On the face of it, the expat posted to Kuwait is spoilt for choice. There are more than 40 foreign schools in Kuwait , if you count all the Indian, Pakistani, Iranian etc. There are then about half a dozen others with smattering of expat children throughout the school. For some, it is a deliberate attempt to teach the children Arabic which rarely works as the children will automatically speak English to foreigners and Arabic to Arabs.
The government sector is restricted to Kuwaiti children, so all expatriates who wish to have their children schooled here must choose from the private sector. There are several British and American schools, and most of them are owned by individuals or families who aim to achieve high results and have to their pupils gain entry to well respected colleges and universities. Results are mixed, but some of the British schools are on a par with the private sector in the UK, and the schools in the American system do consistently send children on to some of the top colleges in USA. The downside of these schools is that because most are businesses, class sizes can be very large.
Regardless of so many apparent options, in reality, the main expat schools are the ones discussed below. Within the British sector there are five schools which attract the bulk of the Western expatriate children: British School of Kuwait, English School Fahaheel, Kuwait English School, New English School and The English School. The first four of these take children from Kg or pre-Kg to A levels, whilst the fifth is modelled on a British preparatory school and finishes at year 8. All of these schools have a long history, with some dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, and they follow the UK National Curriculum. The greatest proportion of local Kuwaiti pupils heading to overseas universities go to the USA, many on full scholarships from the Kuwait government. Students can gain entry to US universities with either GCSEs or A/S levels*. As a result, in some of the English schools there are very small numbers of pupils taking A levels and the choice of subjects can be narrow.
There are three schools using the American curriculum, where most Americans send their children: American International School, American School of Kuwait and the Universal American School. They take children from nursery to grade 12, and offer a US college preparatory curriculum. All of them are fully accredited. American International School is the only school in Kuwait to offer the IB programme.
There is also a French Lycee, which offers the French baccalaureate, plus a number of other schools serving the many nationalities in Kuwait. There are private bilingual schools but unless the children are very young, it is difficult for children who do not have an Arabic-speaking parent at home to help with catching up. School work is done in Classical Arabic, which is not a spoken language and differs from the Kuwaiti, Egyptian and other dialects heard in the streets.
All schools have to comply with Ministry of Education regulations. Before any pupil can be admitted to a school, the School Health Section of the Ministry requires evidence of a BCG vaccination and a general health examination. This is done by visiting a government health clinic in the area in which you live or are about to live. The clinic will require vaccination booklets, passport photos, the child’s birth certificate and a photocopy, the father’s Civil ID and photocopy and proof of the child’s blood group. Sometimes the clinic will just check the child’s health and vaccination book and issue the health card without too much fuss. Schools are obliged to keep detailed files on each child, so further passport photos are required along with copies of birth certificate, passport, visa and a report from the previous school.
It is also a Ministry requirement that all children study Arabic from a certain age. Children are split into either Arabic for Arabs, or Arabic for Foreigners. Those of the Muslim faith have compulsory Islamic Studies lessons. No other religious studies are permitted in any of the schools.
Another thing to be aware of is that the Ministry of Education here has required all the English schools to undergo an OFSTED-type inspection. The Ministry heard about OFSTED when visiting The English School, which had voluntarily undergone an inspection in order to see where to go next. It is important to note that the only schools abroad inspected by OFSTED are the schools run by the Ministry of Defence. If a school says it has been inspected by OFSTED, it is possible that a person who is or has been a contract inspector for OFSTED has been paid to come out. Most schools do not give access to these reports as they say that they are for the Ministry not the parents; parents should ask the schools directly if this is of interest. Because the reports are not official OFSTED reports, there is no guarantee that the report you are reading is complete, or even the one written by the inspector.
The schools are familiar with all the usual worries about children settling in or catching up and generally make this a smooth transition. There is a good selection of schools, and if your child is of above average ability, he or she will certainly do well here. The top sets in most of the schools are very competitive, and in some schools this competition is so strong that even the very brightest pupils take extra private tuition. These children achieve good grades. The average-ability children also do well, but parents should ask to see the classes during term time to discover class size and the level at which work is pitched in the schools of their choice.
Regarding exam results, view school reports on these with a jaundiced eye. All may not be as it seems. As one head comments, “It is very difficult to make comparisons between schools because some schools hide poor candidates or call them 'private entries' which distort the tables.” It is not uncommon for schools to enter weak students as 'independent' candidates with only the strong entered as school candidates - hence the fantastic percentages on results for Kuwait secondary English schools with such a high ESL population. With the exception of the Asian/Egyptian nationals, those percentages are most unlikely for the Kuwaitis and Brits. It is commonly viewed by the teaching fraternity here that the 'raw' i.e. correct percentages are rather lower than those quoted – but there is no way of verifying this or calculating the real scores. Only a few schools are strictly honest on this. It is something parents should absolutely ask about in all cases, and if necessary, get an agreement in writing in advance that their children will be able to take certain exams no matter what, whether or not school thinks they are up to it. [NB: GSGI link: Interpreting public exam scores]
For the child with mild to moderate learning difficulties, the options are not so easy. Special Education Needs are not a high priority yet in most schools, and many teachers have little or no recent exposure to thinking on multi-sensory teaching methods, or experience of how to handle children with behavioural issues related to learning difficulties. Parents of native English speaking children report that, in some schools, “priority for SEN assistance seems to be given to ESL children first”. Things are changing, but there is still a long way to go.
