FS1 or Pre-K: What's the Difference?

Do children really start school at three-years-old in the UAE? What is Pre-K and when does FS1 start? What do all these acronyms mean anyway? If you're feeling confused, you've come to the right place.
FS1 or Pre-K: What's the Difference?
By Susan Roberts
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Do children really start school at three-years-old in the UAE? What is Pre-K and when does FS1 start? What do all these acronyms mean anyway? If you're feeling confused about Foundation Stage and Kindergarten, the UAE's many early years curricula and school year group age requirements, then you're not alone. 

The UAE has a large private education sector, with a huge number of options for families to choose from in terms of curricula, approach and environment, which can make the system a little daunting at first for parents. The good news is that it isn't as complicated as it all sounds.

For age requirements in UAE schools, read our guide.

Year Group (UK) Grade (IB/US/Int.) Age Requirement
FS1 Pre-KG 3 years old by August 31
FS2 KG1 4 years old by August 31
Year 1 KG2 5 years old by August 31

Foundation Stage 1 (FS1)

There are a significant number of "British" schools in the UAE, by which we mean schools that follow the National Curriculum of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within this education system is the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), a set of standards set by the UK's Department of Education for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five years old. In British schools in the UAE, this is applicable to children in FS1 (three to four year-olds) and FS2 (four to five year-olds). 

For families relocating from England, Wales or Northern Ireland, where the EYFS is standard, there may still be some confusion here. On home turf, FS1 is typically referred to as "nursery" and FS2 as "reception", however these terms can be considered synonymous. 

Children enjoy some hands-on creative learning experiences in FS1 at Arcadia School

Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K)

Pre-K or Pre-KG refers to the same age group (three to four year-olds) in the majority of non-British schools in the UAE. This includes schools following American, IB, Australian, Indian and UAE curricula. 

Unlike FS1, the term Pre-K or Pre-KG does not imply a particular approach or set of standards, and refers only to an age group, within a variety of education systems. 

Differences in Curricula 

The big question here, of course, is what are the differences from one curricula to another, for three and four year-olds? This can be somewhat challenging to assess, as even within the same set of standards, there may be vast differences in approach and expectations of children. 

In general terms, British schools are known to lean more towards 'academic' learning in this age group; they have a little more focus on working towards standard early learning goals, with systems such as  synthetic phonics programmes being utilised. However, many British schools do provide a very child-led and play-based early learning experience; styles of practice vary significantly from school to school. 

American schools tend to be at the other end of this spectrum, typically with a more relaxed pace and individual approach in this year group. It is important to remember that there is no standardised 'American curriculum' as such. American schools typically follow the US Common Core Standards but the interpretation of these can vary, particularly in Pre-K, with approaches such as Reggio Emilia and Montessori often referenced. 

International Baccalaureate (IB) schools do not have IB Pre-K standards to follow. In order to meet the requirements of local regulators, many schools choose to utilise the EYFS standards in this year group, while incorporating the IB's inquiry approach to learning within their practice. 

Essentially, parents may find the differences to be just as significant between schools of the same curriculum as between those following different curricula in this age group. 

Does My Child Need to Start School at Three Years-Old?

The short answer to this question is, quite simply, no. It is not compulsory for a three year-old to be enrolled in a school in the UAE. Compulsory education in the UAE begins at six years old (Year 2/Grade 1), and other options such as nurseries, foundation centres and early childhood centres, are available to children of this age also. 

To understand the early years education options available, read our guide. 

For many parents, the expertise offered in a school environment – in addition to the pressure of securing a place in a top school as early as possible – makes FS1/Pre-K in a school the preferred option. 

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