On 14th September 2014 Sam Watkinson (OC) and I stood at the entrance to the Junior School at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi on the first day of term. The flags fluttered in the wind, proudly displaying the Cranleigh crest, the flowerbeds were bursting with newly planted foliage and there was a smell of fresh paint everywhere. The ‘new’ Year 8 and 9 pupils helped usher Nursery and Reception children into school, parents in tow, tears of emotion on their faces.
Six hundred and thirty eight new Cranleighans, all dressed in their ‘Cranleigh Prep’ uniforms, chattered excitedly about the day ahead. And what a day it turned out to be. By the end of it the pupils had had myriad academic lessons; sailed, danced and sang; played music, golf, tennis and basketball, and also run around an indoor athletics track.
Twenty-four hours earlier Sam and I had arrived to a very different scene. Along with the newly appointed Abu Dhabi staff, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with anything that needed doing. We checked air-conditioning units, turned on taps to shift air locks, raked sandpits, hung pictures and moved furniture! Over 2,500 plants and 50 mature trees were put in the ground between midnight and 6.00am and a football pitch of turf was laid. At times there were over 2,000 workers on site. At 4.00am the air conditioning broke down. The chief engineer worked a miracle and the classrooms started to cool just as the sun came up. Heavy rollers were deployed to put the finishing touches on the car park, leaving as the first cars arrived.
The Cranleigh Abu Dhabi journey began in late January 2011. After OCs Simon Copleston, Sanjeev Doshi and Nick Whitfield proposed the idea, a project brief was prepared and some detailed market research undertaken, followed by a preliminary visit to Abu Dhabi for informal talks with investors and potential partners. A small UK project team of three – Sam Watkinson, Rick Johnston and I – was formed to work with a similar sized team in Abu Dhabi. It took another two years of further market research, school visits, site selection and concept planning with the talented architects from GAJ before the boards at TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), Cranleigh UK and the Royal Group (our local partners) agreed for the project to go ahead.
Nearly 150,000 air miles and 41,000 individual computer files later and our sister school has opened. Over 1,800 staff applied for the 64 teaching posts. We could easily have appointed another 40, such was the talent. The school is home to 43 nationalities. And what is very special is that it really does feel like Cranleigh. The committed staff challenge children to give only of their best and a warm, friendly atmosphere pervades. The pupils are busy and have fully embraced the extended day and full programme of extra-curricular activities (witih 81 now on offer).
Cranleigh’s motto; ‘Ex Cultu Robur’ (from culture comes strength) is everywhere, which is entirely appropriate as Saadiyat is Abu Dhabi’s ‘Island of Culture’. Indeed, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are being built no more than half a mile away, with the former due to open next year. Academically, the school is already top in the Mena Maths Games Challenge, which involves over 5,000 schools in North Africa/ Middle East, and a Year 9 pupil was voted best delegate in the Model United Nation’s Forum held last month. He was five years younger than most of the other pupils.
As Cranleigh UK moves towards its 150th year, it has been a privilege to be a part of this new chapter of the Cranleigh book, taking the DNA from the UK school and translating it into something that works in another part of the world with a very different culture. We were also lucky to have worked with such a great team in Abu Dhabi and I have nothing but admiration and respect for them.
However, for me, the icing on the cake has been to work so closely with a group of Old Cranleighans that I taught, who had the vision, initiative, expertise and love of their old school to turn eight hectares of sand into the magnificent school which stands there today.
Thanks guys – it has been a blast!
Michael Wilson (Headmaster, Cranleigh Prep School)
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