Four friends, one vision, 16 schools and counting: Taaleem co-founder shares his UAE success story

Dubai: The power of a shared vision between friends for an “ideal” model for both the local and expat student communities was the genesis of Taaleem, a UAE success story of a rapidly rising private school group, its co-founder said as the group marks over 15 years of service.

Dr Ziad Azzam, a former teacher and school principal, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview how he and three of his friends, all passionate about education, wanted to see a “fresh” ethos in education suited to UAE’s demographics and values. At the time — in 2003 — Dr Azzam was working as a management consultant at an international firm where he formed a close friendship with three colleagues. Together, he said, they planned “a movement” to bring about much-needed change in Dubai’s school landscape.

‘Spirit of internationalism’

Dr Ziad Azzam

“What was very important for us at the time — and we felt was probably missing — is that we wanted to build truly international schools. International not only in the demography of the student body and staff that we would attract to the schools, or in the programmes that we wanted to run, but also in the spirit of internationalism,” Dr Azzam said.

This meant, he explained, “instilling within students a deeply-rooted understanding that they are citizens of either this country, or they are citizens of families who have made the UAE home, but they are also, at the same time, citizens of the world — and the responsibility that comes with that”.

Most of the UAE’s 10-million-strong population are expats from virtually every country, with some 17 national curriculums taught in the heaviest of mix of international schools. Yet “something was missing” in this picture, they felt.

Within two years, in September 2005, Taaleem opened its first four schools, all on the same day — Uptown International School, Dubai British School, American Academy for Girls, and The Children’s Garden.
Image Credit: Supplied

‘We wanted to create the ideal’

“So the second part of it [the vision of Taaleem], which we also felt was missing here, is that although Dubai and the UAE as a whole had really strong brands already in private education, the local element, the connection with the roots of the Arabic language and culture were missing. So we wanted to create what would be ideal — internationalism that is truly rooted in the cultures of the UAE,” said Dr Azzam, who is also the founding CEO of Taaleem (2003-2013).

Finding like-minded people

For this movement to succeed, he added, everyone from its founders to its financial backers had to subscribe to the same vision. After “personally investing whatever we could, a major effort was underway” by Dr Azzam and fellow founders, who discussed the movement with “like-minded” individuals and corporations. It seems they found an attentive audience rather quickly. Within “a very short time” they were able to raise an initial fund of Dh125 million. That soon grew to Dh500 million. Today, Taaleem’s capital is Dh750 million and its list of shareholders is “around 100-plus institutions, local companies and individuals; predominantly these are UAE nationals”.

For this movement to succeed, he added, everyone from its founders to its financial backers had to subscribe to the same vision, says Dr Azzam.
Image Credit: Supplied

‘You will be paid on par; everyone is equal’

Next, the vision was “filtered down through” the governance and leadership for the first upcoming Taaleem schools. Arabic and Islamic studies, local history and social sciences would not be an afterthought — in fact, they were going to be front and centre, alongside English or Maths. Teachers of Arabic and Islamic subjects were told “you will be paid on par with teachers from Iowa, or London, or Ontario — everyone is equal,” Dr Azzam said.

First schools open

Within two years, in September 2005, Taaleem opened its first four schools, all on the same day — Uptown International School, Dubai British School, American Academy for Girls, and The Children’s Garden. Today, Taaleem has 15 schools (with the 16th, Raha International School, Khalifa Campus, opening in September) teaching over 17,000 students, making it the UAE’s second largest private school group.

Weathering the storms

There were, of course, challenges along the way, even before the first school gates had opened. “One of the challenges, you can imagine, is that we were a young group of people, we were very idealistic. I had experience as a principal of a school but I had very little experience at that time in starting schools from scratch. So we all learnt on the job, and praise be to Allah, we were quick learners,” Dr Azzam said.

Also, in 2008 and 2009, a global financial crunch spread to almost every sector, including education. After the rebound, an intensely competitive school market in Dubai meant Taaleem could not afford to turn complacent. “There has been a shift away from the times ‘if you just open your doors, you’re going to fill up the school’, which was probably the case in the early 2000s. Today, particularly in Dubai, the market is a lot more competitive and you really have to be on top of your game. Over the years, Taaleem has ensured we keep up with all these trends.”

Helping pandemic-hit parents

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the biggest ever disruption to education. While many other schools saw parents pleading for financial help on fees and facing withdrawals, Taaleem moved to proactively reduce fees. “Even though it’s always difficult to make a decision that will have such a financial impact — and the impact on Taaleem was considerable — we offered considerable discounts to our parents because we felt very much that they are as much part of what we do and our community as our schools are an integral part of that community. And what do communities do when times are tough? We stand by one another. So we made that [fee discounts] announcement very early on. And the reaction from our parents and the loyalty they paid back to us, was something immeasurable for us,” Dr Azzam said.

