Dubai Special Needs Mainstream School Inclusion

Dubai Special Needs Mainstream School Inclusion
By C Hoppe
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‘Educational inclusion is about creating a secure, accepting, collaborating and stimulating school in which everyone is valued, as the foundation for the highest achievement for all pupils.’  Index for Inclusion CSIE

The cornerstone of inclusion is that any child, including those with special educational needs are entitled to be educated in the same classroom alongside everyone else.

But while some interpret this as an end of ‘special schools’ and the practice of hiding children with disabilities away, others believe that it’s merely an idealistic dream as there will always be children whose issues are too complex to be successfully educated in the mainstream classroom.

Across Dubai there are numerous centres preparing children with special educational needs for the mainstream, and although there are no firm figures, it’s believed there are significantly more children who remain excluded from all forms of education, due to the severity of their condition and/or the high costs involved.

As the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) gets set to reiterate its commitment to inclusion throughout the 2014/5 Inspection Handbook, we ask, “where is it going wrong?”

In Dubai Special Needs inclusion strategies are still in their infancy. While 52 schools do accept applications from children with special educational needs; many appear deeply reluctant to promote the fact, possibly fearing they will gain a reputation as a ‘special school,’ or as one school principal mentioned, “literally opening the floodgates to all those who can’t currently find a place.”

The KHDA remains adamant that the UAE Federal Law 29 (2006) which guarantees a person with special needs ‘access to equal opportunities of education within all educational institutions’ and schools are only permitted to refuse admission to a child with SEN if they are at capacity. And yet, speak to any parent or centre running school preparation programmes and they will tell you of the continued frustration in trying to place a child with special educational needs into a mainstream school.

Forty two percent of schools in Dubai currently offer places to children with special educational needs. While all SEN professionals remain adamant that disclosure is the only viable option for parents if they ever hope to understand how a school plans to provide for their child, many still candidly admit that disclosure can dramatically reduce the chance of being offered a place, despite the law.

Non-disclosure not only robs the school of the opportunity to plan for the child and even refuse him or her should they feel they do not have the capacity or resources to help the child, but robs parents of the opportunity to ask essential questions. For most though, the relief of securing a place; means they leave any discussion on additional needs for a later date. has heard reports that some less than scrupulous schools are manipulating the situation further. Knowing many parents just appreciate securing any place, they’re unlikely to disclose their child’s condition. The school then blithely offers places knowing they have little or no SEN support on offer. However, by the time parents disclose their child’s condition and begin discussions on support, they’ve paid the non-refundable deposit and are unlikely to look elsewhere.

For many parents the admissions exercise is both costly and frustrating. One parent of a child diagnosed with ADHD said in 2014 he’d paid over Dhs9,000 in registration fees, and yet had still not secured a place for his child.

Another issue discussed with the director of a well-known diagnostic and treatment centre, who wished to remain anonymous, was that many high ranking schools (those ranked ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ by the KHDA) often blurred their classification of just what special educational needs actually are. “Some schools tell us they can’t accept any more children with SEN as they have over 30% SEN enrolment already. When we question the figures we discover they’re lumping mild learning difficulties like dyslexia or dyscalculia into the mix. Some are even adding their EAL (English as an Additional Language) students to significantly bulk up the figures.”

Put simply, effective inclusion only happens when it begins at the top, and Sue Johnson principal at Al Salam School, in Al Nahda, has been doing just that. In the past she’s been called, ‘visionary’ and ‘dedicated’ by the KHDA and she continues to break new ground. Her transparent and welcoming policy towards children with SEN means parents are comfortable to disclose their child’s diagnosis and parents and teachers work together to make the best possible learning experience for each individual child.

The school’s SEN department has grown from a single counsellor in 2005 to 30 team members in 2014. Mrs Johnson encourages disclosure, dialogue and continually educates parents and teachers on the benefits of inclusion.

As well as their enrolled SEN students, this year, Al Salam reached out to the ‘The Child Early Intervention Centre’ to invite three children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) together with their respective learning support assistants (LSAs) and individual coursework, to join their peers in class. School Counsellor Anne George says, “For these kids, it’s empowering them by allowing them to play and truly belong. But the benefits are not just for the child in question; this situation teaches tolerance and acceptance to the rest of the class too!”


Dubai Special Needs: Shadows/LSAs
The job of a shadows or LSAs is to join the child in class and assist in behaviour control, task work and lending support in personal care and other areas. Presently there are no legal guidelines for a how a shadow is expected to perform this work, nor regulation of hours, qualifications or what the position even entails.

As with everything in Dubai, you get what you pay for and shadows are no different. Predominantly female, they range from household maids and mothers seeking part time work which fits around the school holidays to highly qualified ex-teachers. Pay varies, and although the norm seems to be around Dhs50 per hour, some have been known to ask up to 20,000 AED per month.

