Matthew is in his 25th year of teaching and 21st year as a senior leader in schools. Matthew is passionate about maximising every learners’ potential and celebrating the greatness in every child. Matthew’s qualifications include, a BA (Hons) Degree in PE and Geography with Qualified Teacher Status from Brighton University in the UK, a Masters (MA) Degree in School Leadership from Canterbury ChristChurch University in the UK and the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers, again in the UK. Before joining GEMS, Matthew was the Principal of Skinners’ Kent Academy, an Outstanding school in Tunbridge Wells, England.
As an educator, I have always been committed to using and promoting innovative practices. As a Principal, I have the opportunity to plan strategically for this across our school, but I can still remember as a trainee wanting to find new and better ways to support the learning of the children in my classes. It is equally as important to promote this thinking in the children we teach, so that they can continue to enhance the world we live in.
Ultimately as educators, we want children to form habits, skills and attributes that support them to be successful throughout their lives. Those who are most successful are those who can find new and improved ways of doing things. This is the very definition of innovation.
We need to encourage young people to look at the world through their own eyes from their own perspectives and not through the lenses prescribed by restrictive curricular or practices. Our facilitation of learning should encourage independent research, exploration and the confidence to look beyond the current “correct” answers.
As educators, the longer we hold on to the past, the further removed we become from the realities of the present and the less well we prepare children for the realities of the future. If I were to take you back 40 years in pretty much any industry and compare it to that same business today, it would be unrecognisable.
If we went back 40 years in education, not an awful lot has changed. Yes, we’ve altered the colour of the board at the front of the room and the material from which we have built the desks and the chairs has changed, but much of the content is very similar, much of the pedagogy is the same. We cannot afford to keep falling behind industry at this rate because we are not supporting our students to be successful in later life.
Innovation, for me is a new way of doing something. This could be a new method, the use of new equipment, taking a different approach or the use of different resources. The purpose of innovation can be to save time, effort, resource or to improve the impact, efficacy or efficiency of something. I do realise that my definition is incredibly wide ranging almost to the point where it is all encompassing but I would encourage people not to get tied down by the definition, focus more on the purpose and then subsequent impact of any innovation.
Just thinking about providing a few examples helps me to consider how lucky I have been in education, working with some incredible educators, wonderful children and inspirational leaders.
I worked my whole career in Kent, England prior to joining GEMS in Dubai. I started, in 1997 at a school called Mascalls and had incredibly forward-thinking professionals who really guided that initial part of my career. I was a PE teacher and learnt from a department who were always looking to get better and supporting each other to become collectively better. Even in these early days, I can see I was being shaped as a practitioner who would look for and embrace innovation.
I them moved to Angley School in 2001, moving on to a Senior Leadership Team for the first time and at the same time became an Advanced Skills Teacher, working as an advisor of sorts for Kent County Council one day a week.
This led to a move to Swan Valley Community School in 2003. Here I was really challenged by two incredible leaders to innovate and find new ways of doing things. We introduced courses, re-modelled the timetable, and inspired young people to think differently about themselves and their futures.
We were starting to provide opportunities for young people that others in other institutions were starting to replicate. In 2010, I then moved to the school that I would later become Principal of – The Skinners’ Kent Academy. I worked with incredible leaders who I learnt so much from.
We worked collectively and always placed the best interests of the children at the forefront of every decision we made. I was provided with opportunities to grow and develop and coached and encouraged to find my own way.
This was the first time I had worked within a group of schools, and I really benefitted from the support and guidance provided from leaders of other Skinners’ Schools as well as the outstanding governance provided by the Skinners’ Company. In 2018, I then made the decision to move into international education, this was a really difficult decision, but the deciding factor was the vision of the Chairman of GEMS, Mr Sunny Varkey.
If there was a ‘who’s who’ of Educational Innovators, Mr Varkey would be near if not at the top. He has developed the biggest education group in the world through his entrepreneurial approach and willingness to innovate. And yet his major focus remains providing the best education to as many children as possible and finding the genius in every child.
An example of an interesting innovation is one that we have been working on at GEMS FirstPoint for the last 2 ½ years and it is a focussed attempt to bring education and industry closer together.
Along the journey, we have been awarded the GEMS Centre of Excellence for Digital Industries and KHDA Rahhal Programme lead school status for School and Industry Links. Within this work, we have two examples that I will give you. The first is a whole school approach to supporting the development of career skills and awareness, and the second is a project where we have worked alongside Siemens to produce a unique pathway for some students.
The whole school careers approach involves all our students, from 3 years old up to 18 years old, engaging regularly with their career aspirations and developing those skills that will be most relevant when they are in employment. The work of the students is differentiated to match the stage and the age of each student.
With the 3-year-olds for example we have dress-up days, where we dress as the job we would like to do when we are older. We then hold discussions about why they want to do that job and what they think they will be doing each day. Activities and role-play further support the student’s understanding of what their job and their peers’ jobs would be about.
We keep all this information on record and make further use of it to add importance to the learning that students are completing – relating it back to the work they would be doing in their job and track the development of their employability skills throughout the school (communication, presentation, analysis etc.).
The second example is a project that we have undertaken with Siemens, where they provide support through industry examples within curriculum lessons but then, and this is the really exciting part, provide an internship, one day per week, for 2 years while the students are studying their post 16 courses.
We have noticed many advantages to this like: students learn workplace etiquette; they receive a full reference from a globally recognised company; they are able to talk at interviews about genuine experiences within the industry to which they are applying; they get to use the theory they are learning in the classroom within an industry setting – therefore deepening their knowledge and improving their grades. It places them a step in front of everyone else in the interview room. This has led us to form deeper links with other companies like Schneider Electric, Mirai Educational Partners, The Financial Times, The AlGurair Foundation and others.
I believe that innovation is a culture that has grown with the ethos of the school. It is fostered in the interactions that staff members have, it is the way that innovation success and failure is celebrated. Mr Varkey, our Chairman is always promoting us not to be worried about failure, to use it as a learning point and to become stronger because of it. It is also about recognising that no one person or group of people have the monopoly on good ideas, that is the preserve of everyone. Creating opportunities and an environment where all voices are heard is essential for an innovative school.
I am ever hopeful that our schools and our curricular can evolve to ensure that we are doing the best we can possibly do to prepare students to be successful in life, whatever their chosen pathway is. I would like education to equip children with transferable skills and the confidence to be able to adapt to a changing world.