School or a Nursery for Your Three-Year-Old: the Practical Considerations

A huge decision hangs over many parents of three-year-olds: is a school setting best for FS1 or a nursery? We looked at the practical considerations and options available for children of this age in the UAE to support you in making this key decision.
School or a Nursery for Your Three-Year-Old: the Practical Considerations
By Jenny Mollon
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It's decision-making time for parents of 3 year olds: is a school setting best for FS1 or a nursery? We looked at the practical considerations and options available for children of this age in the UAE to support you in making this key decision.

Does your child have to start school at 3-years-old?

In short... no! It is not compulsory for a 3 year old to be enrolled in a school in the UAE. Compulsory education in the UAE begins at 6 years old (Year 2/Grade 1), although many schools provide provision for entry for children at 3 years old (FS1/Pre-KG). Depending on the experiences and background of a family, this may feel appropriate and expected, while for some it may feel much too early and provide cause for concern.

For even those who fall into the latter camp, they may find their top choice of UAE school will claim that a space for direct entry into FS2/KG1 or Year 1/KG2 can’t be guaranteed and enrolling their child at 3-years-old is advised. Nurseries, on the other hand, will likely share the benefits of a more nurturing early childhood experience, pulling on those parental heart strings. 

What are the options for 3-year-olds?

Schools: for schools whose academic year starts in September, children who turn 3 before 31st August, can enter the UK system in FS1 (Foundation Stage 1) or the international system (IB, American, Australian etc) in Pre-KG. For schools whose academic year starts in April (Indian, Pakistani and Japanese schools) children who turn 3 before 31st March, can enter in Pre-KG.

Nurseries: UAE nurseries are also able to accept children for this year group (FS1/Pre-KG). Many Dubai nurseries and early learning centres are also licensed to accept children up to 6-years old, for FS2/KG1 and Year 1/KG2 (for them to do so, they are required to apply for permission from the KHDA, and must have adequate space, resources, expertise and qualified staff in place).

‘Foundation’ Centers: Although these are few in number, they do offer a middle ground between school and nursery options for 3 – 5 year-olds. These centers are generally operated by school groups and act and feed into particular schools, while also being separate early years environments. Examples of Foundation Centers include Dubai British Foundation and Victory Heights Foundation Stage .

Staying Home: Of course, as there is no requirement for children to attend formal schooling until they are 6-years-old in the UAE, meaning a 3-year-old can simply stay home with a parent, relative or nanny. There are a vast range of age appropriate classes and play groups available for children to experience nursery-like environments alongside a parent or carer. 

What are the practical differences?

Time: Currently, nurseries are able to provide considerably more flexibility in terms of timings than a school setting can. Most UAE nurseries operate from early morning (a typical start time is 8:00am, with early drop off often available from 7:00am or 7:30am) and provide options of half days (until 12:00am or 12:30pm) or full days (until as late as 5:00pm or 6:00pm) with mid-options available too.

Schools, on the other hand, are generally more restrictive in this regard, with FS1 classes finishing at 12:30pm in some schools, and up to 2:00pm in others. Some schools do provide after school clubs for children of this age, but it is rare to find after school clubs that extend enough to accommodate the needs of full time working parents.

And then, of course, there’s the Friday afternoon issue. While nurseries have the flexibility to provide full-day care on Fridays, schools have no choice but to close by midday, leaving parents who work in the private sector in a bit of a fix. Families with nannies at home may not have to consider this issue to the same extent but those without help at home may find this is the deciding factor.

Transport: The majority of schools in the UAE offer transportation services (at an additional fee) and likewise, many nurseries have this option available also for children aged 2 years+. Due to their scale, nursery transportation is typically more localised, covering fewer neighbourhoods than school transportation. On the other hand, with nurseries present in most communities, this need not be a major consideration. 

What are the cost differences?

Many parents assume that school fees are considerably heftier than nursey fees but the reality is that there is more variance from school to school and nursery to nursery than between the two categories as a whole. School and nursery fees range considerably in cost in the UAE, from the affordable to the super premium, and everything in between.

Parents will find that many schools charge relatively low fees in FS1/Pre-KG but quickly ramp this up through the lower year groups, meaning it is important that parents weigh up the affordability of fees throughout their child’s time at school. 

