The Big Interview. Mark Atkins, Founding Headmaster of Durham School Dubai – Speaks Out.

Schools Compared – 10 May 2022

In an exclusive first interview with Mark Atkins, Headmaster of Durham School Dubai, the team visited the new school to learn about what makes a Durham School education sparkle – and the values at the heart of a British education that set it apart.

Members of the SchoolsCompared team, Senior Editor and passionate educationalist Tabitha Barda (Left) and Commercial Director Eimear Mckenna Singh (Centre), discuss the benefits of a British education with Mark Atkins, Headmaster of Durham School Dubai, as building works are completed around them on their tour of the new Durham School Dubai. opening in September 2022.

In an interview that extends from discussions of what being part of a Tier 1, UK big brand school means in practice for students, to how traditional British values of decency, manners and care for the Other sets an outstanding British education apart in a modern world that has increasingly lost sight of what matters in life, we uncover one man’s view of what ultimately makes a British education so important and valuable.

Fasten your seatbelts for a fascinating look into the future of the one of the most ambitious school launches in the UAE for a decade – and an extraordinary insight into a man on a mission to make a better world.

On big brand names in education and the impact of bringing Durham School to Dubai

“One of the major draws for parents is the Durham School UK brand – and the perceived linkages between your school in Dubai and the Durham home school in the UK. Parents in general don’t really like franchises. They want as close to the real thing as possible. Can you talk us through those linkages and what being a branch of Durham in the UK mean in practice?”

“I don’t like the idea of franchising.

However, equally, I also don’t like the idea of hiding behind a brand name for a school that is operating in Dubai, for Dubai.

You cannot simply take Durham School out of the UK and somehow put it here and create something identical. No one should expect that.

There are linkages. Of course, there are. I talk to my counterparts in Durham UK weekly. But the British curriculum here is modified for the specific requirements of the Dubai school regulators. It is always going to be different from, and independent of, the curriculum offered in our UK home school. We are regulated in Dubai and there are differences because of that.

What you do get at a Tier 1 branded British school like Durham is the quality assurance that we must measure up to, at least, the standards of Durham School UK. We have regular and demanding quality assurance visits from our UK school to make sure that we are meeting the Durham School specification and requirement to deliver an outstanding British education for our students. So too, we have to meet very stringent standards for safeguarding to make sure that we are achieving the Durham School UK safeguarding standards and that children are well cared for.

So, of course, parents understand that they are coming to Durham School Dubai and it is not, and must not be, a clone of Durham School UK. We must be judged by what we do – and not by what has happened in Durham over the last 600 years.

My commitment to parents and students is that we are not going to hide behind the name, whatever its clear strengths and reputation.

Will the senior management of Durham School UK school be represented on the Board – and will they play a role in school life and the development of Durham School Dubai?

Yes. Both Nick Millen, International Operations Director, and Kieran McLaughlin, the Headmaster of Durham UK, are both on the board of Durham School Dubai.

Mark Atkins (right), Headmaster, Durham School Dubai, meeting with Kieran McLaughlin, Headmaster, Durham School UK (left) on the announcement that Durham School UK (background) will open a branch in Dubai in September 2022.

However, we have both a Board and an Academic Committee.

The Board includes the owners of the school and, quite rightly, steps back from the academic and operational life of the school. It is vital that the business element of any school is separated from its day-to-day operation.

The real powerhouse lies in our Academic Committee. This is, in practice, the “full” Board of the school. This is where the decisions that impact on students are made and driven forward. We are running Durham School Dubai as a school for the children. It is here that the role of leadership from Durham in the UK and Dubai has its vital role, driving forward our commitment to, and delivery of, an outstanding education for all our children.”

“Do brands really matter? Should parents be so excited at giving their children the opportunity to be educated at Durham?”

“Of course, the fact that Durham School UK is in the background, a school with both history and a proven record of outstanding achievement for children, inspires parents – and drives students to want to come here.

