At a glance
Firstly and most evidently, student numbers at GEMS Firstpoint School have grown significantly – from 340 to 850. The expectation is that this number will grow to approximately 1,400 students by 2016/17, especially now the school has permission to extend from FS1 to Year 12. The school has a much more lived-in feel a year on from our first visit, with plentiful work on display from students and a stronger sense of identity in place. This is reflected at the main reception area, where a list of desired attributes is a feature of one wall (underneath which sits a Happy Couch, covered in graffiti explanations of what makes the contributors happy). These attributes include – Innovative leader, Critical Thinker, Entrepreneur, Creative, Digital Learner, Team Player and Enterprising.
The other obvious major change is that the Performing Arts and Sports block is now complete. This houses a 500 seater Auditorium with full acoustic sound-proofing, a Black box theatre room, a recording studio, Mac Lab, 7 Music practice rooms and a music classroom for year 1 upwards. The GEMS Music Academy is based here and students can choose to learn a range of instruments during private lessons (for an additional fee). Instruments include Saxophone, Clarinet, Violin, Guitar, Drums and Piano (among others). The Sports facilities are equally impressive with a full size multi-sports hall which includes a climbing wall and an array of trampolines in addition to the usual equipment, a learner pool for FS2 to year 2 students and an outdoor 25m shaded pool for older students.
Another development has been in the Secondary school which is now open to year 9 and which will offer a mix IGCSE and GCSE for years 10 and 11 and A levels for years 12 and 13. In particular, the enterprise and technology programme which was a clear focus of the school at the outset, has been further developed with cross curricular links between Maths, Science and IT being built into the curriculum and a focus on programming for all students from year 1. The Enterprise classrooms have been further extended to include Graphics, Textiles, Electronics, Resistant Materials, Food Technology and a workshop with full time Woodwork and Science technicians.
The other less evident, but certainly more significant change, has been that of the Principal. This is now the former Head of Secondary of GEMS Wellington Academy Dubai Silicon Oasis. There is no doubt that his influence (and his visibility) is very evident around the school. One of his most important contributions has been to put in place a range of measures to engage with parents and with the community at large. Access to the Villa project via a walk way has now been opened, enabling students to cycle to school. A Parent Council has been set up which consists of 15 positions which have been filled by parents. 55 parents were put forward to fill these positions which were chosen via secret vote. Parents will have a direct say in policy decisions (such as operating hours) and will lead think tanks on a range of subjects. Student class reps will also be involved in these discussions. The engagement with parents is clearly working – in the most recent GEMS parent survey, GEMS Firstpoint averaged a score of 8.8/10 – the highest scoring school in the GEMS network.
There has been a clear effort to ensure that the education being delivered is also of the highest quality. The majority of staff are from the UK with a sprinkling of Canadian and US teachers. Arabic and Islamic staff are on full international salary packages. The make-up of student population means that there is a strong demand for particularly expert staff, with over 80 nationalities in the school. The UK population of 18% is the highest, with expat Arab and Emirati students making up 12% and over 50% of students being non-native English speakers. This is addressed in Primary school through dedicated Teaching assistants working with EAL students and by an intensive programme in Secondary. Additional after school programmes are offered free of charge.
The school also appointed an SEN coordinator early in 2015 who is responsible for coordinating the EAL and SEN programmes. Students requiring 1-1 support are assisted by a team of 13 Learning Support assistants currently. Approximately 200 students (of which something over 100 require EAL support) are being assisted by a dedicated team working in small groups or with class teachers. The school is not academically selective and does not entrance test children as such. Students are screened (via cognitive testing) to establish what support, if any, they may need, but the school aims to be fully inclusive provided that it has the resources.
The Principal’s aim is to ensure that all students make great progress, be they A* students, students with additional learning needs or those in the middle ground. He feels that it is the latter who are often overlooked in schools and wants to ensure that GEMS Firstpoint measures its success based on the added value that it provides to its students and not just the academic grades that they achieve.
There is no doubt that this is a large school and that numbers will continue to grow. The benefit of this is evident in the facilities and curriculum range that is offered. Some families may feel that it is simply too large for them, but certainly at the present time, GEMS Firstpoint is a school with clear focus, a sense of industry and ambitious goals which aims to become an integral part of the community and for families living in the area, it is definitely one to consider.
GEMs FirstPoint School Fast Facts
Current student body – 850
Max class size FS – 22, rest 27
Actual class sizes – FS 22, years 1-6 average 18-19, Secondary – 21
UK National Curriculum to year 9 currently
Will offer mix of I and GCSE and A levels
GEMs FirstPoint School, WSA First Review
GEMS FirstPoint School is located on a large site close to the Villa project between the Al Ain , New Emirates Road and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road, serving the newer communities in this area.
Considering its apparent distance from the traditional areas of Dubai, it may come as something of a surprise that it is surrounded by several other schools in the same Dubai Silicon Oasis, Nad Al Sheba communities such as Repton, GEMS Wellington Academy – Silicon Oasis, Kings Nad Al Sheba, Dubai English Speaking College and Dubai Modern Academy. In reality, this area is not more than a 30 minute drive from the traditional areas of Jumeirah and Umm Suqeim and an easy reach from the various communities located along Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road from Jumeirah Golf Estates in the south, to Mirdif in the north.
The proximity of a large number of other, mostly British curriculum, schools had accounted for the fact that the huge structure had been amongst the smallest GEMS schools in terms of student numbers on opening with 340 students last year. That has since changed quite dramatically. The school is now home to 840 pupils. This is a very sharp increase in one year, but in line with forecasts and plans - the school had told us that this would be the student population size for 2015/16.
There are currently 100 members of staff.
