5 Schools Going the Extra Mile for Inclusion

We understand that finding a school in Dubai for a child with additional support needs can be a daunting task. We have selected five Dubai schools that truly stand out in this area, according to those who experience their inclusive practice first hand: the children and parents. This is by no means a comprehensive list of Dubai's inclusive schools, but rather those schools that have most recently caught the eye of our editors...
5 Schools Going the Extra Mile for Inclusion
By Susan Roberts
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Finding a school in Dubai for a child with additional support needs can be a daunting task. We have selected five Dubai schools who truly stand out in this area, according to those who experience their inclusive practice first hand: the children and parents. This is by no means a comprehensive list of schools, but does represent some of the very best examples of inclusive practices that exists in the UAE.

The Arbor School

Biodomes are used by all children at Arbor, with additional designated 'biodome days' available for children of determination

What the School Says:

"Inclusion at Arbor is about keeping the child at the centre and putting their needs first. We have a whole school approach which proactively ensures that children are able to learn alongside their peers in mainstream classrooms. Our calm and natural environment supports children in developing sensory regulation and curiosity towards learning. We aim to support children in developing the sustainable life skills they will need for independent living in the future."

Head of Inclusion: Rachel Smith Green

Facilities: A sensory and movement space, literacy intervention room, early years intervention room, allocated sessions in the school's biodomes and bio farm, therapy rooms for speech, counselling and play therapy.

Expertise: Arbor's inclusion team is comprised of: a specialist school psychologist (available to parents free of charge) - the same psychologist also offers Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), a speech therapist (no additional fee), a school counsellor (providing play therapy), four inclusion teachers (with specialisms in dyslexia, autism,  Arabic interventions), three Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) focusing on Occupational Therapy, Life skills and Sensory Diets). A further 14 LSAs are available for one to one sessions, although these are charged to parents based on hours needed.

Belinda, Mum of 14 year old "Cal" (name changed for child's privacy), tells us about her experience:

"By the age of 18 months, I knew Cal was different. I took him to a GP and told them I thought he had autism. The signs became increasingly visible: he'd be with his cousins and they'd all be playing together, but Cal would be off in the bushes looking for insects. At nursery, they’d all be singing together and he’d be on the side, building the most incredible tower from blocks. In the end, it took me about nine years to get a diagnosis for him. Cal has high-functioning autism, ADHD and dyslexia. He's now 14-years-old. 

Cal was at another school from the age of three. Primary support was great but getting and keeping a Learning Support Assistant (LSA) for him was a nightmare. We had to source and hire the LSA ourselves and pay them directly. It was such added pressure, and they didn't stick around: we've had 13 LSAs over the years.

When Cal went back to school after lockdown, the return to a stressful environment caused him to develop ticks. The ticks very quickly developed into seizures, and when we didn't receive the support he needed, we had no choice but to make a change for him.

We moved to Arbor, and they saved us really. The environment is ideal for Cal, with biodomes, animals, and such a sense of calmness. It's only now, six months later, that Cal is getting on top of the ticks, but the team at Arbor have just been so patient. The level of patience and understanding... I cannot explain how wonderful it is." 

Emotional support animal - "Spike" the bearded dragon joins Cal every day at Arbor...

"Now, here’s the big one… Cal takes his emotional support animal, Spike the bearded dragon, in to school with him every day. Just like an emotional support dog would help a child who has been through a lot, his bearded dragon gives him company, and if he needs to move away from his work, it gives him something to focus on. It also creates an environment that will encourage kids to come over and chat, and it’s something he's good at talking about, which helps him relax. Where else in the world could a child take his bearded dragon emotional support animal to school?

Everything I’d been asking for at the previous school, over eight years, I didn’t even need to ask for at Arbor. It was just there, as standard. They handle his learning support internally, with a team of people sharing this role. I no longer have to worry about this. 

