Is a New School or Nursery Too Big a Gamble?

Impressive marketing and bold promises may draw you in, but is it really a good idea to place your faith (and your child) in an untested school?
Is a New School or Nursery Too Big a Gamble?
By Susan Roberts
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When it comes to a new school, impressive marketing and bold promises may draw you in, but is it really a good idea to place your faith (and your child) in something untested?

In a recent Parents United survey, 71% of UAE parents said YES, they would consider enrolling their child in a new school, if it seemed like the right school for them, while the remaining 28% said they were unwilling to take a risk on the unknown when it came to their child's education. We explored the potential pros and cons of being a ‘pioneer parent’, by talking to teachers, education leaders and, most importantly, parents, to support you in navigating this decision. 

No Track Record?

For most parents making the decision on whether to put their trust in a new school or nursery, a key concern is the absence of a reputation. A new school is a gamble, while an established school can come with parent recommendations and reviews. How can parents decide whether to put their trust in a new school without this? And how much should parents be influenced by this information anyway?

While a new school does not yet have its own reputation, it is possible to do a little digging for information that can inform your decision. Many schools in the UAE are operated by national or international school groups, who do have established track records that parents can research. Examples of major education groups in the region are GEMS Education, Innoventures, Taaleem, Aldar Education and Cognita (of course, there are more). Soon-to-open Arcadia Global School can be assessed by the success of its sister school Arcadia School, although it will charge a significantly lower fee, making it a very affordable option for many families. What reputations do the currently operating schools from a school group have? Are parents and children happy in these schools? Of course, this provides no guarantees, but certainly gives parents an indication of the level of quality to expect.

Mr Andrew Wilson, Principal of Arcadia Global School, provided the following advice:

"As with every major decision you make, it is important to do your research. What experience does the organisation have with new school start-ups, and with the curriculum being delivered?  A track record proving they have the experience and know-how is vital."

It may be possible to find out about the past achievements of the school’s leadership to understand what they will bring to the school. A little bit of online research can take you far in finding out who you are potentially putting your trust in.

There are also many schools in the UAE that are locally operated campuses of established schools in the UK and elsewhere. Mark Atkins, Principal of  Durham School Dubai (opened 2022) provides some insights on this:

“Where a school is a branch of a UK brand and a rigorous quality assurance process is in place, there is some comfort in understanding that the quality of the school will be expected to meet the expectations of the home school. Furthermore, with a branch school again, parents should investigate the involvement of the UK school in the governance of the school which should help to confirm that oversight from the UK school is genuine.”
Mark Atkins, Principal, Durham School Dubai

For nurseries, it is common for a new setting to be part of a wider group under the same ownership. Examples of nursery groups that have opened new branches in 2022 are Jumeirah International Nurseries, a group that has been going for more than 40 years in the UAE and Ladybird, which opened its first nursery in 1996. Kids First Group, which already operates 24 nurseries in the UAE and Qatar, has also opened new branches of its Redwood and Odyssey nursery chains. Looking into the reputation of an established group can support your decision on whether to enrol your child in a newly opening branch. 

Recommendations from like-minded parents can also be helpful, but it is important to keep in mind that the needs of children differ, and a friend or colleague’s child having a positive experience is not a guarantee for your own child. 

Inspection and Exam Results

Inspection results are undoubtedly a useful tool when considering established schools, but it is important to remember that a regulator’s inspection criteria may differ and/or be broader than your own priorities, which will likely relate to the very individual needs and interests of your child.

In the UAE, for example, both the KHDA and ADEK places considerable emphasis on the instruction of Arabic and Islamic Studies, which may not be considered so important for an expat. Similarly, if you read a BSO report, 'Britishness' is of importance, which my not matter an iota to a parent sending their children to a UK curriculum school for the core curriculum and education.

It is always therefore a good idea to dig deeper into inspection reports ( does this for you in our school reviews and guides). It may be that a school falls short in its grading due to a factor that is not of high importance to you but is particularly strong in an area you consider a priority. 

Nurseries are not currently graded by regulators in Dubai, Sharjah or the Northern Emirates (we expect this will change in the coming years), but this process has already begun in Abu Dhabi nurseries. Our pick of Abu Dhabi nurseries that have been graded Outstanding by ADEK are featured here.

Samina Khanyari, General Manager, Jumeirah International Nurseries and Early Childhood Centres, explained that new nurseries are put through more rigorous assessment by regulators, meaning parents can feel more assured of their quality:

"New nurseries applying for licensing (under KHDA) must now go through the rigour of detailed documentation to satisfy regulators that the provisions being offered meet the necessary criteria and level of  education and care."
Established Abu Dhabi nursery, Jigsaw Nursery, was graded 'Oustanding' by ADEK in 2021.

For older children, an established school’s exam results are a worthy consideration, but must be viewed in context. Is the school selective or inclusive? What percentage of the school’s eligible students have been entered to sit the exams? Does the school offer multiple pathways to ensure all students are appropriately catered to? 

Choosing a new school that does not have prior inspection or exam results does require a leap of faith but the level of expertise and experience present in the school’s staff and leadership may provide you with the clues you need to make an informed decision on this.

Founders Discounts

It has become increasingly common for new schools to offer a ‘founders’ discount’. While the new school will gain approval from its regulator for its set tuition fees, it will lower these fees in its initial years of operating to attract families to enrol.  While founders’ discounts can be a big help for your bank balance, it is important to read the small print in order to fully understand the commitment the school is making to you in subsequent years, and to ensure that the full fees will be affordable for you when applicable. 

It is important to note though, that these founders’ discounts often continue into subsequent years, meaning it is not always necessary to enrol in a school in its first year of operations to receive a discount. 

