How to Find and Choose a Dubai School

Want to get into a good school in Dubai, and the wider UAE in general. If so, this guide will help you think scientifically and methodologically about how to go about it.
How to Find and Choose a Dubai School
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In the WSA School Survey we ask parents across the UAE whether they think education provision (i.e. getting a place at a school they believe is right for their child) is improving, worsening or staying the same. It's a question designed to get the perception of parents as to what is happening in the UAE.

On the other side of the coin, is what actually is happening in raw statistical terms. You would hope the two would reflect each other, and they do to a large part, although how much so is muddied in that the answer to whether there is school availability is not a binary yes or no. 

In fascinating stats released by the KHDA, Dubai's education regulator, we now have numbers for both growth in student numbers, and actual school availability in percentage terms. The good news: Despite the ever growing number of students, there are empty seats in schools in Dubai - for every 10 places a school has the capacity for, more than one is currently going begging. Dubai schools have, on average, a current availability of almost 11%.

Put another way, there are some 26,000 spaces available to parents in the UAE currently not being utilised...

Note: Since the time of first writing this article, this number of available places will have risen even further, driven by new schools, and pressure on demographics. The principles of the article still very much apply, but for a "switcher", or a new family in Dubai, the good news is that today it is very much a buyer's market...

So how do you get school place?

That, today, there are today many more school places than ever before may not ring true of course to the parent who has just spent a day on the phone seeking a place for their child. It is more than statistically possible that school after school will not have a single one of those 26,000 places. Why? Simply because availability is not evenly spread, and parents are likely to have been calling all of the same schools as each other...

Affecting that spread is the following:

1. KHDA Ranking - a school is not necessarily popular because it is ranked Outstanding, it is popular because it is outstanding. (That said the KHDA badge is unlikely to harm a school's popularity.)
2. Age of School - this affects the perception, and knowledge of a school. A well established school will simply have more channels funneling students towards it, with word of mouth probably being the most important.
3. Curriculum of school - this is a balance of supply and demand for that curriculum
4. Age group - at the brunt of demand are early years education. Schools have time to gear up to the growth at the front end of the education cycle.
5. Price of school - is is too simplistic to say the cheaper the school the more popular it will be. Price plays a role, but will be a secondary not defining element of a Which School equation.

KHDA Ranking

It is a total non-surprise that the higher the performing a school, the less likely it will be to have availability.

Outstanding: 3.7%
Good: 9.1%
Acceptable: 10.5%
Unsatisfactory: 15%

At first glance, this does not help much. As a parent you are unlikely to want to target a school deemed Unsatisfactory just because it is likely to have more places.

It is however helpful in understanding where to invest your time. A Dubai College (DC) cannot be your sole focus, and your only bet, simply because your chances of getting into the school are statistically eye of the needle. What does make more sense is targeting a Good school, with the potential to become an Outstanding school.

Parents who sent their children to Horizon school when it was a Good school, which then made the KHDA's Outstanding list, will no doubt be patting themselves on the back for a choice well made. (The school has since slipped to a still very credible Very Good).

This does not mean giving up on a JESS and DC. Both schools are more likely to have availability than at any other time before given the increasing competition between schools. However it does mean statistically there is a higher probability of disappointment if this is all you will accept.

Note, while competition is making entry into top tier UK/IB based schools 'easier', getting into a high performing Indian (CBSE, ICSE) school will be as hard as ever. That said new Indian schools are now also coming online...

Age of school

So, you're wisely expanding the range of schools to Good, Very Good and Outstanding. This is still not going to be easy. However statistically, you will be giving yourself more chance if you target newer schools.

Established schools have 8% availability while the similar rate for those schools that have opened over the past six years is 22%.

What's more - and great news - is that schools that have recently opened and been given a Good quality rating by the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau also have a relatively high availability (21% of capacity is available).

Note: schools too new to have a KHDA ranking have a 45% availability...

As human beings we all go for the obvious - partly because research is painful, but also because, understandably, we only want the very best for our children. However, as a parent with a very specific need of getting your child into a good school, you have to research the non-obvious. The good news is that there are an increasing number of Good schools in the UAE, and even better news, the number is growing exponentially year on year. Some 30 schools opened in Dubai in the last academic year.

So, WSA top tip #2 to getting a place in a great school: To help avoid frustration, don't follow the herd - start your research by investigating recently opened schools (in the last 5-6 years) less likely to have been passed onto you by word of mouth, that are nevertheless doing very well indeed...

Curriculum of school

You are more likely to be constrained here by the knowledge you may be heading home one day and your child will need to reenter the school system of their home country, but one of the most interesting things about the UAE is undoubtedly the range of curricula on offer.

It is statistically unlikely if you are from the UK you will be too interested in the Indian CBSE curriculum, although Indian families do consider the England and Wales based curriculum offered in many schools. Just to underline this UK based schools are clearly not for UK students: UK nationality students currently account for only 4.9% of the total student population. UK curriculum schools however account for 31.5% of all schools in the UAE. Many IGCSE and A' Level curriculum schools have sub-continent students as their single largest demographic.

