Background: SchoolsCompared.com Exclusive. New Swiss International Scientific School Principal Revealed. Ruth Burke. The First Interview.
Swiss International Scientific School had today announced its appointment of Ruth Burke as its new Principal and Chief Executive Officer. Mrs Burke succeeds outgoing Principal, Mr. Norbert Foerster, who is retiring as planned and returning to Europe.
In her first published interview following today’s appointment, Ruth Burke speaks exclusively to the Editor of SchoolsCompared.com on the future of this leading Tier 1 school in Dubai and the makings of an outstanding education for every child.
An educationalist from ‘Day One’, Mrs Burke graduated from Trinity College Dublin in Education before completing her Master at Bath University in Educational Leadership and Administration. She brings to Swiss International Scientific School more than thirteen years direct experience leading some of Dubai’s top schools, these including JESS Jumeirah(Jumeirah English Speaking School), GEMS Wellington International School and Deira International School.
Under Mrs Burke’s leadership Both JESS and GEMS Wellington secured KHDA Outstanding school status. Both schools, like Swiss International Scientific School, are Tier 1 International Baccalaureate schools.
Mrs Burke has three children, ranging in ages from 8 to 27 years, and has lived in Dubai for two decades.
Welcoming Mrs Burke, SISD Founder, Omar Danial, told us:
“I am delighted to welcome Ruth Burke to SISD as our new Head of School.
As an experienced IB educator, and a long-standing leader in a number of ‘Outstanding’ schools in Dubai, Ruth will be an incredible asset for our school.
Ruth’s vast experience of the UAE, coupled with her commitment and passion for inclusive education, will support our vision to deliver a first-class IB education for all our students.
I feel very fortunate to have secured Ruth as the new Head of School, and am looking forward to working with her on the next stage of school advancement.”
Part I. The Background – ‘Hearts and Minds’ Make the Difference…
Describe yourself in only five words ….
Q: Who are your personal heroes? How have they inspired you – and what have they taught you about education?
“HE Sarah Al Amiri, Minister for State for Advanced Technology, Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency and EMM Science Lead, lead on the UAEs Mars Mission, is an inspiration to us all.
Educated here in the UAE, she demonstrates the power of hard work and passion in pursuing one’s dreams, combining a very successful career with motherhood and recently named as one of Time magazine’s ‘Top 100 emerging leaders’, and the BBC’s ‘Top 100 women of 2020’.
A government minister at the age of only 33, her success in supporting women to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is inspiring.
Passionate about making a difference and pursuing lifelong learning she says:
“we need to make a collective effort to continue growing, and to ensure the sustainability of our fragile world.”
It is incumbent on all working in education to inspire a love of lifelong learning in others. We know students will enter a workforce that will be different, will have jobs that don’t yet exist and will very likely carry out a number of varied roles during their working lives. Equipping students with the ability to manoeuvre through a range of careers, re-train and/or pursue new pathways with agility will pay dividends.
HE Sarah Al Amiri for example, did her first and Masters’ degrees in Computer science and she describes ‘falling into space exploration’ much later. Nurturing open mindedness, curiosity and the ability to embrace change should be modelled by us all; our children will thank us!”
Q: You have a formidable history of leading Outstanding schools.
What makes an Outstanding school – and what are your first plans for Swiss when you join?
“I have certainly been extremely fortunate to have lead great schools and communities, working with a range of great leaders.
Outstanding schools are unique and special places where all students feel safe and extremely well cared for. Learning is promoted and valued at every opportunity and positive relationships flourish. The quality and scope of opportunities meets the needs of all students and staff and kindness, challenge, curiosity and ambition are the norm. Throughout the community, there are high expectations regarding all elements of provision and practice. The staff in outstanding schools recognise the important role they play in the lives of their students and each other, welcome opportunities to collaborate and develop and willingly go above and beyond to ensure all aspects of school life are of a very high quality. Parent partnerships and links with the wider community are strong too. Leaders at all levels enable positive school development and are in tune with the needs of the various stakeholders; the community exudes harmony and the desire to continuously reflect and to improve.
My initial plan at SISD is to get to know the students, staff and parents – creating strong relationships and supporting teams in achieving the highest quality in all aspects of our provision and practice.”
