Catherine McKeever

The principal of Wellington Primary School, Dubai shares with us her vision for the role and tells us about her career

Tell us about your background in education.
I have been in the teaching profession for over 30 years. After I graduated, I taught in America for five years. When I returned I spent over 20 years teaching in inner-city schools in London. I taught there for five years before my first Headship. Since then most of my career has been spent in school improvement as a school leader.

Following on from that I knew that I wanted to take the opportunity to work abroad again. I was also clear that I wanted to work with an education company whose business was education and in improving the lives of students. I knew that GEMS Education was that company. In 2013, I applied for a job with GEMS and they invited me out to Dubai. I’d never been here before, but knew when I first arrived that it was where I wanted to take that next step in my career. In August 2014, I was appointed the principal of Jumeirah Primary School. I loved my two years there; it is a great privilege to be the principal of an outstanding school.

Due to my previous background, I was asked by GEMS to consider taking on the principalship of the GEMS school in Switzerland. They knew I loved skiing and hiking! The school was an International Baccalaureate school, so it was an opportunity to take on a school leadership position from a different perspective. It was also an all-through school, with students from 3-18 years. I relish the challenge of something new and loved my time there. After two years, GEMS asked me to come back to Dubai where I was appointed the principal here.

What do you like about your role here?
The sense of community at WPS. Families treat the school as their own community, which I love. There are many GEMS schools in the UAE and we get to create a community and a network within the schools and with each other. That network creates many opportunities for students.

How do you approach your role as principal?
The same way I approach my role at every school – doing the basics as well as possible, what I call the ‘bread and butter stuff’. I focus on developing quality teaching and learning for those core subjects – English, Maths, Science, Arabic and Islamic. In addition, having led outstanding schools, I know what it is we have to strive for – so I plan strategically and work backwards towards that goal, one year at a time. It all has to be on an upper trajectory so that my teachers are as skilled as they can be. We employ the best trainers that we can. There is only one aim. What is best for the students? We are constantly working on improving the practice of teaching and learning.

What’s the school ethos?
Every school has its own ethos, so it’s important that the staff, parents and students work together to establish the ethos. At WPS we are an international community which celebrates all our cultures and creates a safe, welcoming and caring environment for the children. We offer not only the best academic education, but also one that provides rich extracurricular activities and supports all cultures and backgrounds. We have a highly engaged Parent Association who work closely with the school in many aspects of school life and who are actively involved in working with us on charity and social events.

We have 1,110 students and are located close to City Walk, La Mer, Business Bay and Downtown. All these residential communities are close-by which helps make us a family-orientated school. This creates a community and when parents come to visit, we encourage them to live nearby so that their children are close to each other and can create their own communities – this is especially important as most families are expats, far from home.

Principal of Wellington Primary School, Catherine McKeever says the children inspire her every day

What developments have you made at the school?
I’m very proud of the work we’ve done this year to enhance the facilities in the Early Years. For me, the foundation years are the most important for children. We are building a strong, holistic foundation so that when the children move up to the primary school they have all the skills and knowledge they need to make them the most successful learners. Parents are so supportive of this, as that is also what they want for their children. They trust us to get it right for them.

We have also invested in the development of the performing arts. We created a dance studio and two practice rooms for music. We are currently working towards putting on a production of Shrek in March 2020. We have entered into a partnership with ArtsEd in London whose professional staff have been practising with our students for the production. They have had the opportunity to work with actors who have actually been involved in a West End production. Everyone is so excited. We are also encouraging more children to take individual music lessons. As we develop these opportunities, students can start secondary school with more skills that enhance their academic achievements.

We have opened a new science lab and a purpose built STEAM Studio which enables the children to develop their engineering and computational skills. They were designed by our expert teachers to ensure that all our children have the opportunities that they need to be fully prepared for their future roles.

I also consider all sporting activity as an important area to develop in any school. We are involved in many sporting opportunities across Dubai such as the Dubai League. We focus on providing a well-balanced programme of sports to promote an active healthy lifestyle and enable our children to become confident and competent learners. Older children who are not members of the school teams have the opportunity to participate in the development squads for swimming, football and netball. Every child can enjoy physical education and extra-curricular sports activities, regardless of their level of skill or experience.

Who inspires you?
The children inspire me. I see every day as the only day we have to help them learn and if I don’t make it the best day for them, they’ve lost that day. That’s my responsibility and my job. I have to make sure they have thousands more of those days, full of opportunities.