Kai Vacher, Principal, British School Muscat, writes…
The final whistle: the football match is over. Our new all-weather pitch has been officially opened at British School Muscat (BSM). The long-anticipated facility, complete with floodlights and spectator stands, has culminated in a huge community event: the Ali Al Habsi tournament, named in honour of the Oman national team captain.
As the evening draws to a close, the three teams of students, parents and teachers gather together as the cup is presented. It’s a wonderful occasion for our school situated in the heart of Muscat, Oman. Against the backdrop of the majestic Al Hajar mountains, the players families and supporters make their way to the recently completed underground car park. Many express the wish: more evenings like this please.
This evening was made possible by so many people, and a five-year journey of consultation, decision-making, planning and delivery.
An Arabian adventure
I took up the role of principal at BSM in 2011, having worked as director of innovation at SSAT, now the Schools, Students and Teachers network. The move was made easier in the knowledge that BSM had an enviable reputation along with a recent ‘outstanding’ rating from an Ofsted team. Moreover, BSM was located in Oman, a hidden gem on the Arabian peninsula, and a country I have grown to love.
However, the overriding reason I chose to move was that I could see considerable potential in this school, which had been established with a Royal Charter from His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said back in 1973. My challenge was to find a way to unlock this potential.
Over time, BSM has grown from just a handful of students in 1973 to over 1100 today. The student body is truly international, with 71 nationalities represented, 46% of the students being British. However, the campus had been developed incrementally, building by building, with no real cohesion.
BSM has an ideal geographic location in Muscat, but the site is confined by residential development on all sides and the land is steeply inclined, with an 18-metre differential in height. Some buildings were in the wrong place in respect of their relationships with others, and some needed urgent replacement. Furthermore with car parking areas scattered all over campus, there was considerable scope to utilise the site more effectively.
BSM has an ideal geographic location in Muscat, but the site is confined by residential development on all sides and the land is steeply inclined, with an 18-metre differential in height.
Warmly welcomed into my new role, my first out of the UK, I spent my initial 100 days meeting and listening to staff, students, parents, governors and the wider community. This was an enlightening and valuable experience and also absolutely necessary as BSM is located in a fascinating country where diverse cultures converge. This process enabled me to identify the priorities for our unique community.
The next step was to unite all stakeholders with a clear and shared vision. A local consultancy team was appointed to assist with this part of the journey. Research into local demographics and what was happening in Oman formed an important part of the consultants’ brief.
Four immediate priorities were identified:
- to focus on being a leading British International School (part of which was to become involved with SSAT);
- to expand the curriculum particularly in the senior school;
- to immediately increase the capacity of the primary school, thereby taking advantage of the inclusion of those on our long waiting list;
- and to improve all aspects of communication.
Our journey had begun, and by the end of 2013 we had designed and delivered two new buildings to increase our capacity by 200 students, mostly in the primary school. These were built on time, on budget, and to the specification we wanted. Modern and well-built facilities were greeted with enthusiasm, and everyone was now sensing the potential to do even more.
The board and leadership team now had a shared vision for BSM – to be a leading British international school. One of the major objectives in achieving our vision was to develop inspiring facilities for our students. A master plan was now required.
The master plan
In early 2014 we held a design competition, resulting in the appointment of architectural education experts Jestico+Whiles from London. They undertook the most comprehensive consultation exercise they had ever done. All students, teachers, parents and governors had their say, and local businesses and the community at large were questioned, using face to face meetings and online surveys.
All students, teachers, parents and governors had their say, and local businesses and the community at large were questioned, using face to face meetings and online surveys.
A specialist curriculum expert helped examine existing space usage and plan future needs. There were many design and construction challenges for the professional team, who spent hours figuring out the optimum configuration for our site. We wanted to provide the best teaching and learning, curriculum, and extracurricular activities we could, in quality facilities that would last the test of time.
The master plan was devised, discussed and finally adopted by the BSM board. The planned new developments would take at least five years to complete, and would be in distinct phases, following priorities identified during consultation. BSM is a not-for-profit organisation, so we do not have large financial reserves, but with expert help we produced a robust business plan and secured bank funding for phase 1.
This comprises the provision of 10 new science laboratories; an elevated all-weather playing pitch above a new car park and student drop-off area; two large indoor sports halls; a competition swimming pool; a learner pool and refurbishment of the existing pool; the conversion of the school hall into a dining area; and a sixth form centre.
The opening of the first part of phase 1, our science laboratories, pitch and secure drop off and parking area, attracted Ali Al-Habsi, Arabia’s most famous footballer, and Nabil Al Busaidi, Oman’s premier adventurer. The sense of pride and achievement was palpable. Construction had started in April 2015 and was finished on time for the opening less than 12 months later.
Our journey is now well underway. I have learned many lessons from our achievements so far. Once we were all united in our objectives, everything became possible. A supportive board with a shared vision is imperative. Our leadership team has shown itself to be approachable, empathetic and responsive. And our colleagues are more involved than before.
The project management team of planning and construction specialists meets every week with us to identify opportunities and resolve issues promptly. Crucially, our school has continued to operate every day during the building process, safely and without significant disturbance. The logistics of redeveloping a city centre site have been planned in great detail. We have continued to communicate at all times with students, parents and other stakeholders so that they know what is going on.
The logistics of redeveloping a city centre site have been planned in great detail. We have continued to communicate at all times with students, parents and other stakeholders so that they know what is going on.
First impressions are naturally of the utmost importance. The entrance to our school, for instance, has been newly branded and is now modern and professional. In addition, the new indoor social and informal spaces, so important in this climate, have proved popular with our students.
Our personnel seem to want to stay with us too, eager for the next part of the journey to become reality.
There is a continual need to refresh our message with new students, parents and stakeholders joining our school all the time, so that they too can understand our plans and how we are going to achieve them.
Our school, at the heart of our community, continues to thrive and improve.