To be honest, we wouldn’t have been able to stay in the UAE if it wasn’t for Arbor. No matter how many GCSEs he gets, if he takes A Levels, really it all boils down to him being happy, and having the opportunity to go to school."

The Arcadia School

An inclusive outdoor play space in Arcadia's Early Years section

What the School Says:

“Inclusion is very much a part of our school’s identity. Everyone is welcome here, everyone is valued here. An effective model for inclusion benefits all of our students, staff and our entire community.”

Head of Inclusion: John Paton 

Facilities: The Arcadia School has purpose-built facilities for the delivery of developmental therapies including physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Applied Behavioural Analysis, Speech and Language Therapy and Sensory Integration. These on-site facilities allow the team at Arcadia to embed these therapies into day-to-day schooling.

Expertise: Arcadia's inclusion team is currently comprised of a team of Inclusion Support Teachers (one for each of the 4 key stages), six school-employed Learning Support Assistants (LSAs), one English as an Additional Language (EAL) Teacher and two EAL Assistant Teachers. Arcadia also has specialists from Neuropedia working on site, providing a range of therapies for neurological, developmental, behavioural and psychological disorders. Therapies provided are charged additionally to school fees.

Andreja, Mum of 4 year old "Nelly" (name changed for child's privacy), tells us about her experience:

"Our daughter, Nelly is in FS1 at Arcadia School and she has Rett Syndrome, which is deemed a very complex neurodevelopmental disorder. Nelly is on the more severe side, she’s non-verbal (doesn’t talk) and non-ambulatory (doesn’t walk). She can communicate, through other means, for example she uses a piece of technology that reads her eye movements.

A ‘special needs mum colleague’ initially recommended Arcadia to me. I remember in the lead up to meeting John Paton (Head of Inclusion), I felt I should be making a pitch to make Nelly look good, to improve our chances of her being accepted. It wasn’t like that at all. He asked all the important questions and I told him everything, about every challenge our daughter has. And then he surprised me with what he said next: "Ok, now let's focus on her strengths. What is Nelly good at? What does she enjoy?”

John did a home visit. He came in one morning and we were just having breakfast, really the energy he has just relaxes people around him, so I didn’t feel nervous, it was just like… this is us! He didn’t spend that time asking me about her, he interacted with her directly to understand her first-hand, and I loved that. We later discussed her needs and how we could tailor-make the school experience for her."

Inclusion in action at Arcadia School

"Nelly thrives in her FS1 class. Our nanny attends with her (this was our choice, and it works well for us). Her teacher has set up an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for her, they have designed so much that is very relevant to her needs and abilities. They have little circle times, and she will be encouraged to come out of her wheelchair and join in. She has her snack and sits at the same table as the other kids, with an adapted chair. I get little video clips and I see these kids flooding her with love. "

Nelly has PT and OT in the classroom every week. It’s been very beneficial as they do it in the classroom. Not only are the teachers and assistants learning what they’re doing, her classmates observe and understand her therapy activities too. The children support and encourage her, which they seem to love doing, and she enjoys so much . Her teacher once said to me: “thank you for bringing Nelly here, she is clearly benefitting but the other children are benefitting so much as well". For me, this comment tells you all you need to know about what they do at Arcadia: this is real inclusion." 

Horizon English School


What the School Says: "At Horizon English School, we value and celebrate diversity and we believe that every child in our school, regardless of their level of need, can be successful. We work hard to remove barriers to learning to promote an enriching and empowering environment in which our students of determination are able to thrive. We pride ourselves on helping children achieve things they believed were impossible."

Head of Inclusion: Chad Witcomb

Facilities: Two inclusion classrooms, dedicated therapy rooms for children receiving speech and language therapy and occupational therapy sessions from external providers, a life skills programme ("New Horizons") for students with more complex needs to develop skills for independent living and social activities.  

Expertise: Horizon English School's inclusion team is comprised of three inclusion support teachers, an EYFS inclusion specialist, an English language learner (ELL) coordinator, a school counsellor and many learning support assistants. The school also works with external speech and language therapists who visit Horizon weekly. 