But, I think, ultimately, you have got to stand by the kind of school you are operating in the country you are in. So, Durham is a fantastic school in the UK , but we are a new and different school, albeit one starting as a branch school.

This means that parents must make the judgement of whether our school is the right one for their child based on our offer.

We, of course, stand by the absolute quality at the heart of an education at Durham School Dubai.”

“Will there be pupil exchanges between the two schools?”

“Eventually, yes.

We are looking at how we will work with the UK home school – and we are also exploring how we can work with Durham satellite schools in both Kenya and Qatar.

I think, however, that you do have to be careful about understanding what school exchanges will look like in terms of both what works best – and what is practically possible.

You obviously cannot lift a year group, or even a class, from Dubai and put them in Durham UK for a term. That will not work. However, what you do have are opportunities for collaboration.

Technology has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. You can, today, have a lesson taking place in Durham UK that is simultaneously screened in Durham Dubai. Pupils from both schools can participate. This is where we can really leverage the unique and powerful opportunities that come with being a branch school of Durham UK. Other schools clearly cannot do this, cannot draw on this heritage or international context.

There are also many unique opportunities that stem from sporting exchanges, or, more broadly, in The Arts, including programmes like musical choir tours. There are so many opportunities which we are now exploring in how best to leverage our relationship with Durham UK.

One of the things, for example, that we are looking at, is taking teams over to the UK school so that our faculty can be immersed in the life of Durham UK. The aim is that, then, they will return with their experiences and skills to Durham School Dubai. And there will be exchanges with students.

We are looking at all these areas…”

On Fees, Scholarships, the importance of outstanding teachers and the Future

“What years are you opening initially? How are you positioning your fees?”

“We are opening from FS1 to Year 8, subject to the role and ensuring that we have class sizes that work for our students. I do not believe in classes that are too large, or too small.

In terms of fees, we are trying to be inclusive. We are offering an affordable education in the Tier 1 sector in which we are operating. This is particularly true of our opening fees as we have strong founding discounts.”

Year Age Key Stage


Discounted Fees


Discounted Fees

FS 1 3-4 EYFS 42,600 42,600 54,000
FS 2 4-5 EYFS 42,600 42,600 54,000
Year 1 5-6 KS 1 45,600 45,600 69,000
Year 2 6-7 KS 1 45,600 45,600 69,000
Year 3 7-8 KS 2 51,000 51,000 75,000
Year 4 8-9 KS 2 51,000 51,000 75,000
Year 5 9-10 KS 2 51,000 51,000 75,000
Year 6 10-11 KS 2 51,000 51,000 75,000
Year 7 11-12 KS 3 57,000 57,000 87,000
Year 8 12-13 KS 3 57,000 57,000 87,000
Year 9* 13-14 KS 4 66,000 93,000

Will you be offering bursaries and scholarships?”

“This is a huge commitment to deliver meaningfully and with value. We have not yet considered this. I am sure that we will, in the fullness of time as the school develops.”

“How do you see Durham School Dubai evolving?”

“Durham School Dubai will grow incrementally. It is, must be, about quality not numbers. What we are looking for is to grow the school gently, and sensitively, to the needs of our students over time. Quality is all important to me – and I am absolutely focused on making sure that the quality of Durham Dubai is established and meaningful from ‘Day One’.”

Where are your teachers recruited from?”

“All of our teachers are being recruited directly from the UK. We are focused too on teachers with proven international experience. We have had over 500 applications from teachers seeking to join Durham School Dubai because of the reputation of Durham and the inspirational opportunities here to be part of developing a new outstanding Durham branch school. This competition for places from top teachers will benefit Durham students.”

An animated Mark Atkins, Headmaster of Durham School Dubai, in discussion with the SchoolsCompared team about the importance of recognising that we all make mistakes and learn from them – as final building works are completed on the new Durham School Dubai.

On making mistakes and learning from them

“Personally, what is the single biggest lesson you have learned in education in terms of making a school successful for children and how will you apply this.”

