a uniformed organisation that also fostered the desire to work in education and ultimately my passion for teaching.
Who have been the biggest influences on your teaching career?
When I went to the Shetland Islands, I had to seek accommodation and the deputy head of the school offered me a room in his house. During my formative years in education, having dinner with that gentleman was inspirational. During our meals together and away from school, I realised that here was a man that saw the ‘big picture’; he was discussing and engaging me on a constant basis on issues of school leadership; he was talking about global issues and global education. My family has also been very influential as although my dad didn’t go to university, he was an educated man and therefore, had a huge impact on my way of thinking. Then there were my sports coaches. I played rugby union at a respectable level; their collective mantra about learning from failures and successes on the sporting field was inspirational.
Why Dubai and the UAE?
Some of my earliest experiences of international education were through teaching in the global classroom organised by my school in the Shetland Islands. I realised that I really wanted to develop my global outlook. I was fortunate enough through The Anderson School to have the opportunity to go and teach in Japan and to learn about a totally new culture. I also furthered my interest in Russia, having visited on several occasions to understand more about its rich history and develop my language skills. In my opinion, travelling is a wonderful experience and it is essential to have a truly international perspective. Therefore, it wasn’t a difficult decision to come to the United Arab Emirates and live in such a dynamic place as Dubai with so many nationalities, cultures, and customs.
What attracted you to the role at Taaleem?
Taaleem was known to me as a highly respected schools group built on solid core values. They had schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and a variety of international curricula, therefore in many ways, I think that answers the question in terms of moving my ambitions further forward from a single U.K. curriculum organisation where I was previously the CEO. The opportunity to work with a diverse and revered school group, which was in a strong financial position with clear ambitions for growth was one not to be missed and it has been a great experience.
What are you looking to achieve at Taaleem?
The Dubai education market, in particular, has become exceptionally competitive. The Taaleem Schools exclusively cater for what is known as the premium sector. Therefore, we have to ensure the services we offer to our parents, to our staff, and particularly our students are consistently ‘outstanding’. Our aim is to offer a world-class education at an affordable price point. The quality of a school never exceeds the quality of its teachers, and therefore recruiting, retaining and developing our staff is a top priority. Our first class schools have to go on what I refer to as ‘a further journey to excellence’; they have to be ‘even better than outstanding’. We have other schools, such as our Charter Schools in Abu Dhabi, that are on that pathway too and my role is to use our collective knowledge to accelerate their aspirations.
Taaleem is proud of its local ownership and its Arabic and Emirati heritage, therefore we also believe passionately in delivering and being central to the national agenda. As part of that, we are pioneers and partners in the Mohammed bin Rashid Scholarship scheme, an initiative that awards talented Emiratis scholarships to study in our schools. We are also in partnership with ADEK in Abu Dhabi where we have our four Charter Schools; former government schools that are now being led and managed by Taaleem. This partnership is a very exciting part of our development and an opportunity to make a difference not only in our premium private schools but for the nation at large.
At Taaleem, we’re inspiring the learners of today to become the leaders of tomorrow.