It is hard to keep pace with the educational whirlwind that continues to sweep Dubai, with new schools rising from the desert faster than sandstorms but here is an overview from an informed expat.
Dubai has grown very rapidly from a small town just a few years ago, with about 8 schools. Until quite recently, it took 20 minutes maximum to get anywhere; now you should be prepared for quite horrendous traffic. You could cheerfully be locked into a traffic jam for a couple of hours, possibly caused by some idiot changing his wheel in the fast lane or a 5 car pile up caused by some 12 year old driving Daddy’s Landcruiser too fast on the central reservation.
New suburbs are sprouting everywhere and the pace of road building can barely keep up, with roads that lead right out into the desert. Remember this when you hear about schools offering bus transportation, particularly for very small children. Sounds great, but imagine those sprogs being bussed around town in 120F sitting in bad traffic trying to get to Mirdif which, although now very hip with a large new road is more accessable than it was (ish), it's still "the other side of the creek" (this is a phrase you need to know!), meaning it's bloody miles.
And the bus will probably get stuck in a jam for up to nearly an hour at peak periods which is of course when schools are on the road. The bus drivers can be dreadful: one school was asked if they were trained; the response was that they had a hotline on board for anyone to complain about the driving. Who is going to call? One of the children?
All sounds a bit cringe-making at the moment. This is just one of the side effects of some schools cashing in on desperate parents. With so many business moving out here, and so many people moving with them, companies naturally want housing and schools for their employees' families. The older schools have waiting lists miles long, and competition for places is ferocious. So much demand for schools has presented opportunity, and for-profit businesses have wasted no time moving into place.
Schools are going up all over Dubai, some legitimate ones that will probably survive, and some a little dodgier that will undoubtedly go down almost as fast as they went up. In some cases, companies bringing out thousands of employees are worried that top people won't come if they can't find good schools for their children, so those companies - never before in the school building business- are starting schools themselves in desperation. Parents hope to find places in the best known, best established schools but get more and more frantic as places get harder to come by.
When word went out that Repton was opening, for awhile it was necessary to pick up leaflets from a secret hideout -because nobody wanted to tell anybody anything in case they lost a place themselves! Demand has created shortages not just in building materials but even in electricity. A new school going up can take up to a year to get power...definitely something to be aware of when parents are looking at slick websites showing bright pictures and optimistic starting dates for the new school year.
The costs of building new schools are astronomical (the newly constructed Repton, funded by private investors, reportedly cost $100 million to build, and construction continues). Materials must be imported, and the high demand from every corner just drives those prices up. But not just the physical plant is costly. Teachers are expensive to bring out, especially since the government requires that schools provide salary, accomodation and incentives...but accomodation is in short supply and high demand, too, so those costs are also constantly rising which consequently runs up the pay scale for teachers even further.
Since many of the new schools are owned by for-profit businesses, some (not all) of those schools are run more than ever as businesses, who both cut costs where they can and raise fees. There are government caps on fees, but there has been pressure lately to remove those caps so schools can raise fees without limits....some of the same schools whose cost cutting measures are resulting in what could be considered "low budget" in terms of the quality of education.
By Any Other Name....
As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to remember that no one has a copyright on words joined to sound like a familiar or reliable name (say with "American", "British", "Embassy" or "Saint" somewhere in there), nor does the law outside of the UK or US control the use of famous names (especially when they are the same as historic towns or generals).
Names of a number of well-known UK schools are tossed around in local gossip as "under contract", "in conversation", "connected to", but in fact very few are, to date. Dulwich was one of those names, but did not end up with a branch in Dubai after all. Repton is one of the few British schools that does indeed have a relationship with the Dubai school bearing its name.
This is not to say that all of the schools owned and run by for-profit companies are questionable or should not be considered. A number of good educational companies are considering opening schools in Dubai, and some already have. But as with any new school, no matter how well funded, planned and manned, it takes a bit of time for the dust to settle.
Teachers and heads come and go...for all kinds of reasons that may have nothing to do with the school or its management. It takes a while for things to sort themselves out... heads to make their mark, teachers to be found for every course, sports teams to be fielded etc. As the Good Schools Guide International hears reliable reports from parents (always our first point of contact) that things in one school or another are established enough for a fair picture, then we'll visit and review them.