“Like all experienced leaders, I have made mistakes. I probably throughout my career have made almost every single mistake you could possibly think of.

But, we all learn from our mistakes. And, importantly, we teach Durham School Dubai children, too, that we all learn from our mistakes – and should embrace them, not be scared of them.

I do not know it all. No one knows it all.

However, I absolutely do know what I want this school to be.

I know which direction we are going in.

And I know what we must achieve for Durham School Dubai students to deliver an outstanding education for children.

The biggest, single most important commitment we make is to provide our students with quality teachers. That to me is everything. If you get the teachers right, then the school will be fantastic in its own right– and, more importantly, for our students.

Beyond this, with outstanding teachers in place, a school needs direction – values, ambition…. An understanding of what it must deliver for its students.

And, with this in place, an outstanding school needs a really close team, with each team member moving in the same direction in the pursuit of achieving that vision and ambition for its students.

So, the starting point at Durham in Dubai is the extraordinary quality of our teaching. That is my commitment to parents and students.

It’s not really about the facilities; not about “bells and whistles”. In fact, it’s never going to be about the facilities. It’s always, in an outstanding school, about how the teachers might use the facilities and resources for their students.

Ultimately, teaching is about developing powerful, meaningful relationships with students, parents – and with each other. Getting the teachers right in launching a school, and running it effectively for its students over time, is vitally important.

Outstanding teachers will always be a good role model for students. They will be kind. They will be resourceful. Yes, they will be firm too – but in the right way.

An outstanding teacher is always ambitious for their students, and individually.”

The importance of the Arts and Sport in a British education – and the big vision

“How important is Music, Fine Art, the Performing Arts and Sport in a British education?”

“Not everyone wants to be a barrister or a doctor or an accountant. British education recognises this – and that the real value of an outstanding British education comes from offering every child a broader education in the Arts. I want every child at Durham School Dubai to have an opportunity to learn a musical instrument, for example.

We have an important role too in discovering all the talents of our young people – and this includes not only academic giftedness, but the whole spectrum of gifts in the broader arts.

The rationale for this goes beyond inspiring a whole child education. Sectors like the entertainment industry are powerful employers.

So yes, as a school, it is our responsibility to offer the broadest educational opportunities to our students – and the broader Art are fundamental to this.”

“What’s your vision for the school? What’s going to make Durham school Dubai different from other schools in Dubai?”

“I will not comment on other schools, and how they compare with us. That would be churlish.

But, I will talk to the strengths of a Durham School Dubai education.

Standards of behaviour are important – across every part of teaching and a student’s life with us. So, standards in terms of the quality of teaching that we deliver. Standards in the way that everyone in the school community reacts with each other. Standards in academic achievement. These drive an outstanding education at Durham School Dubai.

As importantly, happiness at Durham Dubai is centre stage.

If you come to us, as a teacher, positively “bouncing”, demonstrating that you are happy to be in our school, then I know that you are going to do a great job. These are the teachers that inspire children.

If you come to us, as a child, we will ensure that you learn within the context of both an inspirational, and happy, journey with us. That means that we will deliver, for each and every child, a happy school for them as individuals.

Another element of the Durham Dubai offer is that we are not an arrogant school. It is not about being self-important and shouting about the obvious strengths and reputation of our brand and UK home school. We are all down to earth here. Being part of a 600 years of history does not give you the right to be pretentious. What good all that history if we were no approachable and meaningfully committed to delivering at an outstanding level for our families and students.

We have selected the right people here. We begin with genuinely outstanding teachers. An outstanding school is about having the right people. A key aspect of our interviews has been not just the experiences of teachers – but as importantly their personality and fit for our values-rich school.

Community and the relationship with parents is so important to us. Parents of students at Durham Dubai, as at our home UK school, share responsibility for the education of their children.

When we speak with families, we always emphasise that they have a powerful role in reinforcing the values of our school, their school.