Q: What are the five most important gifts or qualities of an outstanding Principal?
A sense of humour… and,
Q: Describe the single biggest impact you have made on the education of a child during your career….
“Holistic approaches to education are key and in committing to find an area for every child in which to excel, I think of a great many students who benefited from the development of programs such as expanded extra-curricular opportunities, student leadership roles and sports/Arts expansion in the schools I have led. For those students who find daily academic routines particularly challenging for example, it is vital that opportunities are created whereby a deep sense of satisfaction and genuine success are nurtured beyond the classroom.
One child I recall, who found recording in written formats particularly challenging, benefited from opportunities to develop her public-speaking skills. In developing opportunities for her to be a spokesperson, a compere at events and a playtime equipment manager for example, she developed a positive approach to school life and found a purpose in her daily routines; this resulted in a growth in her self esteem and overall more positive attitude to school and to learning in general. A strong believer in ‘nothing succeeds like success’, I urge all educators to find the spark in every learner and to motivate, praise and inspire.
That young child who, without a purpose and sense of success, might otherwise developed negative attitudes to school and/or learning went on to university, pursuing her passion and talent in communications and is enjoying great success in her career. As a parent too, I know the value of children feeling happy and successful; the Dubai agenda of a strong emphasis on wellbeing ensures that all schools, leaders and teachers maintain a strong focus on the whole child, academic success as well as emotional.”
Q: Which teacher has most inspired you in your career? What was it they did?
“I thoroughly enjoyed my own school days! An early memory was in primary school; the teacher who made a great effort to set up an impressive grocery shop where her young students would practically gain confidence in addition and subtraction, money and problem solving. In many ways she was ahead of her time, expertly motivating her students in maths, deftly using play-based learning to stimulate and engage. Ensuring practical application of learning and creating authentic learning opportunities is what great teachers do; as a child I don’t remember other teachers exploiting practical work as successfully, but fortunately for children nowadays play-based learning and linking conceptual development to real life learning is commonplace.
Where teachers do it really well- learning is deep, experiences are positive and magic memories are made!”
Q: If you had to give a single tip to teachers at your school to get the very best from children what would it be……
“Find out what each child is good at and what they enjoy. Sometimes just knowing a child played a great football match on Saturday or worked really hard on mastering their Grade 5 piano piece can make the difference in connecting and in turn inspiring them. So spend time chatting with and observing students in a range of subjects/activities. Similarly, share your own achievements and challenges too; a positive rapport and relationship with a teacher can really inspire a student to make an increased effort!”
Q: Do you think women or men make the best leaders?! Are there any unique qualities of either?
“This question made me smile; ultimately great leadership is not a question of gender but a question of purpose and approach. Compassion and strength are both required in effective leadership; both men and women can and do make great leaders. I’ve had the great fortune to have worked with both exceptional men and women and been inspired by both.”
Part II. Swiss International Scientific School – The Bigger Picture.
Q: Do you think that Swiss International Scientific School is the best school in the UAE? Why?
“In terms of ‘best school’, this will vary depending on the needs of a family or a student. SISD is a unique school however, where the authentic learning of languages is a key strength and a range of bilingual pathways are offered.
SISD offers an exceptional IB education from Early Years, rather than a post-16 two year IB course (which many schools in Dubai opt for), very generous teacher/student ratios and impressive facilities, enabling a superb curriculum offering, quality teaching and learning and extra-curricular opportunities galore. It is an exceptional school with a cohesive community atmosphere and positive ethos.”
Q: If you had to write an elevator pitch of just 10 sentences to inspire parents looking to send their child(ren) to Swiss what would it be?
“A fully IB school with personalized approaches and pathways
Authentic language acquisition in a range of languages
Broad and balanced curriculum with opportunities for specialization in STEAM
Highly inclusive approaches supported by generous pupil-teacher ratios
Your child is known and valued as an individual
Expert staff and extensive specialist input
A cohesive school community with a high-quality boarding option
A world-class campus that exudes ambition… and,
An ethos where all are successful, underpinned by a strong focus on Bilingualism, Excellence, Sustainability and Togetherness.”
