Compulsory education in the UAE is from age 6 years to 18 years (or completion of Grade 12/Year 13). Despite this, it is very common for children to start school at as young as 3 years old (Pre-KG/FS1). This is, of course, the choice of the child’s parents, and the varying norms of a family’s home country often plays a role in the decision.
With a multitude of curricula on offer in the UAE, it can be confusing to understand which year group your child should be entering into. Likewise, with multiple changes made by the Ministry of Education to children’s age requirements in recent years, information available online may not always be accurate. The below is as per revisions made in 2021 and is accurate at the time of writing.
While Ministry of Education (the UAE’s federal education authority) frameworks can be refined by the education regulators within specific Emirates, the below currently applies to schools across the UAE.
|Grade (UK)||Grade (IB/US/Int.)||Age Requirement|
|FS1||Pre-KG||3 years old by August 31|
|FS2||KG1||4 years old by August 31|
|Year 1||KG2||5 years old by August 31|
|Year 2||Grade 1||6 years old by August 31|
|Year 3||Grade 2||7 years old by August 31|
|Year 4||Grade 3||8 years old by August 31|
|Year 5||Grade 4||9 years old by August 31|
|Year 6||Grade 5||10 years old by August 31|
|Year 7||Grade 6||11 years old by August 31|
|Year 8||Grade 7||12 years old by August 31|
|Year 9||Grade 8||13 years old by August 31|
|Year 10||Grade 9||14 years old by August 31|
|Year 11||Grade 10||15 years old by August 31|
|Year 12||Grade 11||16 years old by August 31|
|Year 13||Grade 12||17 years old by August 31|
For schools with an academic year starting in March, rather than September, the same age requirements apply with a cut off date of March 31 rather than August 31.
Nurseries throughout the UAE typically offer FS1/Pre-KG and many nurseries in Dubai are now able to offer FS2/KG1 also (Dubai nurseries must apply to the KHDA and receive approval in order to offer FS2/KG1). This allows parents to choose whether they prefer a nursery or school setting for their 3 to 5 year-olds.
A nursery can, arguably, provide a more homely setting with more individualised attention (ratios, in general tend to be a little lower). Likewise, for children not yet potty trained at 3 years old or still developing other self-care skills, a nursery will often more willingly accommodate these needs than a school would be able to.
Another major consideration, since changes to the school week in January 2022, is that nurseries can offer their usual full day programme (some operating until up to 6:00pm), whereas schools must close by midday on Fridays and typically cannot offer a full day service during the rest of the week.
There are, of course, benefits particular to a school early years programme, one being the possibility of continuity, assuming your child will continue in the same school throughout their primary years. Another consideration is the qualifications of Early Years Teachers in schools; schools generally require an education degree or similar while nursery teachers require a one-year diploma.
An influencing factor for parents in choosing school over nursery for their child is the availability of spaces on offer when starting in FS1, and the apparent shortage of spaces for children enrolling directly into an older age group. While this may be the case in some schools, it is certainly not the case more broadly.
Barbara Exley, Head of Primary at Emirates International School, Jumeirah, explains:
"Starting on the school journey early can enhance the child's opportunities to success as they progress through school. [However], as far as securing a space, we have fantastic pastoral and academic support for any child who joins us later. It is certainly something which is not a barrier for entry."
After doing your research and making your short list (with the help of WhichSchoolAdvisor.com of course), you can make your final decision having experienced the school for yourself. Attending a school tour will give you the opportunity to trial out the journey that you'll likely be making daily, see the school’s facilities, have your questions answered, and often meet key staff members.
Clare Turnbull, Principal, tells us about the experience provided when visiting the Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai:
"The initial enquiry starts with the parents contacting our Admissions department through our website, social media or by phone, we then proceed to schedule a personal meeting with me or a member of the school leadership team, which allows the parents to really understand the RGSGD values and get a feeling for our community. After the meeting, the parents visit the gorgeous campus and see our learning in action!"
For parents not yet in the UAE, most schools will offer virtual tours instead. While, in our opinion this is no where near as good as the real thing (no 'smellovision' yet!), at least you won't be missing out completely.
