Many schools in the UAE, particularly those at the higher end of the fee scale, and especially if they teach the UK and/or IB curriculum, like to position themselves as being on a par with the leading independent schools in the UK. While the exam results at a limited number of schools stand alongside some of these eminent schools, this is only a partial picture. The UK independent school sector has grown over hundreds of years and there are many additional features and benefits that it offers to children and their parents.
The majority of parents sending their children to private schools in the UAE are referred to by the schools as FTBs i.e. first time buyers. These individuals will clearly not have experience when selecting a school for their child. At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com our research has shown that those parents who have experience of the independent sector, as a pupil, parent or teacher, are much more critical of the overall school environment offered within the private sector here.
To aid parents in their selection process we have decided to put together this guide which has been drafted with the input of parents and teachers who have experience of the independent sector in the UK. The intention is to give guidance on the key elements, apart from academic success, which you would expect to find as standard within a leading UK independent school.
We accept that the education environment in the UAE is young and developing rapidly, but given the price points and the claims made by the schools themselves, we feel that these criteria provide a fair benchmark for parents.
• First impressions: how does the school look and how do you feel when you enter it? The school should be in an attractive environment with top notch facilities. You should feel immediately welcome, as if you were being greeted into somebody’s home. The overall feeling you should have is that this is a professional environment but that it’s also warm, welcoming and human. Just look at the expressions on the faces of the children, teachers and support staff and make sure that you visit on a regular, working school day.
• Communication: what channels does the school use to communicate with you? Is everything done by email and/or a web portal or do you have the opportunity to speak directly to senior management? How often do they invite you into the school? You should be encouraged to ask any questions and if the management cannot answer specific questions themselves, they should ensure that someone on their team is available to deal with your query. Do they have informal events – not linked to raising money – where staff, pupils, parents and perhaps ex-pupils get together to celebrate the success of the school through what’s commonly called ‘Founder’s Day?’
• Exam results: since we launched in March of last year WhichSchoolAdvisor has campaigned for the publication of exam results by all schools in the UAE. For leading independent schools in the UK this is a non-negotiable. They ALL publish their GCSE/A Level/IB results. They are also free to explain why their school isn’t on top of particular league tables e.g they are a non-selective school, their primary focus is not solely on academic performance but on developing ‘the whole child’ or they focus on the arts/sport. The key point here is that parents are fully informed. Too many private schools in the UAE still do not publish their exam results
• Parent’s Evenings: in the independent sector these evenings are viewed as a vital opportunity to impress the school’s clients i.e. the parents! A lot of planning and effort should go into it. Parents should be individually greeted on arrival by senior pupils or members of staff. There should be clear directions to how the evening works and where parents should go. Senior staff should be available throughout in case there are any issues to discuss. Refreshments need to be served by members of the catering team. It doesn’t need to be ‘tea at the Burj al Arab’ but plastic cups and a serve yourself instant coffee just isn’t good enough!
• Extra curricular activities: any leading independent school in the UK will provide an excellent range of free extra-curricular activities. Every member of staff will be expected to run at least one exciting and engaging activity at least once a week. Many, in particular the PE staff, will do one activity a day. Schools have these facilities, so should be using them. In the UAE private sector a worryingly large number of activities require additional payment and are run, for profit, by private companies. If you have a sporting activity within a school, for instance, you have every right to ask why this is not being run by the PE staff. The same goes for art, science, music, drama and dance.
• School trips: parents, can you remember your school trips as a child? Did any of them involve staying in five star hotels in glamorous European, American or Asian cities? I didn’t think so! School trips are a vital part of education and independent schools in the UK will offer a wide range of trips to appropriate destinations whether that be for skiing, history, French or English literature. Schools in the UAE seem to think that pupils can only survive in the lap of luxury as soon as they’re abroad (or perhaps it’s the teachers themselves planning these adventures!). What’s wrong with youth hostel accommodation? What’s wrong with cheaper air fares? What’s wrong with trips closer to home either in the UAE or interesting countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus or Turkey? There are a wealth of culturally fascinating places within a four hour flight of Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
• Counsellor: some private schools in the UAE already focus on this important service to children in need. Life changing events inevitably happen to some children while they are at school – it could be the sudden loss of a parent or significant family member, an eating disorder or bullying, for instance. Schools must be in a position to provide skilled, experienced counseling conducted by fully qualified staff with great discretion. This shouldn’t just be a quick chat with the school nurse and a couple of aspirin!
• Food: a vital plank of education relates to what you put in your stomach and schools should see this as a vital part of their educational role. For private school fees in the UK a child will receive a properly balanced three course lunch with plenty of choice. What does your school here in the UAE provide? At WSA we’ve come across a massive range of options at private schools from greasy burgers through to highly impressive sit-down hot, nutritious lunches. Given that the UAE tops the global rankings for childhood obesity this is an area that needs to be taken seriously.
• Ethos: Perhaps most importantly public schools have a very different ethos than state schools. State schools tend to be driven by metrics with a strong, usually singular focus on results. Public schools try to develop the human, and the individual gifts of each child - whether that is a specific sport, a passion for the arts, public speaking - and so on. By developing the strengths of each individual, public schools tend to turn out more confident young men and women, usually more at ease with themselves. If they do have a natural gift for something, this is usually developed significantly. It is a statistical fact that while it is a minority of students in the UK that attend public schools, the country's private schools produce an unusually high percentage of its most successful sports people, writers, politicians...
So if a school in the UAE claims that it is operating at a level equivalent to a UK independent school – check out its website, they’re rarely shy in making such bold claims – feel free to hold them to account on all of the above. Talk to family and friends who have children at the school. It’s quite possible that the level of education you’re child is receiving is equal to a good state school or sixth form college in the UK. This in itself is no bad thing but as a taxpayer you would get this for free! In the newly competitive school environment – particularly in Dubai with the arrival of 23,000 new places in September – parents have a choice.
You should feel free to exercise this power.