Q: Swiss offers two major pathways for students – STEAM and Languages. Can you explain a little about the differences between them and which children are likely to benefit from each?
“SISD is unique in offering 4 pathways from Early Years:
- Arabic (from Sept 2021)
High quality learning and teaching underpins all 4 pathways and the curriculum across the pathways is broad and balanced. The differentiator is in the languages of instruction.
The French, German and Arabic pathways are delivered bilingually, either as French and English. Arabic and English or as German and English.
The fourth option is delivered through English only (French is learned in addition, as a Modern Foreign language). This pathway has a strong focus on STEAM, which is the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and maths. This multi-disciplinary approach combines a strong knowledge base with problem-solving and real life learning opportunities, where students gain skills across the range of subjects rather than in the traditional subject specific manner. The benefits of this type of approach are numerous; students’ ability to make connections in their learning and to apply new learning in a range of contexts is greatly enhanced as well as the accelerated development of critical thinking skills, for example.
Equally in Secondary, we have different options and pathways for students – in addition to pursuing their IB MYP and DP in a bilingual way, students can also opt to follow the Swiss Matura programme – definitely SISD is the only place in the UAE to offer this!”
Q: Boarding at SISD – tell us more!
“SISD offers boarding from age 11, and as per most boarding schools, we believe this is an appropriate age for children to be able to cope with the separation from home, but also to get the most out of their boarding experience. We do offer weekly boarding at SISD, and a few of our students who live in other UAE Emirates currently opt for this. We are happy to offer full boarding, flexi boarding or weekly boarding – ultimately it will need to be something that works best for the child and the family set-up.
Boarding in Dubai is certainly as good (and possibly even more exciting!) than boarding in the UK or Europe. Dubai has recently been voted as one of the safest cities in the world; it is also one of the most sophisticated in terms of its approach to the Covid 19 pandemic and the long-term health and safety measures required to protect its residents. The weather is certainly better than the UK, and this allows students to do more, and participate in more outdoor-based activities than they might do in the UK. And which teenager doesn’t ultimately want to be at the heart of one of the most attractive, safest and dynamic cities in the world – with world-class sports opportunities, deserts, and mountains to explore, theme parks, aqua parks, concert and cultural venues and beaches with water sports galore – it is a teenager’s dream!
Benefits for parents are obviously the safety aspect of Dubai, and also the transport links – SISD is based only 15 mins from one of the world’s busiest airports and transport hubs – it makes travelling home safer, easier and cheaper for families. The boarding facilities and boarding-houses at SISD are luxurious compared to even some of the top UK schools. Students at SISD receive a private room with en-suite in purpose-built houses. Each floor has its own kitchen, and there is a large communal area / lounge equipped with TV;s games, bean bags etc. The boarding houses are based on campus, and the doors open out directly onto the world-class sports facilities that the school has – absolutely no excuse not to get up in the morning!
The school also has amazing facilities that boarders can take advantage of after school, and every weekend – a 50m pool, a full size gym and cardio suite, football pitches, running tracks, basketball courts, tennis courts and beach volleyball. And not to mention the much-loved brunch every Friday morning!
Yes, of course – we want students to be happy. If boarding isn’t working for a particular child, we would happily move them to a day student – I don’t believe we have had any such cases at SISD, but we would absolutely support it if required.
No, boarding isn’t necessarily right for all children, and a family should consider how their child would cope away from home. However, our boarding team are very used to supporting children well in their early weeks at boarding, to ensure they settle in well, and then start to develop naturally the inherent skills that boarding can develop – confidence, independence, social skills and maturity – and of course, the need to manage one’s own time, and think about their laundry! We also interview all boarders in advance, so we can assess how well they are likely to cope with boarding life, and our team will advise families on the best time to place children into a boarding environment.
All children can benefit from a boarding experience, as long as the boarding infrastructure is set-up in a supportive, kind and community-based way. At SISD, we have a dedicated team of boarding staff who are committed to ensuring the student’s happiness, academic achievement, and personal development. Our boarding families regularly comment on how mature their children have become, how much more responsible, confident and sociable they are – but also how much more they appreciate their families too when they see them – always a good thing! “
Q: Do you think boys tend to develop later than girls? How does SISSD manage the different needs of boys and girls at different ages?
