For most parents, the school options here in the UAE are nothing short of bamboozling. With a slew of price-brackets, curricula, locations, languages and facilities all jostling to attract our hard earned parental cash.
But what do parents do, when try as they might, they just can't find the 'right fit' for their kids?
There's a number of reasons it might not be working out, maybe you can't find a place, or you just can find the right curriculum. Possibly your child has special educational needs or is even gifted and talented? What if they're focusing on a career in sports or the arts?
Whatever the reason, you might be surprised to know, there are 'other' options out there. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com took a look at the more 'alternative' schooling choices available here in the UAE, meeting parents, educators and kids who are all learning, working and investing outside the 'conventional' classroom.
icademy is not something most parents have come across as they rarely advertise. However, with 700 students, they're 'hardly small potatoes.'
Based on the US Gold Standard and aligned with the Common Core, icademy's online curriculum also comes with 24/7 support.
The premise is simple. A teacher-led learning programme based on the internet. Parents simply purchase each year's course books, then the student logs-on to the online content. With built in tests, qualified worldwide 24 hour online mentors and numerous regular social opportunities, icademy offers a homeschooling system which neatly addresses all the traditional fears parents have of the home-schooling system.
For those who want a more conventional education the company also offers a 'learning centre' option, where children visit the Dubai Knowledge Village based learning programme daily to work through the course with the help of an in-house learning support leader.
Vice President-Business Development, Cody Claver says icademy is ideal for kids who are medically fragile, or involved in the arts, theatre or sport. It's also a viable option for kids with considerable special educational needs, those who are bilingual, and /or those who refuse to settle. It's also regularly used by kids still awaiting a place in a 'bricks and mortar' school and those not planning to stay long in the UAE.
Cody says, "three years ago...we were approached by a group of about 20 parents, who said, 'we literally do not have a school option for next year, can you do something for us?' We said of course... so we developed a model that's very structured. We dedicate a learning coach to a set number of students, generally 1-8, and so from that, those students also have their full modicum of teachers, so they're getting online teachers support, face to face support and then they're coming to the centre."
"So from those 20 students 3 years ago, we now have 75, we're maxed out! with no advertising, everything is completely word of mouth. And, from those 20 students, every single one is still here with us, three years later."
At the learning centre I meet eighteen year old Wian Englebracht. He tells me he was let down by the previous school he attended. Initially at a loss on how to finish his exams, his parents discovered icademy. "I've been here since September and I'm really enjoying it," he says. "It really suits me as I'm a very visual learner, although I didn't do very well before, I'm now expected to score in the 90s for two subjects and the 80s for the rest."
icademy is officially recognised by the KHDA and students can be registered with the authority when they join the programme.'' This then means icademy is able to issue transfer certificate if and when they leave," Cody says. He notes that although they are visited by the KHDA, "we remain a bit of an enigma to them. We're not a school, we don't get the rating, but they do come and 'inspect.'
icademy is based at Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai for more information visit: www.icademydubai.com.
Traditional Home Schooling in the UAE
South African mum and home-schooler Toni resembles nothing of the typical home-schooler I'm expecting. Having lived in the UAE for over 15 years, Toni is a both a qualified teacher and businesswoman who together with her husband, runs a successful education-based business.
She says her nine year old son, "just didn't have a good attitude to school." Having home-schooled, since September 2014, she says although it was a little daunting initially, they're both now beginning to both relax and enjoy the experience.
"Home schooling really isn't as hard as people think, she says, if you're a mum, I think it comes pretty naturally."
Initially she found it difficult to decide which curriculum would best suit both her and her son, but after much research, she finally decided on the oldest US home schooling 'system,' the Calvert curriculum. Toni admits it is fairly academic, but relies on the manuals to get her through.
"We have daily 'checkpoints' to make sure we are on track and games too, so we know where we're at."
She points out that while it does seem to take more hours than conventional school, this is only her personal experience as her son is, 'less inclined to learn'. For others though, she thinks the one-to-one attention of homeschooling makes it quick and efficient way to learn.
When I mention the 'socialisation issue' that detractors throw at those who choose to home-school, she laughs. "Of course he misses the positive social side of school, but for us these experiences were few and far between, as we had some bullying issues." Toni then points out that there isn't always so much time for socialisation at school, with only 20 minutes for break and around 40 for lunch.
