Q&A with new Head of Boarding, Ashley Fitzgibbons

Tell us about your new role?

I’ll be taking over the Head of Boarding at SISD for the new academic year. I’ve been at SISD for four years now, next year will be my fifth year. I started as a Maths and Business teacher, then progressed to a Grade coordinator, and I’ve been the Deputy Head of Secondary for Pastoral Care for the last two years. Pastoral care is very important to me – making sure all our students are taken care of, and supporting them with their academic progression. I’m sure it’s going to be an exciting year now that we can have a lot of those restrictions removed post the pandemic.


Have you faced any unique or unusual challenges in your time with SISD?

COVID, unfortunately, has prevented us from doing a lot of things we would like to have done for the students. We had trips planned for the end of January and then the announcement was made, that we couldn’t go on trips, because of increased cases. That was difficult, but our staff and students are really resilient, we all pulled together, and we were able to take trips at a later date, albeit shorter trips, but still.

So, it’s definitely been a challenging time with COVID. We’re delighted to have our first in-person graduation, this is our third graduating class this year. Last year, it had to be online, so that was unfortunate, because obviously, we all want to come together to celebrate the students and their achievements.

Things are looking up now, we can put in place all these things that the students wanted to do that the restrictions prevented us from doing.


What do you enjoy most about your job?

The most rewarding part is seeing the students progress. That doesn’t just mean academically, it could be a student who has stage fright, and then we’ve helped them get on our amazing stage and perform in front of other students. It’s about students who’ve never engaged in sport before and then we’re able to tease that out of them.

Next year in boarding we’re bringing in two Gap Year students from Loughborough University, who are going to help with all of that, to focus on the physical education and after school activities, especially with the amazing facilities here.

In terms of academic progress, you see a student who struggles when they’ve come here, possibly from a non-English speaking country, with very little English and then you see them progress.

But the nature of our school with bilingualism, it really does focus on raising the profile and importance of languages for students, immersing them in a multi-lingual environment. They all learn quicker in that environment, and feel more comfortable chatting in a mix of languages – I love that melting pot approach to our school. We have one student. one of our Grade nine boarders. He arrived at school with very little English, and now he’s fluent, and he’s developed his French and his German as well. Regardless of what role you’re in, in education, it’s always about the students. I could never leave the school environment because that’s the most rewarding and satisfying part of the role.


And what are your expectations and ambitions for the new role?

For me, I want to create a safe, nurturing environment for students, where they feel like their voices are heard. A lot of work has been done in boarding over the last two to three years with David [Ashley’s predecessor] in making sure student agency is present. We now have boarding ambassadors, which feeds into the structure I’ve put in place in Secondary with our student ambassadors, and our student leadership team. It’s making sure students have that voice, they’re able to take ownership of their house and they feel involved and included in decisions.

Whether it’s helping to decide the weekend activities, discussing canteen menus, or something as simple as how we’re going to get all the things in to have a successful movie night, for me, student agency is hugely, hugely important and the student voice is critical.

Life skills is another important area. It’s important for students to be become aware that in a few years’ time, they’re going to be in university on their own, and will have to be able to cook their own dinner. So, we look at basic culinary skills, being able to do things like basic sewing, things like that, and prepare them for life after school so they’re self-sufficient.

The academics is my final main focus. Making sure in terms of our partnership between Secondary and Boarding, that the doors are always open, that our Secondary teachers are over in the boarding house helping out students, and that our students feel they’re well supported to achieve their full potential.

Working with our new Head of Secondary, Megan, we are discussing how we can make sure that partnership is really solidified, focusing on areas the students have deemed that they struggle with and making sure that we have provision there for them.


How do you describe a typical SISD pupil?

Our kids are really, truly amazing. They always come up with ways to challenge me and my colleagues, but we wouldn’t want to do that all day, would we? Our kids are most definitely global citizens. They’re so open minded about everything. I teach a Grade 11 Business Management class still, and the discussions we have are so enlightening, the things that they think of, their opinions, the facts that they will relay.

They’re very progressive. A lot of our students don’t just think in black and white, they have multicolored thoughts, and they’re very open-minded.

You actually forget sometimes that they’re students because they’re so polite, so kind and so respectful. That’s why I’ve been here so long!

I think the IB curriculum facilitates a lots of these skills. It allows students to develop skills that other curricula I’ve taught in don’t encourage or facilitate. The IB curriculum just opens these students’ minds to really think.

We just had Earth Day, because Sustainability is one of our core values. This is something we know we must drive forward. Our student leadership team are designing reusable coffee cups and water bottles. Those are the kinds of initiatives I want to bring into the boarding house next year, like what do they want that we can drive forward with? And it’s amazing to see that 16-year-olds are doing this. Our Grade 12 students are all exploring various business enterprises currently, and I am very proud of them and their entrepreneurial spirit.