Luma, Mum of 11 year old, "Simon"(name changed for child's privacy), tells us about her experience:

"We had no idea at all that our youngest son was different, until he joined FS1 at Horizon. The teacher called me in one day because she has some concerns. I remember feeling very disturbed and so lost, but the teacher said "don’t worry, we’ll figure this out together..."

That was seven years ago, and what she said was true. The school have been with me every step of the way, I never feel I'm dealing with these challenges on my own. They guided me in what I needed to do, getting a good speech therapist initially, and then eventually seeking a formal assessment. Simon was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. 

My son has struggled with his behaviour over the years, but whenever a new challenge came up, we would think up solutions together that would work for him. I remember in Year 1, he was having melt downs every morning because he was stuck on the idea that he wanted to go on the school bus. The teacher and I spoke and she put together a reward system, where after he got 5 stars, he could have a trip on the bus. They printed out a special school bus ticket for him and he went one morning just for one stop, and then I met him at the next stop. These little strategies can be so important."


"Simon's academic goals have been handled in the same way. His inclusion team and class teacher all contribute towards mapping appropriate academic goals with us, and identify what he'll need to achieve. They really tailor everything so that it will work for him.

The school makes an effort to support Simon socially, as this is an area he can struggle with. They have dedicated activities and school trips for the children with additional learning needs. My son really enjoys this as he feels comfortable being with these kids. Within his class, they also plan activities with small groups, and ensure he is with kids that he has a connection with. He took part in performing a small play with a group of children, which was amazing for his confidence.

What I love most is that there is a culture of tolerance in the school. When Simon is having a meltdown, which does happen from time to time, the other kids will say “it’s ok, he’s having a bad day” and totally accept his differences."

GEMS Wellington International School

What the School Says:

"At GEMS Wellington International School, we provide a world-class inclusive education. We are proud to be a non-selective school where every child matters and all are welcomed. Our diverse community and ethos of high expectation ensure all students develop the vital characteristics of respect, tolerance, understanding and acceptance, preparing them to be successful learners and global citizens."

Head of Inclusion: Wendy Harris

Facilities: WIS's inclusion team describe their department as well-resourced, with well- equipped Sensory Circuits Programmes to support children's sensory needs. The school has also invested in in-house assessment tools. 

Expertise: WIS's inclusion team is comprised of four SEN Specialists and 61 Learning Assistants as well as five visiting speech therapists.

Lucy, Mum of 14 year old, "Kirsty" (name changed for child's privacy), tells us about her experience:

"My daughter, Kirsty, was born 24 weeks premature, and suffered a massive brain haemorrhage on the right side of her brain. At the time, the doctors said she wasn’t going to make it, and if she did, she would be severely disabled. We said that whatever comes, we’ll face it. She let out her first cry, she kept breathing independently. When we left the hospital with our daughter after 16 weeks in NICU, we didn't imagine she could live the life she's living. 

The doctors also said she was never going to walk, but just before her 3rd birthday, she decided to do just that. Suddenly, the possibility of a different future lay ahead of her, and we went about getting her into school. It was so hard; we'd fill in the medical forms and already the schools weren't interested, but Horizon English accepted her. Inclusion support at Horizon was fairly basic back then but by the time we left, they had, in my view, the best primary inclusion in Dubai.

Then came the task of finding a secondary school. If I’m honest, GEMS Wellington International did not feel an obvious choice initially: It felt so big. But when I was introduced to Wendy Harris, and we spoke about Kirsty, I just felt so at home. I was so impressed by the structure they had in place and I really felt confident in them.

I was right to feel this way; the support and guidance they've provided has been excellent. They are always checking in with me, even if I’m quiet, they’ll look for me and ask me how we're doing.

