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Fantastic fifty for Dubai’s oldest British school

From a handful of students in a Bur Dubai villa to over 1,600 students across two sprawling campuses — DESS’ long journey has been full of cherished memories

  • five Decades apart: The school on Oud Metha Road in 1967, top and now, aboveImage Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ XPRESS
  • strength to strength: From a handful of students in a make-shift classroom, left, DESS has expandedto 1,600 Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ XPRESS
  • tech that: From big computers, left, to iPads today, DESS has come a long wayImage Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ XPRESS
  • lush green playground: The school field is now covered with natural grassImage Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ XPRESS
  • nostalgia: Vanessa Jackson todayImage Credit: Supplied photo
  • that’s us in in the 60’s: DESS headmaster David Hammond walks down memory lane with pictures from the school’sImage Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ XPRESS
  • princely touch: Prince Andrew interacts with school students in 2003Image Credit: Gulf News Archives
  • FIRST BATCH: Vanessa, second from right with other students at Port Rashid in the 60'sImage Credit: supplied photo
  • WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE: This is how the school looked like way back in 1967Image Credit: Supplied photo
  • humble beginnings: Since there were no English schools in the sixties the wives of European expats began teachImage Credit: Supplied Photo
  • golden sands: The school field in 1967 was just a stretch of sandImage Credit: Supplied photo
  • royal visit: Princess Anne at the ‘computer room’ in 1987Image Credit: SUPPLIED PHOTO

Dubai: As you walk through the corridors of the Dubai English Speaking School (DESS) in Dubai, a set of black and white pictures on a wall catches your eye.

One of them shows British officer Flight Lieutenant G. Loughman standing with 10 students on the beach near Port Rashid. Another is an aerial view of some low-rise buildings along a sandy stretch, presumably around Oud Metha Road.

“Can you see our school in these photographs? How different it is today?” reads a typed message in a frame between the pictures.

As DESS, one of Dubai’s oldest schools and the first British school in the emirate prepares for its 50th anniversary celebrations this month, there’s no mistaking the sense of nostalgia amid the excitement. From a handful of students in a villa room in Bur Dubai who moved to a building near Port Rashid in 1963 to over 1,600 students across two sprawling campuses in Oud Mehta and Academic City today — the journey is full of cherished memories.

Three families and 
a Flight Lieutenant

“We were only three European families in Dubai in the early 1960s. There was only one Arabic school then, so our wives took it upon themselves to teach our children. We also roped in Flight Lieutenant Loughman who was working in Sharjah as he had some teaching experience back home [UK]. He started taking lessons at his Bur Dubai home. When the number of children increased, we raised funds to put up a building in Port Rashid,” said George Chapman, former director of Gray Mackenzie and chairman of Dubai Ports Services, tracing DESS’ origins.

The school has come a long way since. “It is astonishing to look back at the pictures of the children on Jumeirah beach outside their temporary school and think how far we have come. We have given many children excellent primary education and we hope we have helped make a difference to Dubai and the region,” said Cythia Trench, the school’s chair.

DESS moved to its present premises on Oud Mehta Road in 1967. “It was quieter and there was no traffic then. The school was smaller and we didn’t have any grass on the field. Life was very simple,” recalled headmaster David Hammond.

Interestingly, it was not until 1984 that students began wearing the uniform. In fact, when the jubilee celebrations get underway on February 24, the first day will be a throwback to the 1960s with staff and students wearing costumes from the early days. Harry Atkinson, who taught in 1964, will also be present.

“It has been a profound journey,” said Miranda Keenan, a teacher with DESS for 18 years. “We have seen dramatic developments over the years. What sets us apart is our sense of community.”

DESS has many reasons to celebrate. “At a time when some schools in Dubai are being criticised for charging high fees, it is important to emphasise DESS’ non-profit making ethos,” said Trench. “It is run by an independent board which answers to parents and staff, originally set up under the Ruler’s Decree. DESS is not there to make a profit for its owners, which allows it to focus solely on education.”

‘Good’ rating from KHDA

Hammond said DESS’ average annual fees are about Dh35,000. The primary school covers the National Curriculum for England and Wales for children ages four to 11. It earned a “good” rating by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in the last inspection.

To David May, former DESS chair, the 50th year denotes the success of the school “in terms of its quality, expansion and maintenance of standards above what you would expect in the UK these days.”

May said the setting up of the secondary college at Academic City in 2006 was a landmark for DESS as it could take in students passing out of the primary school.

Royal visits from Britain have been another highlight at DESS. Trench said, “In 2011, it was very exciting to receive Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the wife of Prince Charles. She visited our secondary school, Dubai English Speaking College, and it reminded me of previous visits from British royals including Prince Andrew and Princess Anne who have marked the close links DESS has with Britain.”

Students who have passed out of DESS vouch for its education. “Coming back to DESS after 10 years and moving around the classrooms took me back to my early years here. This school was so engaging and so much fun” said Alexander Atack, a 2003-batch alumnus who was visiting the school from the UK this week.

The school has had on its rolls not just expats but also Emiratis, including children from the ruling families. Kirsty Radley, Assistant Head of DESS, said the second day of the anniversary celebrations will be dedicated to former students who will be meeting long-lost friends and sharing their experiences with the current crop.

DESS has planned grand celebrations to mark its golden jubilee with a picnic and a number of activities including a falconry display, dance shows and art projects over the next two days.

A gala dinner for parents and teachers is also planned on February 28.

Join the celebrations:

Are you a former pupil of DESS and would like to be part of the 50th anniversary celebrations? Write to for details


Meet Vanessa from DESS’ first batch

Many veteran expatriates in the UAE take pride in saying they came to Dubai in the 1950s and 1960s. But few can claim they went to school here at the time.

With Dubai English Speaking School (DESS) marking 50 years, perhaps even more informally, we set out to see if we could find any student from the first batch of Dubai’s first British school. The search led us to Vanessa Jackson, a successful businesswoman who lives in Sharjah.

The elder daughter of George Chapman, former chairman of Dubai Ports Services, Vanessa was four when DESS started.

“We were living in Deira and I remember taking the abra to get to Shindagha on the other side of the Creek. From there, a Land Rover would take me to school. There were no roads and we had to walk through sand to reach the building in the Drydocks area,” Vanessa told XPRESS.

She remembers some of her friends from those early days. “There was the Allen family – Nicky and Sandy, Elizabeth and Rhona Tulloch, Adeed Attaya and a couple of others.”

Vanessa said she stayed on in the school till she was eight when she moved to a boarding school in the UK. But her strong roots in the UAE had her coming back after university in the 1980s. She has remained here since and now runs her own company called i-Guide. Vanessa said: “I am proud to have been part of DESS in its formative years and to have seen it grow and maintain its position as a leading school in the region. Congratulations to DESS on its jubilee.”


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Latest Comment

Great post. We definitely need articles like these published . And I am a proud employee of DESS's sister school DESC. The best place to work ever. Shameem

Mohammed Shameem Sait

7 February 2013 13:02jump to comments