Much of Toni and her son's interaction with other children comes courtesy of the Dubai and Northern Emirates Homeschooling Group. The online group organises weekly meet-ups visiting a whole host of venues and activities expressly for those who are learning from home. But, she adds, "parents can end up so worried about socialisation, that it's all they focus on." With the group, we can choose as much or as little as we feel like."
Toni maintains the Dubai and Northern Emirates Homeschooling Group has been very supportive, in fact, the only issue she's faced was not being able to join until she finalised a curriculum, saying she would have liked to have discussed it with fellow member before finally choosing hers.
Toni maintains that while her over-all experience of homeschooling has been positive, parents should be cautious before launching into it. "Its not something you just try for a year, and remember, most curricula are not designed for this part of the world, so science etc. can be tricky. "I've spent days looking for earthworms she laughs, something so simple in the US or South Africa, but try finding one here!
Dubai and Northern Emirates Home Schooling Group is available here.
For more in the Calvert home-schooling curriculum go here.
"People don't really know how to label us," laughs co-founder and manager Jasmine, "we keep getting put into the special educational needs bracket, but we're an alternative and inclusive learning centre for all children."
Widad Center is located on a quiet Jumeirah street, with very little giving away what lies behind the gates. Once inside though, things are pretty unique. Veggies grow in the garden, chickens roam and two large welcoming kitchens sit open, filled with evidence of a recent lunch.
"When we took this massive building we only had 13 kids, but we never had any doubt it wouldn't work, today one and a half years later, we're nearing capacity."
Widad is not a traditional education, you can feel it in the naturally coloured classrooms, there's no primary-coloured plastic here, just earthy tones and wooden furniture, "to encourage tranquility," says Jasmine.
Kids don't use lined notebooks either, instead their work is done in large sketch books that they're encouraged to doodle on and decorate with drawings throughout.
As I tour the school I find it increasingly bizarre, that although the center caters for many children with special educational needs, there doesn't seem to be a shadow teacher in sight, just calm kids, nature tables and the odd dream catcher.
Widad is unique in the UAE thanks to its welcoming inclusion policy. With students ranging from the neuro-typical (no special educational needs) to those with ADHD, Dyslexia, Sensory Processing Delays, ASD, PDD and Downs. Those with high functioning special educational needs receive numerous in-house group occupational and speech therapy sessions per week and benefit from being taught in classes with neuro-typical children with a ten to one student/teacher ratio.
Children who require more individualised care receive both a dedicated classroom with three students per teacher and four one-to-one therapies per week.
"Regardless of labels, our kids play together as a tribe," says Jasmine.
One mum tells me, "I chose Widad for my son because he's high functioning autistic. Until I found Widad the only options I had were special needs schools, which I refused. I really hoped for him to be in mainstream education. Here they've welcomed him with open arms and he's just so desperately happy. We've seen so much progress in terms of confidence, communication and safety. As a parent I'm just so happy. Widad is a life-saver for parents like me, those who know their kids are on the right track, but just need faith and a chance!"
The center follows the US Oak Meadow curriculum for home schooling. Work is sent to the US for grading as are the teachers' plans, although Jasmine emphasises that teachers are permitted and encouraged to add their own; thoughts, colour and creativity. The curriculum follows the principles of the Steiner method however, the philosophical side or 'Anthroposophy' has been removed. Developed in the 70s the curriculum is child-centred, adapts to an individual's needs and yet maintains strong academic rigor.
Teachers at Widad come from a wide variety of backgrounds and nationalities, many have Steiner experience or were brought up with the system, while others are conventional teachers looking for something more meaningful. For Jasmine and co-founder Nicole though, the priority is they understand the Widad teaching philosophy, while remaining collaborative and creative.
The facility currently has 62 students, with a capacity for 90. "We are very selective when parents apply," says Jasmine. "First we screen them via email and then we filter out those who we think are just curious or might not 'fit.' We've had some bad experiences in the past and we want to know we are getting the right people."
The center is considered low tech by today's standards, based around old-school blackboards and chalk, although discussion and interaction are encouraged. Assessments are done not via conventional testing but through discussion with the teacher on their understanding of the particular topic studied.
Currently the center caters for children aged five to grade seven, however, Jasmine is expanding an additional grade each school year.
At Widad the philosophy is creative not competitive and activities on offer include yoga, arts, woodwork and music. An important aspect of the centre are the numerous committees which everyone is expected to get involved in running. The committees manage the garden, recycling projects, charity work and animal care (only chickens for now, however, Jasmine tells me, plans are in progress for more).
For more information about Widad, go here.