The confident team behind ASCS display little anxiety about this though, in fact the atmosphere during our early morning visit is described as positively buoyant. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation amongst the team, not least from Mrs Sue Johnston, Al Salam’s Founder and one of the most respected names in UAE education. Mrs Johnston held the position of Principal at Al Salam Private School for more than three decades, before relinquishing the role to focus on the creation of the new school.
At a time where many new schools have faced challenges with enrolments, ASCS will have a bustling atmosphere from the start. Some 800 students (400 secondary, 300 primary and 100 Foundation Stage, representing just over 35% of the total ASCS capacity of 2200 students) will walk through the doors and get to work on day one. Staff recruitment is all but complete, with a mixture of experienced existing staff and new hires making up the new faculty.
The school will be led by Mr Kausor Amin-Ali, a highly experienced British school leader who qualified as a teacher from the University of Cambridge. Mr Amin-Ali took over the reigns as Principal of Al Salam Private School in 2017 and formally become the Founding Principal of Al Salam Community School in 2019.
Al Salam existing Head of Secondary, Ms Jacqueline Brooks Smith will make the move to ASCS alongside Mr Amin-Ali. A new Head of Primary will start work in August, completing the day to day leadership team. The team will of course work alongside the indomitable Mrs Sue Johnston , Al Salam’s Founder and Taher Gharib, Al Salam CEO.
We visited the new school on a hot June morning. Although our view was still hampered by scaffolding and by a huge crane that dominates what will soon become a play area, as we begin our tour it is becomes obvious the work now left to do is simply the detail. The school is here: very real and, very nearly, ready.
Our tour begins in what will soon be home to the youngest members of the ASCS community, the Foundation Stage. The first space that we view is a large, shaded (by floor of the building above, rather than sail shades) outdoor area that will be used primarily for play based learning. The children will also have access to a playground and an outdoor ‘free-flow’ space adjacent to each individual classroom.
Classrooms are spacious, and have extremely large windows for natural light. FS1 flows naturally into FS2 although the shape of the building allows a little demarcation between the year groups. Corridors are spacious and will provide extra space for learning opportunities. Colours will mostly be muted: white accented with the school colours of grey and maroon red.
As our tour progresses we notice that it is not just Foundation Stage that has been planned with access to outdoor space in mind. We see several balcony areas attached to key zones such as the library and the senior school art and design suite. Even the rooftop will see most of the space used for sports (including basketball and cricket).
This focus on the outdoors is intentional, says Mrs Johnston, who told us that;
“We know our community well and that many of our children live in apartments. So making sure that they have plenty of opportunity to be outdoors at school was an important element in our thinking when designing the school”.
Mr Amin-Ali is also keen to make creative use of the open air spaces, saying that:
“There is so much this new, flexible building can give us. For example, I want to give our students the chance to study astronomy. Yes, there is some light pollution here in the city, but I want to inspire them to go out to the nearby desert and study the stars. We are so lucky to have that amazing resource right on our doorstep. Plus, there’s an awful lot of options for us to place a telescope here!”
More than just looking at the stars, Astronomy represents a broadening of the curriculum that is truly at the heart of what the new, more spacious facilities means to this excited team. Although already known for academic attainment on a par with many of Dubai’s top performing schools, Al Salam has, until now, focussed on a fairly limited core of subjects and did not previously offer a Year 13. Now, with new facilities come exciting new options. A host of new IGSCEs subjects will begin in September: including Art & Design, Accounting, Psychology and Travel and Tourism. These and many more varied options will enable children to move into the Post 16 phase with not only the core academic subjects but with I-AS and I-A Level options in again more numerous subjects including Sociology, History and Business.
As our tour continues we take in the large, indoor multi-purpose space for Foundation Stage and listen to Mr Amin-Ali describe how sporting life is another area that the ASCS leadership are keen to see flourish in its new home. The huge, multi-purpose gymnasium will be the ‘crowning jewel’ in the new sports facilities and we were impressed to see how well spectators, not just participants had been catered to.
On the upper floors a windowed viewing gallery will overlook the sports hall, with windows that will fold entirely back to allow supporters to cheer on their teams.“I want this school to be right up there with the likes of DESC and Dubai College when it comes to sports” said Mr Amin-Ali. “Sport is definitely an area where we can improve and I’ve been making connections with other schools so we can share expertise and really drive the level of sporting achievement forward”.
Sports facilities will also include a 25-metre, 6 lane swimming pool (housed in a closed building to allow privacy) and a number of sports pitches.
Curriculum enhancements aside, a common theme of the discussions as we continue through the large ‘E’ shaped G+2 campus is that of heritage. Mrs Johnston and Mr Gharib are keen to stress just how important collecting and curating the shared memories of the school community will be.
“Al Salam Community will be more than a second home for our children and families. This is so important to our thinking. We all know that a connection to heritage is vital for Emirati families [who represent around 18% of the current school population] but we also want to preserve the cultures, heritage and local influence of our families from so many places.
We have families from Afghanistan, Syria and Jordan and more. Many of these families have committed to us time and time again. You know, we have some families where the third generation is now attending Al Salam! We want to capture what the UAE means to them, to preserve their family history and memories too”. Mrs Sue Johnston, Director
To this end, the school will include a Heritage Suite, situated amongst the Secondary classrooms and styled in a more traditional vein than the rest of the school décor. Here, children will find Arabic and Islamic books and resources. The indoor space will be linked to a balcony, furnished with traditional Arabic seating and softened with local plants. It also includes an Audio-Visual suite.
“We hope that our children will invite their parents and grandparents in to the school and record interviews about their memories of the UAE” said Mr Amin-Ali, adding that “there will be screens dotted around the Heritage Centre where we play these recordings. Almost like a modern day time-capsule!”
Whilst heritage is clearly fundamental to ASCS, it’s evident that the team also look forward too. Innovation will be a core element of the curriculum and Mr Gharib wants to see the school play to the entrepreneurial strengths already prevelent in students and the community.
“We intend to incorporate an innovation hub with a ‘co-working’ facility into the secondary school. This will mean that local entrepreneurs and business leaders can use our space and interact with and be inspired by our students. For the students, it will almost be that they don’t have to leave the school for an internship... We’re incredibly fortunate that these new school buildings offer the space and flexibility to try ideas like this”.
Last words then to Mrs Johnston. “I would say to anyone reading this ‘we are ready’! Most of all, we just can’t wait to see the faces of our students as they walk through the doors on day one. This is for them. They deserve this!”