We have compared the costs of 5 Dubai schools, from our parent-rated best schools list,  with 5 quality nurseries located close by or appealing to the same demographics. Costs listed are based on half-day nursery options for a 9 month period, in line with typical FS1 school timings.

School FS1 Fees Nursery FS1 Fees Comparable for
The Arbor School 34,000 AED Homegrown Eco Nursery 41,760 AED Ethos and curriculum
Jumeirah Baccalaureate School 39,750 AED Ladybird Nursery- Jumeirah 41,100 AED Location and ethos
GEMS Royal Dubai School 22,455 AED Creative Nest Nursery 32,850 AED Location and curriculum
Horizon English School 39,672 AED Children’s Oasis Nursery 39,780 AED Location and curriculum
GEMS Modern Academy 28,646 AED Chubby Cheeks Nursery International City 24,750 AED Location

What are the differences in approach?

We began by talking to Samina Khanyari, General Manager of Jumeirah International Nurseries.  

We asked Samina to share her thoughts on the key differences in approach between schools and nurseries;

"Though schools and nurseries offers similar innovative curriculums, what really makes a difference is the individual attention provided in a nursery, and the freedom given to children to go at their own pace. Due to smaller numbers in the classes, the class teacher and other adults are able to spend more time with each child, which not only allows children to practice their skills but also supports a young child to get emotionally ready and excited about any adventure." 

Would schools agree that personal, social and emotional growth takes a back seat in favour of more traditional learning?  This is an often cited concern amongst parents, but is it based on reality?  Esther Keenan, FS1 teacher at the British International School, Abu Dhabi has her own thoughts on the matter: 

“All early years settings have their own approaches to the education and care of your child. At BIS Abu Dhabi, our FS1 focus is very much on school readiness. Children’s social and emotional development is of paramount importance as they embark upon their new school journey. The safe, secure, trusting relationships we build with children and families in FS1 are built to continue throughout the school. Children in FS1 become familiar with the school surroundings and with the routines and boundaries of school. This puts the children, the parents and the teaching team in a fantastic position to continue the learning journey seamlessly from FS1 into FS2”.

What about staffing?

There are differences in the qualifications required of FS1 nursery teachers and FS1 school teachers. For Dubai and Abu Dhabi schools and nurseries, the following requirements apply: 

  Dubai (KHDA) Abu Dhabi (ADEK)
Nursery Teacher Should have or be working towards a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education (preferable) or another area OR professional certification in early childhood education (e.g. L3 vocational qualification).  University degree in Early Childhood Education OR in other specialization with a professional certificate in Early Childhood Education (Level 3) OR High School degree with a professional certificate in Early Childhood Education (Level 3) OR High School degree with practical experience in ECE of at least two years.
School Class Teacher Must have a recognised Bachelor Degree in Education [B.Ed] or postgraduate certificate/diploma in education or Master Degree in Education [M.Ed]. Bachelor in Education or any equivalent.

Of course, there is much more to great early years practice than having a high level qualification. The above comparison does not take into account key factors such as experience and passion for the job, but does demonstrate a discrepancy in requirements. In the case of Dubai nurseries offering FS2/KG1 and Year 1/KG2, qualification requirements match those of schools. 

Parents might also look at staff:child ratios and class sizes as a key factor in making this decision. As with all things, there will be a variance from school to school and nursery to nursery, however the requirement (as a minimum standard) set by KHDA for FS1 classes in Dubai is an adult to child ratio of 1:8, while ADEK has set this standard as 1:10 for Abu Dhabi nurseries. Adult to child ratios for FS1 classes in schools range from around 1:6 up to 1:12, with 1:10 being around the norm. Class sizes for both schools and nurseries are based on the the space allocated, however in general, numbers of children tend to be less in nurseries than in schools. 

The big decision...

While these considerations are clearly important, much more important for many parents is simply the suitability of a setting for their child. A apt conclusion here comes from award winning Early Years Teachers and FS1 lead teacher at Home Grown Nursery, Claire Nagle: 

"Ultimately children do have to be ready for school, whether it's going into Reception (FS2) or FS1. Each child is unique. Each family is unique. Parents, ultimately, have to make the decision on whether their 3 or 4 year-old goes to a school or a nursery or stays home, depending on what is best for that child."

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