While nurseries do not tend to have founders’ discounts as such, it is common for newly opened nurseries to offer informal discounts e.g. a reduction on the first term’s fees or the removal of registration fees in the initial months of operating. 

Community Feel

New schools tend to start out relatively small and will often go to greater lengths to develop a school community with founding families. This sense of community, of everyone knowing one another in a school and coming together for the school’s betterment, is often listed as an important factor in parent and child happiness, and can be more challenging to maintain in a larger school. 

Brighton College Dubai, which opened in 2018, views itself as no longer a new school, but a young school’. Having recently come through the ‘new school’ years, Head of Pre-Prep, Katy Cooke, shared her reflections on this subject:

“In a new school, founding members of the school, both parents and staff, will often become part of a supportive and tight knit community. Being involved in something from the beginning is a truly special experience, there is a real sense of founders’ pride.”
Brighton College Dubai is often praised by parents for its focus on building community.

Parent, Nivine Mansour, shared her experiences of having her two children in a newly opened primary school:

“I look back on the initial years of my children’s school as its best years. It’s still a very good school now, but in the first few years that it opened, there was this real sense of unity among the families and school staff, everyone was looking out for every child, every member of staff knew who we were. The headmaster would stop and chat daily.” 

Mark Atkins, Principal, Durham School Dubai, told us:

“Numbers of pupils in a new school will usually be smaller and therefore a more personal relationship is possible between the parents and the school – new schools tend to build a very strong community, fiercely loyal to their school with a shared sense of ownership and it is common that, after a school has become well-established, the surviving founding parents hark back to the early days and see those as some of the best days of the school.”

Of course, few parents aim for their children to be in a school short-term, and so it is the school’s ability to retain a community-feel long-term that really makes the difference. Parent, Becky Sprenger, shared her insights:

“New schools often provide a more individualised student experience and may have better pastoral care due to lower numbers. The key is, when a new school grows, that it doesn’t lose its way. If it can hang onto those things whilst increasing the numbers, adapting to changes where necessary but not losing its identity, then you are onto a winner.”

Individual Attention

A school with lower numbers of students in its initial years will likely be able to provide more individual attention to children. Smaller class sizes can make a huge difference in learning and building positive teacher-student relationships. This often contributes positively to child happiness, due to the children feeling more connected and understood. 

Mr Andrew Wilson, Principal of Arcadia Global School, shared:

"A new school is often able to provide more focused expert support than its more established neighbours, and can instill a tremendous sense of community and pride for families involved from the start. As well as being Arcadia Global's Founding Principal, I will also be a founding parent; my child will join me at the school in August 2023, and I am thrilled that she will experience the school in its exciting initial early stages."

On the other hand, should a child require more specialist support, smaller numbers of students can also mean specialist educators and support staff are not yet affordable for a school. One Dubai-based parent, who preferred not to be named, shared her experiences:

“My daughter’s first school had just opened when she joined. She was five at the time and she needed considerable emotional support and patience to help her in settling in. She received it in bucket loads; the staff were simply wonderful. Fast forward a year, and we discovered she has additional needs that require specialist support. We took the decision to move her to a more established school with an extensive inclusion department, even though we had loved that first little school.”

Smaller School, Fewer Staff?

While a having your child in a smaller school in the initial years clearly has big positives, there are also some potential down sides to this. The issue of newer, and therefore often smaller, schools often having fewer specialist staff in the initial years is a concern for parents of children in the elder year groups, as parent Aliaa Ibrahim describes:

“A new school can be a great option for early years and primary, but for children in secondary, I would be cautious. For secondary, you need a school that will prepare your child's profile when applying to universities. This means a school with rich and varied ECAs, student council, varied sports activities with leagues and competitions. You need a school with a high number of specialist staff to secure all the options for the crucial IB diploma or GCSE and A-Level years, and to provide the right counselling and career advice.”

For children with specific interests or talents, it is important to ensure that the school can nurture these by providing expertise and dedicated time in the right areas. While some new schools may well have a focus in the desired areas of interest for your child, there is a higher likelihood of diverse expertise and a broader range of options in a more established school. 

New Facilities

Most would agree that school facilities are not the be-all and end-all, but they certainly have their part to play in inspiring and facilitating learning. A newly opened school can mean sparkling new classrooms, the latest tech, untouched football pitches and freshly installed playground equipment, which will likely help to get your child enthusiastic about starting or moving school. 

Nord Anglia International School Abu Dhabi opens this September. It promises superb facilities, but is that enough? As a parent it is important to try to understand the culture of the new school, the track record of delivery, the services and solutions it will offer you and your child, and to make an assessment of staff and how well their approach to teaching will fit with your child. Do not be afraid to ask the questions you want answers to... 

In our view, it is important not to get too swayed by an impressive new school building though, as it is the teaching and learning, leadership, school culture and community that will likely make the real difference to you and your child. 

Keeping Siblings Together

This is a problem that can occur in both established schools and in new schools, although for different reasons. Heavily subscribed established schools may have available spaces for one age group and not another, leaving one on a waiting list and creating difficulties for families with multiple children. 

New schools, however, do not generally open with all year groups open. It is common for a new school to initially provide FS1 – Year 6, for example, and open subsequent year groups as these children move up the school. 

The Big Decision

There's no doubt that enrolling in a new school or nursery means you face more unknowns than if you were to select something more established with a well-known reputation. The benefits of a new school or nursery are many, but arguably do not necessarily outweigh the unavoidable question marks. Of course, the draw for many families to a new school is the promise of something new and different, an ethos that feels aligned with the family's own. This may be Arcadia Global School's focus on entrepreneurship, Bloom World Academy's flexible timings and wrap around care, or Durham School Dubai's focus on the traditional elements of education. When the latest big thing may be offering just what you are looking for, it might be worth the gamble.

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