Steven Giles, Principal, Raffles International School, Dubai

Steve Giles has an extensive history in school leadership, having been part of Senior Leadership Teams since 2008, improving schools in inspection grades in every school he has worked in, including working in an ‘Outstanding Ofsted rated’ school in the United Kingdom. Steve’s innovative and dynamic leadership played an integral part in his school being rated in the top 12 schools (out of over 4000) for contextual value added for two years in a row in England.

Steve has consulted in a number of schools in England on aspects of school improvement and raising standards. He has had an extensive and successful career in the United Kingdom and has now spent six years in the United Arab Emirates. In his role as principal, he is focused on Raffles International School becoming one of the top UK curriculum schools in Dubai and his students achieving the very highest results possible.

In an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Steve Giles talks about the transformation of the K12 education landscape over the last 5 years, the most challenging aspect encountered by him while running an international school, what sets Raffles International School apart from others, and a lot more. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

How has the K12 education landscape transformed over the last five years and where is it heading now?

Of course, the obvious answer is to reflect on the global pandemic but to me it is more than that speedbump that was given to us all in 2020. Personally, K12 education is about not wasting an hour, minute or even second of this incredible opportunity we all have to be the very best we can be. The opportunities that young people have today with technology and innovation are mind-blowing however we must not lose sight of the core attributes that make up a lifelong learner. Reading a book from a library, turning the page, grasping a pencil and shaping your letters in readiness of attaining your pen license, writing your formal examinations. Working as a team, making friends, falling out, making friends again. Allowing others to be resilient, succeed, thrive and celebrating their success while they celebrate yours. In 5 years’ time, I see a place for the core things in any school to still be the same but to embrace those opportunities that come along with both hands.

In your opinion, how does holistic education prepare students for today’s ever-changing world?

Holistic education in my view is ‘as’ if not ‘more’ important than academic qualifications. Today more than ever we witness conflict, a disparity of economic affluence, and observe neighbours struggle. Yet we see hope, support and understanding. It is important that from a very young age we understand the wider holistic view of the world. I have a statement in my school vision which states, ‘to understand that we are all different and yet the same’. For me this is pertinent to holistic education. Yes, pedagogy and academia will always be at the forefront of formal examinations and assessments but understanding the wider issues of ‘how’ ‘why’ ‘what’ and ‘where’ are key to progress of the world as a whole. How can one person make a difference by taking a small step in a different direction.

Mr. Giles, please brief us about your background: education and career.

I completed a bachelor’s in education degree with Honours (B. Ed) and a master’s in education (M. Ed) focusing on professional development and leadership through Exeter University. I achieved a distinction for my work around the recognition and motivation of students at year 7, 8 and 9 in my 30,000-word thesis. I also achieved the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH).

I have an extensive history in school leadership having been part of Senior Leadership Teams since 2008 improving schools in inspection grades in every school I have worked in, including working in an ‘Outstanding Ofsted rated’ school in the United Kingdom. I have also consulted a number of schools in England on aspects of school improvement and raising standards. In my current role as the principal, my focus is centered on Raffles International School becoming one of the top UK curriculum schools in Dubai and my students achieving the very highest results possible. I believe in an inclusive school approach to learning where students of all abilities can achieve results of which they can be proud of.

What sets Raffles International School a notch above its peers?

Raffles International School is more than a school, it is an extended family. Our parent community say that we (the staff) are their child’s fathers and mothers when they drop them off each day. They tell me this, as I greet them all at the entrance to the school in their cars with a morning message on my white board! They have complete trust in what we are trying to achieve and support us fully in our efforts and application. We talk to parents face to face and on the phone rather than write emails. Every six months we send an official Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey to ascertain parental feedback and have overriding scores of over 60 which would rate us as one of the highest performing schools in the world with regard to parental feedback. The schools inclusive and growth mindset approach to every challenge is unique and infectious to all who join and attend.

As the Principal, what is the most challenging aspect of running an international school?