He added: “You can’t just say to parents, ‘tough luck, you’ve lost your job, or you’re on unpaid leave, but you still have to pay the fees’. That’s not the kind of schools that we run.”

Reaching more communities

Taaleem hasn’t held back, even during the pandemic, on expansion plans. At “a huge investment”, Raha International School, Khalifa Campus (the second Raha campus) in Abu Dhabi is on track to open its phase one in September as planned.

“Taaleem was never about, ‘we want to be the biggest, we want to be on every corner’ and so on. Our growth has always been measured; we always put up a school within a given community or geography, either in Abu Dhabi or in Dubai, where we felt that our offering is relevant; where we believe that we have a strong connection with the community. And again, it’s not about a race to being the biggest or the fastest, or what have you. It’s about a measured growth that has a deep understanding of the community demand and its needs.”

Dr Ziad Azzam, Chairman of Education Committee and Audit Committee Member, Taaleem (source: Taaleem.ae)

Dr Azzam grew up in the UAE. Having completed his International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in 1987, he joined the freshman class at MIT. Ziad has two Bachelors degrees, one in physics and the other in electrical engineering, as well as a Master’s degree in theoretical physics from MIT.

He started his career as a teacher, and later became head of an international school based in Dubai. After a three-year stint as a consultant with McKinsey & Company (2000 to 2003), and inspired by his passion for education, he founded Beacon Education (now Taaleem), a school management company that develops and manages international schools in the UAE. Ziad served as Chief Executive Officer of Taaleem from 2003 until 2013. He now serves on two committees of the Board of the company, and advises schools and colleges in the public sector.

In June 2019, Ziad completed a Doctorate in Education from the University of Bath, England.

‘Azzam Prize’

Recently, Taaleem launched the ‘Dr Ziad J. Azzam Prize for Outstanding Academic and Personal Achievement’ (Azzam Prize).

Taaleem CEO Alan Williamson said: “The launch of the annual Azzam Prize recognises the enormous contribution that Dr Ziad and his fellow founders have made to the success of the company. It is typical of Dr Ziad that his focus for the celebration of this milestone in the company’s history is for the benefit of our outstanding graduand recipients. This will support them to further pursue their future education goals through a grant and formal recognition of each individual’s exceptional contribution to their school.”

Alan Williamson

He added: “Dr Ziad Azzam is one of the founding fathers of Taaleem. His and his fellow founders’ core values remain firmly rooted in the DNA of the organisation. They have been the inspiration and guiding principles for the 15-year development of our company.”

Dr Azzam said he was “very honoured” Taaleem has named the new annual awarded after him.

The Azzam Prize is presented to a Grade 12 or Year 13 student “who, during the preceding four academic years, has not only demonstrated the highest academic achievement, but has also served the interests of his or her school community in a distinctive and tangible way”.

Lara Jarrar

Each Taaleem school offering a secondary educational programme that culminates in students graduating from either Grade 12 (US or IB curriculum schools) or Year 13 (British curriculum schools) may put forward a shortlist of potential candidates for the prize.

This academic year, there are six winners of the Azzam Prize as there are currently six Taaleem schools that have a graduating class. Next year there will be seven winners.

Noah Cliff from Dubai British School, Emirates Hills.
Image Credit: Supplied

‘We wanted something different’

Speaking about education awards, Dr Azzam said: “It’s very easy to say ‘let’s give it to the top students, let’s just look at the grades’. We wanted something different.”

The Azzam Prize, he said, represents “a combination of the individual who has pushed themselves as far as they can go, academically, but has also played an important role in the community, in the school. That combination is the combination that we are looking for. And it [the first prize edition] really was about that, that well-rounded individual who has wowed us in terms of their social consciousness, what they have done for their colleagues in their school and the wider community — how has your presence in the school enriched the lives of others. At the same time, they achieved the best that they could, as an individual.”

‘I will always be thankful’

Shamma Al Gergawi

Azzam Prize winner Shamma Al Gergawi, from American Academy for Girls, said: “I would just like to take a moment to show appreciation to everyone who has supported me through this journey. Thank you to my parents, senior leaders, teachers, and peers for all the love and motivation you have shown me. I will always be thankful for this opportunity and will never forget those who continuously pushed me towards my best.”

Aiyi Mian from Uptown International School.
Image Credit: Supplied

Other Azzam Prize winners include Aiyi Mian, Uptown International School; Lara Jarrar, Raha International School; Laura Neron-Bancel, Greenfield International School; Sultanna Khashogji, Jumeira Baccalaureate School; and Noah Cliff, Dubai British School Emirates Hills.

Each recipient of the Azzam Prize receives:

A commemorative plaque/medal

A certificate of award cosigned by Taaleem’s CEO and Dr Azzam

A special letter of recommendation signed by Dr Azzam

Dh10,000 to be used by the candidate to further his/her education

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