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Doha education and international schools guide

The prospect of educating children in Qatar has long been a legitimate cause for concern for expats, as some of the blogs and remarks on the internet about schools in the city might make you question putting your treasured one through this system. However, take these postings with a grain of salt (and maybe an aspirin or two) and know that there are some good international schools in Doha and the family can stay together! 

Unfortunately, having decided to pass ‘Go’ there’s still the prospect, or reality, of trying to get your child into one of the “good” schools. This may cause even the calmest mums to go into convulsions or a catatonic state – stay cool, it can be done, but it will take patience and perseverance!

The Qatari Educational System

The Royal family have put a high priority on improving the Qatari education system and providing quality schools and educational opportunities for all residents of Qatar – both nationals and non-nationals.  

Qatar provides free education for all citizens, kindergarten through high school and has poured a staggering number of financial resources into the educational system to adequately prepare Qataris and, thus, Qatar for the future. The most obvious monument to the education advancement effort is Education City, an enclave of academia, home to Qatar Academy, a private primary and secondary school and branches of many US universities: Carnegie Mellon, Cornell Weill Medical, Georgetown, Texas A & M, and Northwestern. 

Sprinkled throughout the state are a number of other newer, private schools established as part of the Qatar Foundation’s Outstanding Schools Initiative. Under this program, Qatar has brought in and opened up “franchises” or satellite campuses of well-regarded UK, US and other international, primary and secondary schools such as Sherborne Qatar, Royal Grammar School Guildford in Qatar and the American School of Doha, amongst others.

Two agencies oversee schools in Qatar, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Supreme Education Council (SEC).  The MOE is in charge of the public schools in Qatar. The ultimate governing authority for education policy in Qatar rests with the SEC. Their purview includes all public, independent and private schools and universities. Many of the new SEC Outstanding Schools Initiative schools are required to teach Arabic and Islamic studies to Arab students, so they tend to be gaining popularity with locals as well as Arab expat families.   

The number of private schools has grown exponentially, along with the population. There are schools established for almost every nationality: American, British Canadian (Blyth Academy), French, German, Indian, Filipino, and Lebanese. Although Qatar has made vast improvements to their own independent and public schools, they offer a strict Muslim curriculum, so most expats (as well as an increasing number of Qatar nationals) choose to educate their children in one of the many private schools. 

At one time, new schools kept popping up like weeds, making it difficult to keep track of all of them and, unfortunately, some opened more for a business opportunity for the owners, rather than to offer a solid educational environment for expat and local children. However, the invasion slowed at the end of the noughties and there are far fewer new international schools these days although there are some exceptions Royal Grammar Guildford and King's College Doha (an offshoot of the Taunton, UK school), both founded in 2016 and Hamilton International School, opened in 2019. Nord Anglia (the large and fast-developing international group) have taken over Compass International School and have also opened the Nord Anglia International School Al Khor.

The length of survival of a school does not always determine the quality of education (although it can be a help) but there are some schools in Qatar that maintain an excellent reputation year after year and there are some that remain a bad option.

There is a definite, recognized hierarchy of private school reputations, so ask around as much as possible as you will tend to hear the same names mentioned over and over in both the good/top tier and bad categories. It is fairly obvious which schools are the top tier; which ones are a good second choice until you can get your child into one of the top tier schools; and finally, those schools that you should not entrust your child to, no matter how desperate you are.

Gaining Admission

Demand for slots at the good schools far surpasses the supply, so persistence is key. Schools are inundated with perspective callers, so do not be put off by a less than encouraging initial response. Openings do become available since the expat community is more transient here than in many other locations, with families coming and going quite frequently. Get on the lists and be the “squeaky wheel” that keeps calling.

Be prepared for occasional curt, borderline rude, office staff at some of the schools. If they seem smug or dismissive, they may be having a bad day or it may be because they know they have the upper hand and can get away with it, as there’s no problem in recruiting the top students. There is no need for slick marketing materials or public relations (or even civility it may seem). 

Everyone knows which schools are the best and most everyone wants their kids in them – it is that simple. And yes, if you do get a slot at a one of the better schools, expect to pay a premium. Tuition is absurdly expensive at the “good” schools, particularly if your employer does not pay the fees.

Special Education Needs

Few, if any, schools can. or will, accommodate moderate to severe learning disabilities but Qatar Academy does have a separate special needs school; Awsaj Academy.  Some schools have learning assistance specialists but they tend to be for mild problems. You'll need to speak to the school directly to see if and how they can assist you and, beware, you may be required to pay for assistance in addition to the tuition and fees. The Learning Center, is a centralised team which has been set up to support teachers in the various schools to handle the problems arising from students with special needs or learning disabilities.

Curricula

The American (primary, middle school, USHSD, AP), International  Baccalaureate and English curricula are the main ones on offer. Be aware that many of the British schools are felt to offer a somewhat watered down version of the UK curriculum.  Some will have only minor adaptations, while others may be barely recognizable. Amongst the private ‘international’ schools, several claim to teach the National Curriculum for England, but beware; that doesn't mean much if the teachers are not trained in the curriculum. The International School of Choueifat Doha is one of the network of schools teaching the SABIS system, originally developed in Lebanon.

You also need to consider the number or percentage of native English speaking students v. non-native English speakers. Even if you like the curriculum, if the teachers are teaching to the non-native speakers, it may bog the progress of the class down.

Accreditation

Reports from external accreditors is one way of finding your way through the fog and the following have all been inspected by outside agencies: Doha British School, Doha College, Doha English Speaking SchoolPark House English School, Qatar International School, Royal Grammar, Guildford and Sherborne Qatar are all inspected on behalf of British Schools Overseas (BSO). In addition Doha British School, Doha College, Qatar Academy and Qatar International School are accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS). ACS Doha International School, the American School of Doha, SEK International School, English Modern School and International School of Doha are all externally accredited by independent US agencies

For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Doha considered by expats'.

Facilities

School campuses, like much of Doha, can be a bit of shock - particularly the gated/high walls. Do not expect acres of lush, green foliage. Many schools have little to no grass play areas and no playing fields – partly due to the limited size of the campuses and also to the temperatures that make it difficult (and expensive) to maintain grass and are, anyway, too hot to use for much of the year.

School year

Start and end dates change regularly, as determined by the SEC. All depends on the timing of Ramadan.  Most schools will follow the Muslim holidays as well as many of the school’s home nationality.

Transitions 

If you are coming from a British curriculum school, you may find the Qatar “British” schools offer a watered down version of the National Curriculum for England, so it can be easier to transfer in than out. International schools may also offer elements of the IB curriculum (increasingly on offer globally). School days tend to be shorter and many of the new schools are required to teach Arabic – a ruling handed down by the Supreme Education Council – so the actual time spent on the basic curriculum can suffer.

Transportation/traffic

Traffic is horrendous: a 10 minute trip one day may take two or three times that on other days and you may want to factor the terrible traffic into your school as well as housing choice. Many activities occur at schools ( for instance; at American School of Doha, Doha College and DESS) – so allow for widely varying journey times if doing different pick-up schedules. 

Schools are spread out throughout the city as are the residential compounds, but most schools do offer buses. Drop off and pick up can get quite scary as there are no safety patrols.  Although schools may have a security guard, many Qatar drivers (parents included) ignore basic school zone safety logic and things like speed bumps.  When there are multiple schools clustered nearby and start and end time coincide – beware!

And finally…

A long list of international schools for a city of this size but you need to keep a beady eye, from the moment you’re posted, to make sure you grab a place at one of the best contenders and one where your child won’t be swamped by local students.

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