At SISD, personalised approaches and a highly inclusive ethos permeates all we do, allowing us to ensure the provision meets the needs of our learners. Whilst we can generalize about how boys learn, in comparison to how girls learn, this over-simplification does not always support the needs of either our boys or our girls.
For those students who need greater physical development input, teachers build that into their provision at an age appropriate level. In Early Years, for example that may take the from of consolidating letter formation outdoors with a large paintbrush and water- making marks on a wall or pavement, rather than with a pencil and paper, sitting upright at a table. For the student who finds focusing for extended periods of time a challenge, teachers build in opportunities for brain breaks. Modification of furniture, learning spaces both indoors and out, choices in presentation formats, a range of levels of challenge, access to assistive technology and high levels of additional adult support and specialist input ensures that the needs of all, both boys and girls, are met on a highly individual basis to ensure all are successful in their learning. At SISD we use our extensive data and information on each student to track progress, attainment and wellbeing and support students as required, to do the very best and to get the very best from all of our students.
Q: How important is child happiness at school?
“Happiness is vital; to get the best from students they need to feel safe, secure, engaged and successful. Our emphasis on holistic approaches, ensuring that students experience success in a number of areas of school life alongside the high levels of support in classrooms and numerous specialist staff here at SISD, supports high levels of wellbeing amongst our students. In addition, regular surveying of students, PASS tracking (pupil attitudes to self and school) and personalised follow-ups ensure that the adults working with students are well-informed and enabled to support should issues arise.
Our PSHE program, buddy systems and emphasis on Safeguarding further support the wellbeing agenda at school which we will see further expanded in the development of a vibrant House system and expanding peer led learning opportunities. Nurturing close partnerships with parents, ensuring the lines of communication are open and honest greatly benefits our students too.”
Part III. Arriving in the UAE and Choosing Schools – Top Advice for Parents.
Q. What do you think are the five biggest challenges faced by parents arriving in the UAE with children for the first time?
First, choosing a school – the curriculum type and size… large schools are the norm in the UAE and the range of curricula can be daunting too
Secondly, choosing a home – location/proximity to school of choice
Third, the quality and costs of extra-curricular activity
Fourth, financial issues – the price point of school, fee structures at different phases… and, finally,
Support systems – getting social and health networks in place.
Q: What advice would you give them in choosing a school?
“A wide range of materials are available online; make use of the KHDA reports and various other sources of information to narrow down your search. Where possible visit your shortlisted schools, while students are there, if at all possible. The ethos and atmosphere of the school, when in session, tells prospective parents and students so much about the school’s approaches, values and operations. Ensure your child’s passions and talents will be catered for at the school you chose and conversely that any areas for development can be accommodated too.”
Part IV. Covid 19 – Outstanding Schools Stay The Distance…
Q: How has COVID-19 changed education?
“Covid-19 accelerated many of the change initiatives that were underway in schools across the globe, with an increased emphasis on the role of technology in supporting our children’s learning.
For some schools, this presented a range of challenges but also great opportunities and teaching staff demonstrated superb levels of resilience and determination in switching to Distance Learning at speed. In subsequent months schools have seen various combinations of face to face and online learning provision, navigating regulations and best practices, displaying agility and an unfaltering sense of purpose.
Students have continued to benefit from the efforts of school staff who often were navigating their own personal challenges including sickness, childcare and isolation. Parents supporting learning, in a variety of forms has been invaluable. Observing, at first hand, the challenges faced by teachers – the level of patience and motivation involved in engaging children and the range of skills required to ensure a level of academic diligence from their dining-room tables will undoubtedly have led to the general public increasingly valuing the role our teachers play in shaping our children’s lives and futures.”
Q: Should parents manage their expectations of schools in the face of the pandemic?
“Parents have demonstrated great support to schools during these unprecedented times; the power of strong parental partnerships with schools has never been more necessary. We will all continue to benefit from strong communications between home and school as we navigate these unchartered territories, seeking to ensuring full compliance with local regulations whilst ensuring that learning is sustained and prioritised. With limited scope for extra-curricular school-based activities and swimming for example, parents and students have modified their expectations considerably, prioritizing health and wholly embracing ‘we’re in this together’.”
