A far cry from the wildlife haven of the late 18th century, this oil-rich island is now home to a growing tourist and financial industry, bringing a wide expat cultural mix, in terms of ethnicities and religions. This, in turn, has brought international schools hurrying to jump onto the sandy bandwagon in Abu Dhabi.
Bingo! In 1958, the black gold was discovered and it was all change for the sleepy, ex-pearling town. Abu Dhabi became a magnet for the oil industry (the emirate owns 95 per cent of UAE oil production), is home to the Supreme Petroleum Council and is still the driving force of the UAE economy. All of which, brings executives flocking here from all over the world.
Abu Dhabi has grown into a shiny new city, expanding outwards and upwards (in particular) at a formidable pace, so there are constant new developments, enticing families, with brand-new housing, seaside living and (what interests us) access to international schools. The arts are also on the rise, spearheaded by the establishment of the Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster.
The government is strong on diversity, possibly because the population is made up of going on 90 per cent expats. There’s not just cash floating around this small island but also a plan to build multi-faith places of worship, including a synagogue and a Catholic cathedral. The sea is equally eclectic, as it contains the world’s largest pod of Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins as well as flamboyant super-yachts and, for their part, the international schools cover a wide variety of educational systems.
Whilst all the schools take children across the full age range from nursery to 18, parents tend to be looking for curricula that will allow them to move their offspring easily, when they exit for home or another country, as Abu Dhabi is seldom a lifetime choice. Therefore, it is probably best to consider the options from a curriculum point of view.
All schools are government inspected and rated every two years by the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) www.adek.gov.ae. To find out the latest ratings and reports for individual schools go to www.tamm.abudhabi and put in Irtiqaa Rating: Higher to Lower under the tab ‘Sort By’. These reports are lengthy and thorough but REMEMBER they are always looking at the school from an Arab angle, to ensure that Arab language and culture is sufficiently promoted. A nice additional touch is that they include the results of a very comprehensive parent survey.
Of the schools brought to our attention the following are rated outstanding by ADEK: Brighton College Abu Dhabi, British School Al Khubairat, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi and Raha International School. There are two French lycées, of which, the longer established Lycée Francais Louis Massignon is top-rated but the alternative, Lycée Francais Théodore Monod is only rated ‘acceptable’. We have not yet been able to establish why this is so, but suggest that if you are looking for a French education, you put the question directly to the school.
There are three GEMS schools in Abu Dhabi, GEMS American Academy, GEMS World Academy Abu Dhabi and GEMS Cambridge International School; the first two are rated ‘very good’ but the last of the three is one category lower. GEMS American Academy is also dually accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS) and the American agency New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). This distinction, also being held by Raha International School.
Four schools offer a full English curriculum: Belvedere British School, Brighton College Abu Dhabi, British School Al Khubairat and British International School Abu Dhabi as does Amity International School Abu Dhabi (but stopping at 16, after IGCSE). Repton School Abu Dhabi also teaches under the English system but adds in the opportunity to choose the IB Diploma.
If you are looking at an American school, or at least one with an American elementary curriculum, you have three options: Abu Dhabi International School which has the widest choice of final qualifications, offering A Levels, the US High School Diploma and Advanced Placement courses as well as the IB Diploma; American Community School Abu Dhabi and American International School Abu Dhabi offer the American and IB routes but not A Levels. The global education group, Nord Anglia, are also in the process of opening a school teaching an American curriculum, potentially opening soon.
Your final option is a Canadian school, Canadian International School Abu Dhabi which teaches the rigorous Alberta curriculum, culminating in the Alberta High School Diploma, very well regarded by global universities. It also has a higher percentage of North American students than some of the other schools, although the largest cohort is in the American Community School where around two thirds of the students are North American. If you hold a British passport, you are most likely to find a large percentage of compatriots at Brighton College or Cranleigh.
A few stalwarts have been here since the third quarter of the 20th century, so are easier to evaluate but the majority are relative newcomers, albeit, that several are offshoots of famous British educational heavyweights or are run by reputable businesses in the field. The ADEK and accreditation reports are definitely useful in coming to a decision but nothing beats digging out parents or ex-parents of any school that you are considering.
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 Abu Dhabi considered by expats'.