International schools in Dubai have flourished like palms in an oasis but there is a mirage or two to see past before you make your choice.
Without exception the earlyschools were for Infants and Juniors, largely based on the British model of the day, ie not-for-profit, overseen by an unpaid board of governors selected from the great and the good, and-- at the risk of stating the obvious --the one and only purpose was the education of children. When children reached Senior level, they were sent back home to boarding schools.
Not so very long after the establishment of these Junior schools, the opportunity and need for Senior Schools became obvious. And that's when the private education system in Dubai began to gain traction, partly because there were no state schools for ex-pats and partly because ex-pats were growing less enthusiastic about sending their children home to boarding school.
There is still no state provision for UAE residents, although there is for ‘locals’. It is relevant to point out here that although ex-pats (or their employers) must pay for education in UAE, the education on offer is not of the standard that would be expected of fee-paying schools in, say, the UK or elsewhere. We mention this merely as a nod to expectation management as the fees here might at least equal, and even surpass, school fees at home.
Flatly put, there is no school in Dubai that comes close to any UK public school; they are, on the whole, the equivalent of (UK) state schools – ranging from decidedly average to very good - and, in fairness, do not pretend to be otherwise.
Not Necessarily What It Says on the Tin
As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to remember that no one has a copyright on words employed 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).
The Wellingtons, the Winchesters and the Kings have no connection with their UK public school namesakes. The exception is Repton School, Dubai which does appear to have maintained links with its Derbyshire cousin.
The last ten years have witnessed a burgeoning of schools as the education-for-profit brigade pitch their various tents in Dubai – and the Gulf region generally – with their commercial eyes keenly focused.
The school-build momentum was abruptly halted as the world entered financial meltdown in 2008, resulting in plans for new schools being pulled, completion of some scaled down and standards for existing schools lowered.
From this brief potted history, and anecdotal evidence, and experience, it would not be too simplistic to say that the older the school, the better its results and reputation. If there are examples that test this assertion, we’ve not found them.
To Begin at the Top
Jumeirah English Speaking School (Jumeirah campus) is still the Junior School of choice, as, equally, are Jebel Ali Primary and Dubai English Speaking School. All three schools have somewhat tired, if not actually shabby, facilities in comparison with the new-kids-on-the-block but they do what it “says on the can” – they educate children.
Dubai College (DC) was one of the first Senior Schools to be set up to accept intake from these Junior Schools – again, not-for-profit and a culture clearly focused on education. DC has maintained its reputation throughout by adhering to challenging entrance selection, focusing on the ‘end product’ and employing solid teaching staff. Apparently (although there's no certainty about this), it is over-subscribed.
There is the additional hurdle – or otherwise depending upon your position - of debentures. Some companies have secured priority for their employees’ children by, to all intents and purposes, buying a tranche of places (NB debentures are 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).
It is those children, therefore, who will be granted places ahead of the rest subject to passing the entrance examination that all aspiring pupils must sit. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this system and it does allow for the schools to run with a semblance of stable cashflow, and companies to know the people they relocate to Dubai will be able to come because their children will get into good schools. But it does make the probability of getting a place, if you have no debenture connection, even lower.
A degree of caution is advisable when touring any school to ensure that the standard of education promised at least equates to, or is acceptable for, the level of fees. The challenge is to assess a new school where there is no track record to study.
If the school is for-profit – and the majority of the new schools are/will be - then obviously a percentage of the fee income is earmarked for the profit and often there’s a charge for every book, trip, meal and bus journey. So everything has a premium which, in itself, is not necessarily a negative as some of the existing for-profit schools are so far offering a good service.
The percentage split between investment into the school versus profit taken cannot be assessed, however, as there is no transparency in or publication of accounts (as is the case in most schools anywhere, only if the school is accredited or inspected by a legitimate agency or organisation can you be assured of arms-length inspection of the books and any fiscal or governance transparency. To find out how to spot the legitimate and the dodgy amongst inspection agencies, click here.).