Q: What do you think are the biggest impacts of Covid 19 on students?
“Students have demonstrated agility and resilience in abundance; our older students used their love of technology and great skills to support their learning in ways that have in many cases taught their own teachers so much! They embraced change and supported each other in virtual networks in ways and ultimately motivated themselves and each other with humour and honesty. For our younger students, who learned to navigate the technology week by week and in many cases amazed their parents with how well they managed, demonstrating great patience with their parents too, who sought to assist with uploading and videoing, gradually managing to understand learning objectives and master new apps.
That said, the impact on children’s social and emotional development cannot be under-estimated and even where huge effort was made to ensure students stayed connected with their peers and friends online, this lack of physical interaction, limited sport, play and fun is significant. We hear a lot about the impact of learning loss though the pandemic but social, emotional and physical wellbeing are the areas where we much never lose focus.”
Part V. The Future – ‘Everything is Possible.’
Q. IB or A Levels – which is best and why?
“The IB programme offers students a wealth of opportunities that set them up for future study and workplace success. Much research is available to support claims that students who have completed the IBDP or IBCP programs find the transition to university less challenging than students who have gained access through alternative routes. Certainly, first year drop-out rates from university substantiate this research as does data exploring numbers remaining at university to pursue Masters’ qualifications after Bachelor’s/ first degree level, further evidence that the IB program equips students with the skills and attitudes to be successful learners, enjoy their learning pathways and opting to continue in further education.
In addition, the value of maintaining a wide array of subjects post-16 cannot be underestimated. For me, students continuing to experience a range of subjects equips them with options for future study undoubtedly, but perhaps more importantly furnishes them with a strong foundation across a greater number of disciplines that will support them in study and in work.
Key components of the IBDP for example, include Theory of Knowledge and an the Extended Essay, where students are required to think critically and research effectively, presenting coherent arguments and rationale. In addition, and in line with feedback from employers, students’ skills in ‘thinking outside the box’ and developing multi-disciplinary approaches to problem-solving and project management cannot be underestimated. The wider curriculum including Community Action and Service, another key component of the IBDP, ensures students consider and positively impact the lives of others.
Many schools in Dubai offer IB pathways at post-16 level but at SISD, our curriculum and provision is completely IB focused, with PYP and MYP routes in our primary and middle school sections ensuring that the IB Learner profile is embedded when students are in the initial stages of formal learning and attitude formation, greatly assisting with their successful transition to Diploma level, as students are well-versed in thinking critically, being independent and open-minded from an early age. The latest McKinsey report, detailing the skills that employers will need post Covid, summarises the IB Learner Profile brilliantly! I think the IB will absolutely come to the forefront of the education sector in the next few years, as parents, students and employers appreciate that the acquisition of soft skills is now as important as knowledge acquisition.”
Q. In five years’ time, looking back, how would you like parents to describe your impact as Swiss International Scientific School. What differences would you like to have made on students and your school?
“I am passionate about creating opportunities in which students and staff can experience the joy of being successful. Being mindful always of student/staff wellbeing and enhancing effective support systems that nurture positive outcomes is key in the development of high performing learning communities. I look forward to working alongside all our stakeholders at SISD to augment and further develop all that is already established and working so well.
The magic of seeing students from three years of age in Early Years classrooms through to young adults embarking on university pathways is a privilege; the special contribution of every member of staff on that journey, in partnership with parents, can never be under-estimated. A firm believer in ‘every lesson, every day counts’, a focus on quality learning is central within my previous schools and leadership success.
The power of building student engagement and finding an area for each and every child in which to excel in is a key aspect of school success. Celebrating the efforts of teams, choirs, production teams, squads, maths and chess champs for example, will motivate and build increased levels of participation and success. Schools have a fundamental part to play in students experiencing and fully grasping the relationship between effort, progress and happiness; pursuits beyond the classroom walls will be given great support and increased focus.
To summarize, my wish is for my legacy to be one of increased opportunity, success and ambition at both student and school level.”
Q: If I asked you to describe Swiss International Scientific School in just five words, what would they be?
Q. If parents would like to know more about Swiss International Scientific School, who should they contact?
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