Teaching the fundamental value of kindness works best when both schools and parents emphasise this with children. This shared responsibility is so important for bringing out the best in children. Social responsibility, social competence, moral integrity – parents are centre stage in all these areas.

We ask of both children and parents that they come to Durham School Dubai with a shared sense of the importance of our values. What do I mean by values? Everything, from social competency, manners – to inspiring confidence and not arrogance. It’s about how we talk with each other. How we all communicate as people with others. Successful people of the future are going to be the best communicators.

Finally, taken together, a Durham School Dubai education is in no small part about creating young men and women that each of us would want to know and spend time with. Inspired and inspiring individuals – emotionally intelligent, confident individuals that can make a difference in the world on their own terms.”

On what makes an outstanding British education – and the values underpinning a Durham School Dubai education

“What are the strengths of a British education and curriculum?”

“First, the English language is the universal language of the world.

Secondly, I think British education teaches children about values exceptionally well. This includes important areas of whole child development like good manners, sensitivity to others, being emotionally intelligent, inspiring an international outlook and being confident without ever being arrogant. Communication skills, learning how to relate to others and emotional intelligence are so important – and in high demand in the digital workplace.

In this sense, the British academic curriculum is just one part of the story. At Durham School Dubai we are as concerned with developing students into inspiring and cultured men and women that you or I would like to spend time with.

Dubai has many qualities, but without students being grounded it is too easy to thoughtlessly believe that glitz and glamour is a universal reality. Basic manners, in this context, demonstrate self-knowledge and appreciation that the world outside the UAE can be very different. A British education, at its most outstanding, is never only about academics.”

“There has been criticism of the British educational approach that, certainly historically, it encouraged a “stiff upper lip”, resilience and repression that was unduly harsh – and encouraged entirely the opposite of sensitivity to others and emotional intelligence. Do you think this concentration on resilience is justified? Is resilience and a stiff upper lip just another name for insensitivity and repression?”

“I disagree. Everything that I have said shows exactly the opposite. I am completely against insensitivity and repression.

I do think that there is a place for teaching resilience in children.

I have a real issue with children being told that they can be anything that they want. It’s just not true. Not all of us will be successful. Not all of us will play football for Real Madrid. Not all of us will be pop stars.

Resilience, in part, is about understanding this and not having a breakdown with the inevitable knocks and disappointments of life in the real world. Resilience is, in part, about teaching children to move away from the language of failure to the language of realism.

I think we have a duty to teach students that whatever Hollywood movies may say, the world does not revolve around them, or any of us. Understanding this is important if we are to prepare our young people properly for life after school.

This is also about ensuring that students are not arrogant – because arrogance comes from a belief that you are better than others and will never fail. And this is neither right, nor realistic.

This sense of appreciating that others do exist in the world is a very British trait. We teach children that you do not pass by on the other side of the road.

It’s also the basics. British people do not like queues – but we do not walk to the front of them and demand we are first. We say “Please” and “Thank you”. We open doors for people. We shake hands with people when we meet them. We are kind. We have moral integrity. We have ambition that does not walk all over others. These are all British traits and fundamental to an outstanding British education.

Internationally too, it is these traits that employers are looking for as much as a Grade 9 in examinations – and that is why they must be part of a British education.

Finally, I do think that standards of behaviour in society are not where they should be. I think we have a responsibility, as educators, to inspire in young people an appreciation of these values. Today, it makes my day when someone says “Thank you” because it is no longer as common for people to express gratitude as it was – and I regret this.

These simple things do make a difference in the world. Together, values and action matter. They make lives better. They open opportunities for a good and successful life for our students as they graduate from us to university or a life in business and industry.

That is, ultimately, what we recognise – and what a Durham School Dubai education will deliver for each, and every one, of our students.”

Contact Durham School Dubai:

Dedicated parent hotline: 050 164 2122

Visit arrangement by email:

Drop in visits (without appointment) to meet the Headmaster: every Tuesday morning between 9:30 and 11:30 and Saturday mornings 9:30 and 11:30.