Schools-as-business can also mean that the people ultimately in charge of the enterprise might be businessmen rather than the head teacher or a board of governors that includes a few representative parents.
Not all schools operate as illustrated above in totality but most schools have staffing challenges to a greater or lesser extent. It is, of course, largely in the hands of the teachers and the head whether a school ‘works’ or not.
Who's in Charge?
The authority in charge of schools, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) carries out annual school inspections and holds the power to sanction or deny any fee increase. Certainly the rate of fee increase has slowed over recent years – the latest unofficial figures show a 6% overall increase for the last twelve months.
Percentage increases are based upon performance which, in turn, is based upon KHDA inspection results. Whilst the reports are a source of information that should not be overlooked, they are a largely statistical (ie tick-box) paper. If, for example, it is your overwhelming objective for your child be ‘happy’ at school, then these reports will give little guidance, having the soul of a painting-by-numbers exercise.
Fruit from the Parent Grapevine
Newer Dubai schools seem to follow a policy, to some extent, of form over function. The more established schools operate perfectly acceptably and successfully with few, if any, bells and whistles. They function. But it seems some schools, or at least their owners, are embracing the culture of indulgence that is so ubiquitous in Dubai.
Does a school need, for instance, a skating rink, or stables, or a music/recording studio? Perhaps not. Especially when it has yet to provide individual study stations for the senior students taking external exams or subject depth for examinees, or to compile a serious sport curriculum (instead of it just being something that is ‘fitted in’).
In truth a couple of those examples of luxury have yet to become reality (although there’s been no reduction in fees): broken promises abound from planning to execution to performance.
The body of teachers in Dubai – as in many international schools - is fluid with most staff on a three-year renewable contract. So expect more than a few teachers to leave at the end of each academic year.
The world economic downturn resulted in many contracts being re-written/packages reduced in an attempt to support profits. Reaction to the remuneration reductions varied from understanding to disenchantment. A couple of schools have never altogether recovered; staff are referred to as ‘back-packers’ with one school nicknamed ‘the departure lounge’.
But such extreme reaction is unusual. When visiting a school, it is always worth finding out the rate of attrition of staff and asking how long the longest serving member of staff has been in when place.
Arabic teaching is compulsory at all schools but is unfortunately taught and studied with little commitment from either teachers or students. However, the majority of lessons in state (i.e. local) schools are taught in English. There is Emirati representation amongst students in many, if not all, non-state/fee paying/ex-pat schools as fluency in English is highly prized, as is a western curriculum.
Thus if if it’s your aim that your children experience Emirati culture/lifestyle by mixing with the locals, relying on a school to offer either in any meaningful way maybe wide of the mark.
Whilst the UAE’s leadership espouse education for all and support its development, this enthusiasm will take time to filter down to the grassroots; therefore the published number of locals (in)attendance at a particular school may not be a meaningful statistic.
There is currently only one school offering boarding facilities in Dubai for both boys and girls, and the girls boarding house is off school campus to comply with current laws.
Logistics: Transportation, Lunch and School days
All schools provide bus transport, but it tends to be one of the major causes of discontent amongst the parents -- usually because of cost, timetable inflexibility and because the standard of driving might give cause for concern.
Some schools provide lunch but by far the majority of students take packed lunches…. to such an extent that there are a couple of companies in operation that provide packed lunches for a fee, delivered to the school daily.
As is true anywhere, school hours vary according to grade, but are largely the same from school to school. Because of the climate, lessons generally begin earlier than in Europe or the USA and finish approximately mid-afternoon.
The number of days of education per school year, which all schools must offer, is laid down by the KHDA – the Muslim calendar is adhered to for days off for religious celebrations, and national vacations are part of the academic calendar.
Start Planning Now!
With potentially nightmarish waiting lists in mind, parents should start planning sooner rather than later when they learn of a new posting here, and should plan to visit schools in person if at all possible.
Note: schools are closed on Friday and Saturdays but open on Sundays, so that might be a possible day for interviews.
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.
One 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?