School admission timelines vary from school to school; however, it is generally advisable to make your school applications by December-January for the following September.
In the case of some of the UAE's highly reputable and over-subscribed schools, it is recommended that applications are made further in advance.
Some schools do have very specific periods as to when a parent can apply, so once you have a short list it is best to contact the schools to understand their specific process, and get key dates in your diary.
While there may be slight variations in this list between schools, with possible additional documents requested, the below provides a guide on what you will likely need to provide:
Following a school application for a child starting in FS1/Pre-KG and FS2/KG1, the early years department will typically invite the child and parent to attend an assessment. This typically takes the form of a ‘stay and play’ session, where children come into the school setting with their parents and take part in play-based activities with other children while observed by the school’s early years team.
PYP Coordinator, Ninetta Challita, describes the early years assessment at Al Bateen Primary, Abu Dhabi:
“For our early years assessment, we usually arrange a playdate at the school, where the parents and the children come together at the beginning to enjoy some activities and speak to the teachers. We give the parents a tour of the school, while the children continue to play. What we are observing, with the children, is their social skills, how they interact, how they converse, and their level of focus on one particular task. We also look at their fine motor and gross motor skills.
"If we feel a child may need some additional support, we may arrange a second assessment, to gain a better understanding of the child’s needs.”
Clare Turnbull, Principal at Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai, paints a similar picture:
"For entry into Nursery and Reception, the prospective pupils and their parents will be invited to attend a short play session with the Assistant Head, Early Years. The pupils will be assessed through play-based activities, pupils will share colour, shapes, number and letter awareness.
"For prospective pupils looking to enter Prep, the academic team observe and speak with the children to assess their ability to access the English language, speech, behaviour, and social interaction to determine the development stage for their age. The assessments remain very informal so that pupils are at ease and comfortable."
For children joining the school in an older age group, alternative means of gathering this information may be used, such as reports from the child's previous school. Barbara Exley, Head of Primary, explains Emirates International School's process:
"Students in higher grades will be accepted on previous school reports, with an early internal assessment procedure by the teachers to determine benchmark levels, which indicate how and where the student can make progress."
Following the assessment, your child may be offered a place in the school of your choice. The time it takes to receive this will vary from school to school, but planning ahead when making your applications will ensure this is a tension-free process.
If your child is on a waiting list for your first-choice school, don’t feel disheartened – there is always movement across schools in the UAE, particularly during the re-registration period. However, to avoid being placed on a waiting list, apply as early as possible and do your research well in advance.
Victoria Lumby, Vice President – Enrolments, GEMS Education, tells us:
“When applying to your first-choice school, it’s always a good idea to simultaneously apply to another top school, especially if your first choice is in high demand. Having a backup means you will still be happy and satisfied if your first choice school can’t accommodate you for some reason."
"If you're not sure which other schools to consider, ask for recommendations from your first choice school. Any good school should be able to refer you and provide support with finding another school that meets your requirements. At GEMS, for example, we have a dedicated team at the GEMS Parent Experience Centre who help with just that, assisting families to find the right school across our network.”
For children joining a school in the early years, most schools will offer taster sessions or settling in sessions, to allow your child to get familiar with school and the teachers. Some schools will encourage parents to attend these sessions with their child while others will request parents do not stay but that child attends for only a short period of time. Rules relating to the pandemic have limited the ability of schools to offer this.
Older children may be invited for a visit to the school before they start, to meet teachers and gain an understanding of the school’s expectations and approach. This can support the child in integrating into their new school community with confidence.
We hope you have found this guide helpful as you move towards enrolling your child in a UAE school. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com exists to guide you through making key decisions on your child’s education and ensure you have access to all the information you need to do so. In case you have not yet made a decision on which school would be the best fit for your child, please take a look at some of our guides below…
Another major consideration for most parents is which curriculum would be the best fit for their child. Have a read through our guides to learn more…
Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (UK)
IB vs. English National Primary Years Curricula
Schools with spaces available
Schools and Nurseries With Places Right Now
20 Affordable British Schools in Dubai
Outstanding Nurseries in Abu Dhabi
10 of the Best Nurseries in Dubai