Some children have extra assistance from dyslexia specialists and others who work independently or come into schools part time. Most of the schools state that they have learning support and are sympathetic, but parents will need to check out how well their child’s needs will be met. Many determined parents look for people out in the community who happen to have SEN qualifications and then have them work with children after school hours, which can be tough on an already tired child who has had a hard enough time in school. It is worth noting that in Kuwait as with other countries outside UK, children take IGCSEs which are similar to the older style O levels which are based purely on exam results. There is no project work, which could take some of the pressure off children who do not perform well in exam conditions.
Outside of the mainstream in Kuwait, there are schools for children with learning difficulties. The leader in this field is Fawzia Sultan Learning Institute, which is a non-profit organisation for children with special needs. The school caters for children with average to high IQs with specific learning disabilities. The curriculum is based on the American one and is run by highly qualified overseas staff. It also offers assessment and consultation services for those enrolled in other schools.
Teachers who enjoy the lifestyle in Kuwait often stay many years, so it is not unusual to find teachers who have been in a school for ten years or more. Some teachers come for three or more years and move on to see another country, and still others come as spouses. However, in even the best of the schools, there is always a regular turnover of staff.
All schools have fleets of buses which cover a wide area of the city. The traffic around schools can be dreadful, so many parents opt for the buses. Most of the Kuwaiti children are ferried to school by a maid and driver, and some of the schools operate a system whereby the cars draw up outside the school, and school maids take the children out of the car and into the school. With a few exceptions, the schools do not encourage parents to come inside unless they have an appointment or strong reason. Car pooling does exist, but is not very common.
The atmosphere in the schools is described by children as friendly. Some of the larger schools with small premises can be intimidating as there is little room to move in the playground and it is difficult at first to break into a circle. However, children do seem to settle in within a term or two and become very loyal to their school. In the more spacious schools it is a little easier, with separate areas for different age groups. Kuwaitis and other Arab nationals in foreign schools have chosen these schools because they hope that their children will learn English and perhaps go to college in America, or university in Europe or Australia.
The different nationalities mix well in the playground, though children report that it can be hard to find friends prepared to get together regularly outside of school unless they are fellow expatriates. This varies from class to class and there are conflicting views on this. In almost all of the schools, the western expatriate child will be very much in the minority with perhaps only a handful of other American or British children in his or her class.
Children do adapt, but parents may find their children working hardest to find friends elsewhere outside school, with a very limited social group as those non-school friends are going to be closer to their own school mates, or away at boarding school. The other issue is that Kuwaiti teenagers have a very different idea of how to enjoy themselves; in the case of the boys, their concept of girls is not one you would want your sons to develop. Because older Kuwaiti teenage girls are more protected, and because the Western concept of friendship between boys and girls does not exist, perfectly innocent and pleasant overtures from a Western girl can be misinterpreted.
All the schools work hard to develop their sports teams and to provide extracurricular activities. In particular, there are some excellent school bands. Children may have the opportunity to travel around the Gulf region with school sports teams. Most schools also organise field trips both inside Kuwait and abroad. Space is in short supply in some of the larger schools, which utilise fenced, shaded roof areas for playgrounds and certain sports – not unlike many urban, land-locked schools in the UK and US.
Parents express concern, possibly because it may seem hot and claustrophobic to them when temperatures climb to 48C, but it is really no hotter there than on the ground, and the children themselves rarely complain about this arrangement. To deal with congestion inside, the corridors in some of the schools have a strictly enforced one way system which ensures that large numbers of children can move around crowded spaces quickly and safely. It soon becomes second nature to new arrivals, because they rapidly learn that if anything is left behind, they have to go a long way round to retrieve it.
There is a good selection of nursery schools to choose from in Kuwait. Current favourites amongst expatriates include Gulf Montessori which is accredited by the Montessori Centre International, the nursery at Kuwait English School, Playdays, and the nursery at The English School. There is a very active British Ladies Mother and Toddler Group which meets often at the Hilton Resort and other locations, and the Jack and Jill Mother and Toddler Group which meets twice weekly at The English School.
A parent who is happy with the education available in Kuwait describes what is on offer for the British family as ‘similar to a good UK state school which lacks space and facilities, but delivers what our children need to get IGCSEs and A levels, only we have to pay for it’. Parents in the American system in the main are initially less complimentary about how the schools fare compared to ‘back home’, but generally after a term or two seem to be happy and settled. Everyone agrees that the multicultural experience in the schools and the opportunity to live in the Middle East broaden the perspective in a very positive way.
*GCSEs are regarded as the equivalent of a US High School diploma, but A-levels are usually necessary at more competitive schools (ie Ivy Leagues etc.). While the majority of US colleges and universities do not necessarily require them unless they note otherwise, most schools still like to see them done, and will normally ask why a student did not do them. Before US admissions officials knew the British system so well, they often just figured students had opted not to do their A-levels. Now that the British system is widely understood in the US, it is usually viewed unfavourably for students NOT to complete their A-levels. Additionally, A-levels can count for university credit: usually one A-level can equal 3 undergrad credits. Students need to enquire about this when they are in the application process.