Indian-born philanthropist teams up with Bill Gates to celebrate the world’s best teachers


Andrew Milner


‘Research has shown that having a great teacher can be the most important factor that determines whether students get a great education,’ said Bill Gates announcing the finalists for the 2018 Global Teacher Award. But if the Microsoft founder and philanthropist needs no introduction, the same cannot be said of the man behind the prize, Sunny Varkey – unless you are familiar with the world of education entrepreneurs or the Forbes website.

Sunny Varkey.

Varkey, an Indian-born billionaire, based in Dubai controls GEMS Education, which Forbes describes as ‘the world’s largest operator of K-12 schools’ operating private and state schools in 14 countries – the greatest number concentrated in the Gulf – but also stretched across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States.

In 2010, he set up the Varkey Foundation to improve the standard of education for underprivileged children throughout the world, building teacher capacity, running advocacy campaigns to promote excellence in teaching practice and providing grants to partner organisations that offer innovative solutions in support of its mission.

The foundation also runs the Global Teacher Award, which was launched in 2015 to highlight the importance of the teaching profession – and to restore some of its lost prestige and status. ‘As I got more involved in the education business and setting up more schools, I kept finding that the image and the respect for teachers was in decline,’ said Varkey.

He says he wanted the finalists’ stories to ‘inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession’ and to ‘shine a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do.’

This year’s ten finalists include a history teacher from Johannesburg, a school director from Sao Paulo and an English teacher from the Philippines.

And if the foundation and the man who began it keep a relatively low-key, the prize itself makes a bit of a splash – it has gathered high-profile endorsements not only from Bill Gates, but also Queen Rania Al Abduallah of Jordan, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

And the winner, who will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) in Dubai in March, will receive $1 million.

Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance. Email

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