The schools we spoke to said at times shadows can create almost as many issues as they solve. Many cash strapped parents find the cheapest possible option; meaning training and experience are usually minimal. Although schools maintain control of the shadows’ workload and commitments, the financial burden is the parent’s responsibility, this not always makes for the easiest working relationships, as school and parents both issue daily demands.

For many parents, their shadow is the vital link between school and home, the person who delivers daily updates on progress and development. But for others the shadow is the last straw, in what they see as a catalogue of spiralling costs and a responsibility they feel the school should carry. Aysha Kamal Head of Inclusion at Jumeirah Baccalaureate School (JBS) says, “We have parents who appreciate the feedback and others who don’t, we simply respect how each feels and take it from there.”

The UAE has yet has to create standardised qualification requirements for shadows. So, although numerous centres offer training, it’s once again a conflict of interests as to how much or little each stakeholder is willing to invest in both additional time and money.

Some schools take full advantage of the extra pair of hands, “In some places we’ve witnessed the LSA modifying the coursework for the child, not the teacher,” says an inclusion officer who prefers to remain anonymous.


Dubai Special Needs: Differences in Differentiation
Adapting the curriculum to make it relevant and accessible for each student is part of every teacher’s job, so why, we ask, is differentiation used as a barrier to inclusion?

If teachers differentiate the curriculum on a daily basis, is it really such a ‘big step’ to modify school work for students with SEN?

An applied behaviour analysist (ABA therapist) we spoke to, voiced concerned about several schools in which she had witnessed high teacher turnover. “There’s a lack of continuity and consistency in some schools, teachers just seem to come and go, and many are very young,” she said. With a high proportion of young and newly qualified teachers who often only for one or two years before moving on, some schools can find it hard to offer quality differentiation.

Some ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ rated schools remain reluctant to admit SEN students for fear of damaging their KHDA ratings. The primary issue remains that although the KHDA has allowed for differentiation of the curriculum, it has still not fully approved report card differentiation. This means although children who have been working to an individual education plan (IEP) and achieved the goals set, even if successfully completed their IEP, without a differentiated report card they’re still judged and rated against the standard basic curriculum.

The poor results when collated can then help bring down the overall KHDA school ranking.


SEN Assessment and Diagnosis
Many special educational needs are most often identified in the classroom setting. Dubai’s education environment is unique, made so, by its blend of cultures, curriculums and nationalities. Some children have relocated numerous times in their short lives, changing language of instruction, caregivers and school systems, resulting in many having to undertake essential but short term interventions. These include: intensive language training for those who are entering a school where the language differs from that of the home, or, communication work when a child has had little stimulation at home. This DOES NOT mean the child has a specific SEN, although these issues can ‘mask’ genuine SEN, however, until they are resolved, it’s difficult to diagnose any other special educational needs.

Some parents choose to take their child to their home country for diagnosis or shop around for the cheapest option, but this usually results in poor quality diagnoses, or those not suitable for the school system in Dubai. “I’ve seen children who’ve been diagnosed in a single half hour session,” says Rachel Jex, school nurse and founder of the ADHD support group in Dubai.

“We’ve just had two assessments with exactly the same results. It appears the doctor simply changed the name on one,” said one psychologist at a well-known centre in Dubai.

There’s no two ways about it, a poor assessment means poor support and intervention. Without a detailed report from a professional covering the child’s learning strengths and recommended interventions, it’s extremely difficult to tailor an IEP or structure interventions for the child.


Dubai Special Needs: Sensitisation
According to a recent survey 44% of parents in the UAE believe the quality of education in the UAE is not up to international standards, and only 1 in 9 is happy with the school services they receive. Couple this with the relentless hikes in cost of living including school fees expected in the next few years, and surely most schools must be concerned about just how many potentially disgruntled customers they have.

Against this backdrop it wouldn’t take much to tip the vast majority of parents over the edge. Even adding just two or three SEN students to each classroom, with their perceived potential disruption, loss of teacher time and disproportionate management focus on a small number of children, could easily create mutinous repercussions. For schools planning to include SEN students it’s imperative they spend time and money counteracting the negative perception so many parents have of these children. “Although we have relatively high numbers of students with SEN, we have no issues with our other parents, however, we do spend considerable time on sensitisation projects, running workshops, and showing films and presentations,” says Sue Johnson at Al Salam.

Dubai Special Educational Needs - Start Here
Dubai Special Educational Needs - School Inclusion, Is it Working?
Dubai Special Educational Needs - What are they and How to Spot Them
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Diagnosis and Assessment
Dubai Special Educational Needs - A Q and A with Diagnosis Specialists
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Occupational Therapy Q and A
Dubai Special Educational Needs - What is ADHD?
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Applied Behaviour Analysis
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Speech Therapy
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Specific Learning Difficulties
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Downs Syndrome
Dubai Special Educational Needs - Autistic Spectrum Disorder

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