We spoke to some of the UAE's education experts to decipher the non-negotiables, and to take a closer look at the 'grey areas' that could still influence your decision.
Your child’s wellbeing is paramount, this is something the majority of parents can agree on. However, it is important to distinguish between a temporary issue or minor gripe, and something more substantial.
Mr Giles Pruett, Executive Principal at Arcadia School Dubai, explains:
“Being a parent of three, I can honestly state that my children are not happy all of the time. Who hasn't heard the 'Ms. so-and-so doesn't like me' or 'I hate subject x' once in their parenting life? These scenarios are often fleeting and are certainly not a justification to switch schools with immediate effect.
When it comes to a child's happiness, or unhappiness, the common advice I give to parents is the following; look at changes in behaviour over time. If you feel your child's behaviour, attitude or wellbeing is being impacted and deteriorating, don't overlook it, dig deeper. Schools have a responsibility to support you with this and should have experts in place who can give sound and relevant advice.
If a school refuses to support and appears not to have any mechanisms to listen and advise, then perhaps that could be the point where a change in school may have a positive impact.”
Parents will be hard pushed to find a school that never experiences cases of bullying, but this does not mean that bullying should be tolerated. A child that does not feel safe at school is unable to reach their potential and is more likely to experience a decline in mental health and wellbeing more broadly.
Dr Amy Bailey, Clinical Psychologist at Kids First Medical Centre explained:
“Children who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy.
There may also be a decline in their academic achievement and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school. Studies have shown that children who are bullied can still experience negative effects on their physical and mental health more than 40 years later.”
Mr John Bell, Principal at Bloom World Academy, added:
“Bullying is not simply an issue of the bully and the victim, it’s much broader, it’s about a school culture, about modelling behaviour. There has to be a standard and an expectation among students, staff and parents, that they look out for one another.”
Mr Pruett explained that there are key markers to look out for with regards to a school’s approach to preventing and resolving cases of bullying:
“A school should have a very comprehensive anti-bullying policy and their safeguarding procedures should be up-to-date, well represented and available to all stakeholders.
Students should be well-versed in explaining this process and how the school has available pastoral carers or counsellors to discuss any issues.
Every school should also have a DSL (Designated Safeguarding Lead) and Deputy, to manage safeguarding and aspects of wellbeing. Do make sure your child's school has this in place.”
Communication, or lack of it, is a common parent gripe when it comes to schools, but what kind of communication should be considered essential? Are you asking for too much from teachers or are your expectations reasonable?
Mr Ian Thurston, Principal at Dubai International Academy Al Barsha told us:
"Typically schools provide two types of communication: generic school information and student specific communication.
In terms of generic information, parents should expect information about school policies, processes and procedures at the start of the year, usually though an information meeting. Parents should also receive information about key dates and events in the school calendar at the start of the year, but also through timely reminders a couple of weeks in advance.
For student specific communication, parents should have access to what their child is learning, in case they want to support them; how their child is performing, in the context of both their own potential and age expectations; as well as how they are doing socially and emotionally and any barriers that may be preventing them from progressing appropriately.
Short reports, which may only detail a few numbers specifying attainment and effort, can be communicated approximately every 6-8 weeks whereas more detailed written reporting may only be once or twice a year."
Mr Pruett explained that it is vital that educators provide parents, and the students themselves, with sufficient understanding of their progress and focus areas for development:
“A key fundamental is accurate and transparent reporting, which is fit for purpose, measurable and allows parents and children to have a really strong understanding of how they are doing at school.”
Parents who are not given the opportunity to have a good understanding of their child’s progress at school are right to feel concerned. Parents also should not have to chase a school for this information, it should be regularly and routinely provided.
Mr Pruett went on to explain that communication with parents should also include information on what is being taught, and how:
“Accurate and representative curriculum and subsequent content is also vital, and if a school is not broadcasting how this is being achieved and engaging with their parent community over the process and implementation, this would also be regarded as a red flag.”
As children move into the secondary school years, and the world of university or work looms closer, they will need the right support in choosing a path and developing the experience and understanding needed to be strong candidates for their desired next steps.
Ms Siobhan Dickerson, Vice Principal at GEMS Winchester School Fujairah, explained:
“Careers counsellors and advisors need to be well-connected and well-informed. They should frequently be attending training sessions, meeting with university representatives, and staying abreast to any changes and developments in the required processes, to ensure they are giving their students the best possible start in the undergraduate world.”
Mr Pruett added:
“Counselling of careers and university placements should be fully represented within a school and there is a strong duty of care for them to provide this level of support to every child and also to consider alternative pathways for students who might not be suitable for certain choices or programme adaptations. University admission and application support is vital in this instance and schools must be taking time to nurture and build student confidence to be able to represent themselves in the very best light.”
If your child’s school is unable to provide this guidance and support, or does not have expertise in alternative pathways available, this will likely become a problem once your child enters their senior years at school.
Even if your child does not have recognised learning support needs, their school’s approach to inclusion should still be considered as key. It’s possible that your child may require support or flexibility further down the line. Regardless of this, children pick up on how other children’s differences are viewed and supported, shaping their view of individual differences as they move into adulthood.
A one-size-fits-all approach from schools can be highly problematic in terms of meeting not only the education needs of a child, but also the emotional needs.
Mr Pruett shared:
“Of great importance is the provision of specialist care for students of determination and cases of high-need intervention. Schools should have an 'inclusion champion' and governor of inclusion to ensure that the needs of every student are being met and the absence of these would certainly be a red flag.”