And what will you bring to the boarding role?

I bring in my knowledge of the students of the school. I’ve been here for four years, I know the children really well, I know the families really well, I have good relationships with them, and have open communication with them and parents.

I firmly believe that in a school there has to be those close relationships.

Part of our school vision, moving forward, is parents as partners.

It’s difficult when your child is at boarding school, to make sure you’re consistently involved, but for me, that’s second nature. We communicate with parents all the time, making sure they’re up to date on their child’s progress and considering how we can best support the child together.

I’ve been in Dubai for five years, next year will be my sixth, so when parents come in unsure of the region, because it’s very different to other places in the world, I’m able to give them a bit of insight. I think it’s an amazing country to live in, that’s why there’s so many expats here, and just being able to actually help parents understand the region a bit more is a good thing.  Dubai is not your typical European city. It’s the knowledge of the country and knowledge of the school that I bring.


Has the pandemic affected boarders?

Yes, it was difficult for staff and students last year, especially during the lockdown months. We have a lot of students from Saudi Arabia, and unfortunately, last year it was very difficult for them to get home, they’d have to fly to Bahrain and go back, or there was a different quarantine, and they couldn’t see their families for extended periods of time.

During COVID, it was especially difficult for our boarders because they had to be isolated in their rooms. On the flip side, I think the students showed so much resilience. We’d be in contact with them constantly via MS Teams, and various different methods, delivering them care packages, bringing weights from the gym so they’d be able to do a workout in the room, for example.

It was all about finding ways to help them out. The other side of it was, during COVID in March 2020, they all had to leave the boarding house. That was tough. They thought they were going to be in Dubai for a certain period of time, and then they had to leave the country.

I’m happy to say we haven’t had as much COVID impact this year. It’s not as prevalent, the guidelines with close contact have amended, which is good, because we don’t want any child to be isolating in their room for 10 days.

We’re getting back to normal which is good for the students (and the staff). They just can’t wait to see normality and be back in a completely normal environment.

There’s been a lot of restrictions here, they’re being eased now, but they kept this country safe and we managed to keep the school open all the time, we never closed.


How will you ensure boarders’ health and welfare?

We have a fantastic team in the boarding house, and a new matron, Cathy. She joined us from the UK, and she’s doing an huge amount of work with the medical side of things. She’s also a trained nurse. We also have our onsite medical team, run by Dr. Yamein, and all her nursing team.

In terms of medical provision, we ensure all the students are taken care of.

For me, pastoral care is so important. I don’t think we can do anything without pastoral care. We use an electronic system called Pulse, which allows pupils to do wellbeing surveys. We are looking at different systems for next year to see how we can progress that. It’s important to be able to examine things like sleep patterns, are the kids getting enough sleep, how do they feel?

They’re teenagers, so you know, their sleep patterns can be interesting, and we always need to ensure they have access to healthy foods. We have a lot of athletes in the boarding house, we have to ensure they’re getting the right foods, and the correct training. We have a teacher in secondary who is also a life coach, who supports the boarders with their well-being and mental health. We have our Secondary Counselor, who attends the boarding houses weekly, and then the children have their specific tutor as well, residential tutors, all the students have that one person who is ‘theirs’, so that person is responsible for them so they know that they can always go to them or anybody else in the boarding house about their wellbeing, and know they’re being heard.

It is important these boarding students have that wraparound care; that we’re taking care of them on a daily basis, and part of that involves constant communication with the teachers, asking if the child had a bad day today, for example, exactly as a parent would.

The partnership with Secondary is not just about the academic side, it’s making sure we know exactly what’s going on with the children, because ultimately, we are their surrogate parents when they’re here, and they need to have that full 360 care.


And will you bring new ideas to the table in terms of cultural activities and trips?

I am so excited to get stuck into the trips. One thing I’m planning is asking that student voice what they actually want to do in Dubai – and exposing them to the UAE.

In terms of other activities, I want to get all the students involved in something, I think it’s really important for them that we have some sort of communal activity as a kind of family. The children are thinking about it now, but I’ve told them, it can’t be soccer, it has to be something everyone can do.

SISD is their big extended family. We also have a mentorship program, for Grade 11 and 12 students to mentor grades 6 and 7. We put them with the younger students to guide them on making good choices, making sure they feel like they kind of have that older brother or sister. They might even argue like they would as brother and sister – but that’s what we want to encourage; a family in the boarding house, so they feel like this is their home away from home. Developing all these programmes is important for me.

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