I would prefer to think of a challenge as an opportunity. For me trying to do the right thing every day in every way is a challenge yet an opportunity. So, a challenge could be to see so many non-native English speakers join our English-speaking school, yet the opportunity is to see them progress at such a rapid rate through outstanding teaching and learning not just from our wonderful teachers but our wonderful support staff and most importantly our wonderful student community. A nervous child without a word of English will be buddied with a child from the same nationality and mother tongue. We ensure they have that safe friend to be able to express themselves and explain if they feel anxious or nervous. The friend grows their own confidence to be able to watch their new peer grow not only in their linguistic abilities but their self esteem and confidence. Yes, it is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity, and what an opportunity that is to change lives.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Extremely positive. I look at every day as a new day to progress and learn. My default answer is always ‘yes’. This can get me into trouble! I believe my positivity is infectious to those around me, but I think you would need to speak to them as to whether it is inspiring or annoying! I am proud that many teachers and staff who I have worked with in the past often contact me to see if there are opportunities at my current school. I take this as a positive endorsement that I must be doing something right. I am a proud leader of the progress of others. I do not crave the limelight and always acknowledge the achievements of my team both leadership and extended.

Who is your role model in life and why?

I have been extremely fortunate in my life to have a number of role models who I look up to. As one of six brothers, I admire my mother and father (now deceased) beyond words.

My admiration for them having two children of my own has only increased this. How did they do it? We laugh that my father was trying to create his own football team.

Professionally, I was fortunate to work under the outstanding leadership of Mrs. Carol Hannaford in my school in Plymouth, England for 16 years. The embodiment of a strong female role model.  Although an absolute taskmaster, Carol never ever accepted anything other than your very best, but always maintained that your best was good enough. I would often go into her office and say ‘Carol, I’ve got an idea’. She would always hear me out and give me time. The most valuable thing in the world, time. It is now that I follow this ethos. I give everyone time and listen to every idea. My default answer is yes wherever possible. Carol surrounded herself with outstanding leaders, people whom she could trust. There is no point having a leadership team that just agree with everything you say. It is important for them to have a voice and to be listened to, that’s how we all learn and develop. I have taken this model from her and replicated it with my leadership teams.

What are some of your greatest achievements in career till date? What makes them special?

I have many achievements which I am proud of, but they are all about other people. A couple that stand out are I accepted a boy aged 15 into my school around 2006 when he had been excluded by two other schools and then could not get into any school in the area. I accepted him as a personal mission to give him a chance and looked out for him and checked in on his progress every day. It was a hard task to keep him on the right pathway but on GCSE results day when his mother saw what he had achieved the words she said to me will stay with me forever. “You took a chance when others would not, you risked a lot for someone you did not know. He now has a future and this is down to you. Thank you” Of course it was absolutely not down to me, it was down to the incredible teachers who were teaching him. I was just the mentor and safe space for the days that were tough for him.

The second example is of a teacher who again had failed his final practice in my school and was about to quit the profession. I felt he had something special inside of him, he cared so much about the students in his classroom, his heart was full of passion, he just didn’t and couldn’t channel it into the art of teaching. We went for a coffee out of school. We talked about everything but education. We talked about his dreams as a boy, his dreams as an adult, his family, his dog, his one, three and five year plan. What music he liked, even his favourite place to relax. We laughed and joked and decided that all was not lost. It was time to get back in the classroom and start over. Try different things, in different ways. There was no point at all in repeating past actions and expect a different result. We even had a code word in a lesson if it was felt that the lesson was getting away from the focus, to regroup and get back to the plan. The word was ‘September’. The young man (not so young now!) is now on the SLT in his school.

Where do you see Raffles International School in the next five years?

I would hopefully like to firstly still be at the school! I see Raffles International School as a school with unlimited potential. The students are incredible and are a credit to their families. The staff are some of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of leading, they are like sponges, receptive and excited to embrace new ideas and challenges. The school should not be judged just on an inspection rating or academic achievement of external examinations, however, far too often these are the barometers that are celebrated. So where would I like to see the school in 5 years.

A vibrant and dynamic student and staff community who are resilient, caring, tolerant and driven. A community that most of all have integrity, respect and understanding of all nationalities, abilities and specific needs. A community who achieves their very best for their ability whatever that may be.

What is the one thing you would recommend to someone who wishes to pursue a career in teaching?

Teaching is the best job in the world. You never forget your favourite teacher. Make that favourite teacher you.

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