Note: Some US, UK, and European (particularly Eastern European) parents are choosing the CBSE curriculum up to Year group 8 - i.e. just before the first year of the GCSE syllabus. Parents do so because a) up to this point the curriculum is not too different from a European one (CBSE is based on the UK system) and b) Indian schools are considerably cheaper than UK, US... equivalents.

UK families also consider the growing number of IB schools, and perhaps U.S. or Australian curricula schools which share many similarities to UK in their teaching methodologies and the qualifications that they offer.

US, Australian, South African families likewise are able to consider, UK, IB, American, and some CBSE schools.

There are more UK curricula schools in the UAE than any other (53), followed by US (35), Indian (24), and then IB (7). Note - Indian schools are much larger in terms of capacity and therefore, in terms of raw student numbers come just behind UK schools.

The biggest growth in enrollment (by percentage) however is for IB based schools. This is moreover less a UAE phenomena, but a global one.

IB versus A' Level
The different curricula offered in the UAE

According to the WSA School Survey for many the curricula offered is the single most important decision in choosing a school, so clearly for some there is little flexibility on offer here. However, for others that do see flexibility, opening up your choices just logically opens up the range of school choice on offer to your children in the emirate. There are advantages to every curriculum, and it is entirely possible for the first time you may have access to a better curriculum for your child.

Price of school

It is almost pointless to look at the price of school without looking at the curriculum and its target market. Put simply, like everything else in the UAE, there are markets within markets, and schools will offer different price points to allow access points for each of them.

In general IB schools are the most expensive schools in the UAE, followed by British and American schools, followed by Indian schools - but this is not an exact science and there are always exceptions to prove the rule.

As important as curricula when it comes to price will be where the school is located, with new Dubai schools tending to cost more than 'old' Dubai schools.

Interestingly the one thing price is not is a proxy for is quality, although it can be an indicator - schools that charge have theoretically more to invest in teachers and facilities. The most expensive school in Dubai however is not a KHDA ranked Outstanding school - it is too new for a rating. Equally, there are many less expensive schools in the UAE which are ranked Good, and a couple ranked Outstanding - both Indian curriculum schools.

Fees in Dubai range from AED 1,725 per year to over 120,000 AED per year depending on the school and age range. Nearly half (45%) of the students at private schools in Dubai pay less than 10,000 AED per year in tuition fees, while some 16% pay more than 35,000 AED dirhams. In most schools, tuition fees tend to increase by grade level. While 53% of KG1 students pay less than 10,000 AED per year, just 34% of Dubai’s Grade 12 students pay less than 10,000 AED per year.

The average tuition fee paid by a student at a private school in Dubai is 18,196 AED per year, an average increase of 6.0% from last academic year.

However, frankly while this is an interesting stat in terms of regulating prices, it is almost pointless for parents with specific needs. If you're after an Indian curriculum school you will find, easily, lower fees. For a UK curriculum school, in newer Dubai, KG fees alone would start at around the 35,000AED mark.

In terms of looking for a school, the only way price helps is simply to rule out what you cannot afford, and then to look for value within your boundaries. If you do not have plus 100,000 AED plus fees for a North London Collegiate, why bother looking at it?

Price of schools you are interested in is also useful in determining whether you want to live in the emirate at all... Most people come to Dubai to have a better standard of living. If school fees are going to take away all your disposable income, you should have other very good reasons to come.

The age of your child

The final variable to throw into the mix is the age at which your child is applying.

Dubai’s private schools have more students in junior grades than in senior grades. This will be due to the growth in the general population, the age of candidates employers in the UAE recruit for (mid rather than more senior management), and because some families leave Dubai when their children get older.

Overall, there are approximately twice as many students in Grade 1 as in Grade 11, and in mid to senior years schools have a lot more availability.

In terms of getting your child into a Good or Outstanding school, then age clearly matters. If you are applying for a KG/nursery place then you are one of thousands. You may still be one of many at secondary school, competition, statistically at least, will be less.

If you're unhappy with your current school, then keep in touch with admissions departments to find out out about places becoming available in year groups across schools you are interested in. It will happen more often than you think.

What next

The latest KHDA statistics to be released are fascinating in that they show that while there is not an abundance of availability, Dubai schools can certainly accommodate many more students, and there are choices for you.

To take advantage of the choice, the truth however is that you cannot ONLY target the schools that everyone else is targeting.

If you have a family, researching schools is a key bit of the puzzle - and not just when you arrive, but an ongoing challenge as your child moves through the stages of their education.

Do speak to friends and family, but remember that they are likely to rattle off the same names. Go beyond that. Look at WSA, look at the KHDA reports. The truth is, the more research you do, ultimately the better the school you may find for your child, a choice that in the end may be far better than your original limited ambitions.

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