The grand first impression of the school from a distance is rather let down by the requirement to park on the sand outside the school perimeter, and the less than welcoming approach of the Security man at the gate. Although there is clearly visitor parking inside the school gates (and it is located away from the teaching areas), it is not open to visitors – not an issue in November when our visit took place, but definitely not much fun in the warmer months.
Once you reach the main entrance to the school and enter the Reception, you are greeted by a friendly receptionist in a light and airy environment which has a square, somewhat industrial feel. Children’s artwork is on display and there is a small cafeteria section overlooking the rear of the school. The building is L shaped currently with the Primary School on one side and the Secondary on the other.
A new building to the right of the current structure is almost complete and houses all the sports facilities, including a large six court indoor Sports Hall, a 500 seat Auditorium with Music and Practice Rooms and an Apple Mac room, Performing Arts rooms and 25m and learner Swimming pools. The building will have been completed by now.
There is also space at the back of the current buildings for another block which would eventually form a separate Sixth Form building. The existing buildings have a capacity of just over a 1,000 students; expansion would allow for this number to double – the school was originally planned for 4,000 students.
The Parent Relations Executive – Joanne – is also a parent with a daughter at the school. She explained to WSA that the school's students are currently in classes from FS1 to year 8 (now up to Year 9). As is usually the case, the younger students make up a significant proportion of the total.
Class sizes are not small for a school that charges a premium rate. FS1 and FS2 classes have 22 children with a teacher and teaching assistant, thereafter the numbers increase to 27 children with a teacher and teaching assistant for years 1 to 4 and then a shared TA thereafter in Primary.
The Foundation Stage classrooms are located on the ground floor of the first teaching block and all open out onto an outside terrace area. These terraces overlook the very large astroturf pitch and a shaded multi-sports area.
As is usual with newer GEMS schools, classrooms are light and open and well equipped. In addition to the outdoor space, there is also an indoor area which is used for Soft play, Music and Movement classes and also as a meeting area and central drop off point for parents. To the rear of the section is a large fenced outdoor play space with soft flooring and large play equipment including climbing frames and slides.
This area is shaded and clearly much enjoyed by the children. There will be 6 classes each of FS1 and FS2 and classrooms are organised around a free flow arrangement with tables of 4-5 children, each table being focussed on different core tasks led by the teacher, including Maths and Literacy elements. Each pair of classrooms has shared toilet facilities, so children do not have to leave the classroom. Currently, music is taught within the FS section but this will move to the new Sports and Performing Arts Centre when it opens in January. In addition, FS children also learn Spanish and French informally (it is timetabled but is part of the overall classroom activity) and Arabic and Islamic Studies are provided for Muslim students from FS1.
Year 1 to Year 5 are housed on the second floor of the building with 2 classes per year group currently from Year 1 to 3 and 1 year 4 class. Additional year 2 and 3 classes will open in January 2015. This part of the building houses 2 ICT suites and children are also provided with I-pads and laptops for technology-enabled teaching. The Primary Library is light, bright and colourful with stools and bean bags to make it a welcoming space where children can also do homework after school. There is also a separate canteen for Primary students serving hot and cold meals.
The Secondary section of GEMs FirstPoint, located on the opposite side of the central Reception area houses additional classrooms for year 6 upwards, together with a range of Science and Technology Laboratories, an enormous Secondary Library which opens in January 2015 and Secondary canteen. Unusually for schools in the UAE, FirstPoint also has a very large Design and Textiles Room and a Food Technology Lab which includes ten cookers, fridges and all the usual kitchen facilities. All students from Year 1 will have the opportunity to use sewing machines and to prepare food.
One of the major features of the school is its Enterprise culture and the Technology rooms play a major part in this, allowing students to establish their own “companies”, produce their own “goods” and market and sell these to fellow students, teachers and parents whilst raising funds for Charity and other purposes. Healthy competition is created through House competitions related to the success of the initiatives. The intention is that during the next school year, the participants in these Enterprise Days will sell their products to local companies and exchange experiences with them as part of the learning process.
Again, as with most UK curriculum schools in Dubai, the majority of the teaching staff are from the UK with one American and one Canadian staff member each and Jordanian teaching staff for Arabic and Islamic Studies. There is some provision for English Additional Language support within the classroom environment and Learning Support staff working with a limited number of students requiring additional support, but this area will be expanded with the set up of its Achievement Centre which will have a specialised SEN Coordinator from January. Teaching staff provide After School Activities for one hour per child per week. From January, a specialist external provider will add to the range of activities on a paid basis.
Facilities at the school are in general impressive, and worth noting. To be comprehensive, they include an: Art Studio, Auditorium/theatre, Black Box Rehearsal Room, Business and Enterprise Centre, Electronics Room, Food Technology Suite, Graphic Design Room, Large sports hall, Large multi-purpose sports pitch, Tennis/netball courts, 25m swimming pool, Learner pool, Music Technology Suite with recording studio, Primary and Senior Libraries, Primary and Senior Restaurants, Primary science lab, Separate sports and arts building and a Textile Studio.
We are told that the Principal fosters an Open Door policy and that the School’s aim is to be a Community School with a strong focus on building ties with families living in the immediate area. This is already happening to some extent with parents being able to use the school’s sports and recreational facilities twice weekly at present and this will be extended once the new Sports block is open. There is also a strong sense of identity within the school with all children wearing the school uniform, which includes back packs that can be seen in lockers around the school.
GEMS FirstPoint, in common with many other newer GEMS schools, shows all the signs of industry and organisation with cheerful students and enthusiastic staff. At the moment, the sheer size of the school versus the number of students makes it seem a little sterile, although every effort has been made to create a more vibrant impression in the Primary part of the school where there are larger student numbers. For the time being, those students at the school have access to very good facilities that are certainly not overcrowded. Particularly from year 1 upwards, low student to staff numbers that can only benefit them.
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