When it came to GCSE choices, I could hear the other mums talking, and I was thinking is this even something Kirsty can do? To me, it all seemed too much for her, but they had all these suggestions for me that I wouldn’t have considered. They said maybe she could do Geography, because we think maybe she could do a BTEC in Hotel & Tourism. She loves music, she’s been doing vocal lessons and is currently doing her grade 4, so I requested something involving music. Straight away they were looking into the possibilities. And suddenly I thought 'Oh! She could do something, this is possible!'

They’ve done a lot with Kirsty to prepare her for independent living in the future too. In the ASDAN programme, they make meals, so she brings in ingredients and makes an apple crumble or a pasta dish, and she gets a sense that this is something she can do herself. They also teach money management, and a whole range of other things. 

There’s something to be said for achievement in any child, and this can be hard for a child like Kirsty, in a mainstream school. She knows she has limitations, and does compare herself to others, but the teachers are really good to notice when she’s worked hard and done something great. She’s been a class champion a number of times, and has been in the school magazine in recognition of her achievements. These things make her feel so proud and help us to see what she CAN do."

Dubai British School - Jumeirah Park

A school community project at Dubai British School - Jumeirah Park

What the School Says:

"At DBSJP community, we empower every learner to enjoy their journey, aspire to make a difference and achieve beyond their potential. As an inclusive school, our aim is to ensure that we nurture every pupil and have high aspirations to empower successful, well-rounded individuals and equip them with the skills essential for lifelong learning."

Head of Inclusion: Helen Douglas

Facilities: The school houses designated learning support rooms in primary and secondary where interventions take place by specialist teachers for children with identified learning needs, a sensory room, a physical therapy room, a room for ‘sensory circuits’ for children who benefit from more sensory exposure or regulation, a mini gym for the inclusion children to give early exposure to healthy lifestyle and a speech and language therapy room.

Expertise: Four inclusion teachers, one EAL teacher,  the head of inclusion and four learning assistants, one inclusion pathway teacher and two counsellors.

Lucy, Mum of 7 year old "Henry" (name changed for child's privacy), tells us about her experience:

"When Henry was at nursery at 3-years-old, we noticed his speech just wasn’t progressing. The words were there, but he wasn’t quite forming his sentences. The nursery had flagged this to us and also said that he wasn’t socialising with the other kids, and that the staff were struggling to make a connection with him. He started speech therapy, and we had him assessed, at which point it was confirmed that he was on the autism spectrum.

When he started school at DBS, he loved it straight away. Children with additional needs are matched with hand-picked teachers who they feel will be the best fit for them. They really go to great length to get to know each individual child and try to provide the best environment for them. It always felt so personal and tailored for us. The teachers even create whole areas of the classroom based around Henry's interests to engage him. It's amazing!

Finding a Learning Support Assistant (LSA) was a challenge. We had help from our therapy centre in finding our first LSA, who was wonderful for FS1 and FS2, but by the time Henry was going into Year 1, we knew we needed someone with a bit more experience and who was a little bit calmer with him. We found someone ourselves at that point, and interviewed them in our home so that we could see how they connected with our son. We had some bad luck initially, but eventually found a wonderful lady after a few hurdles. The teachers and inclusion team, work with our LSA, so we’re all connected and supported.

Something that Henry loves is what they call the ‘bucket sessions’. They have groups of around three children with additional needs, and literally have a bucket, filled with items, often sensorial, and they pull them out and use them to provoke interest and stimulate learning. It’s like a therapy session but with a whole lot of fun, with social and communication elements too.

DBS run the ASDAN programme, which we are so stoked to have. They do life skills, developing independence in the children. They’re doing this in primary, which would usually only be in secondary in the UK.

Children at DBSJP create a radio show on the theme of 'friendship'.

The underlying current at DBS, that you constantly feel, is a sense of community and kindness, and that it’s all about the kids. It is a big school, but there is a family vibe that bubbles underneath, and as a result you feel like no problem is really a big problem. It's always going to be resolved and addressed."

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