Which are Best? And How Can You Get Your Child In?
Generally the oldest schools in Dubai still have best academic reputations, even though they look a little worn around the edges, in fact downright shabby. Most however, are not-for-profits, so have no responsibility to investors to squeeze out even more cash than needed for the staggering costs of building and running the schools properly. Because of their reputations for academic excellence and for not hiring on the cheap, these schools tend to attract the best teachers from the UK and USA. Other schools might indeed hire UK trained teachers, but offer lower pay so do not have their pick of the best.
The best known of these older, settled and very good schools include Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS), which is a primary school for students up to age 11 that teaches the British curriculum (GCSEs) and Dubai English Speaking School (DESS)- the oldest school in Dubai founded in 1963 by Sheikh Rashid. From those, secondary schools students tend to go to the American School of Dubai (also located in Jumeirah) that offers American high school curriculum and Advanced Placement courses, or Dubai College (British curriculum- GCSEs and A levels).
The Royal Schools are Latifa School for Girls and Rashid School for Boys; they have every facility and it is possible to get one's children in, but usually only if the parents are friends of the sheikhs and their minions.
If you're hoping your children will be able to live somwhat outside the bubble, and meet locals as well as fellow expats, fear not. The majority of the well heeled local families send their children to these private schools as they learn English and everybody has to attend Arabic classes anyway. . It is a great sign of superiority with the emirati kids that they speak English, and it is fascinating listening to them all chatting away - lapsing into the odd Arabic word that is more descriptive than what English can supply.
Start planning now!
Of course, all parents wish to get children into the school of their choice in the first round. But failing that, many parents go ahead and enrol him/her in what might not be their 2nd or even 3rd choice and then move ….unquestionably scary stuff for first time buyers. You just have to put them almost anywhere and get sorted over the next year… very unsettling for the children and expensive, too.
There are big waiting lists for all the good British curriculum schools and also deposits to be paid a year in advance to be put on the waiting lists. Most schools ask for a non-refundable deposit on registration (JESS being the one exception); all the others ask for at least dhs 600(gbp 90) just to put your name down and if you don't get a place, too bad.
Transfer time on the whole is end of June when places become available - but obviously children arrive and leave all the time. Various religious items on the calendar must be taken into account in the autumn, say when schools are starting before Ramadan begins - which means very short school hours, even more dangerous traffic and closures for Eid and other things Moslem.
Parents should plan to visit schools if possible, and sooner rather than later when they learn of a new posting here. Note: schools are closed on Friday and Saturdays but open on Sundays, so that might be a possible day for interviews.
Often, a school will close its lists to all new students, but will have spaces available if the parent works for a company that has "debentures" with them. This means loans to the school to hold spaces for students….essentially pre-payments for a certain number of permanent places for that company’s employee progeny, or "ownership" of seats (as opposed to other students who merely "rent" the seats).
The next snag is that schools in Dubai do not accept children under 4. So if you were looking for a way to start your 3 year old on the road to Oxford there will be a slight delay. But nurseries are very, very booked up with at least 2 year waiting lists, so you should put your infant's name down at birth (or before) to be guaranteed a place.
Most of the above information has been gleaned from any number of sources, many of whom were back in the UK when interviewed which meant they felt free to discuss the educational picture in Dubai. The concept of free speech, taken for granted in the West, has not been as enthusiastically embraced in some countries and is sometimes regarded as nothing more than a quaint foreign custom.
Therefore, when visiting or asking people about schools or their opinions, don't be put off if the answer is guarded, and the interviewee wary. Do remember that we are always listening for all new information that will update and round out this overview (as well as specific and reliable first hand information about schools), so welcome comments from visitors and expatriates who live in or relocate to Dubai.
On the whole, the educational provision is growing and appears to be thriving, in an atmosphere and town that is every bit as exciting and seat-of-the-pants as any movie about the American Old West. Dubai is dramatic, thrilling and innovative, attracting people with enormous amounts of talent and new ideas. The opportunities for teachers, parents and students to participate in the opening of an ancient yet brand new world are extraordinary.
Who could resist?