School Tour! GEMS Founders Expansion

Now in its fifth year in operation, change is afoot at the hugely popular GEMS Founders school, Al Barsha. Having taken over the adjacent school campus, the school will offer “100% more space” and a host of new facilities from September 2021. We took a tour with Principal Matthew Burfield to see how work in the extension is progressing.
School Tour! GEMS Founders Expansion
By Jenny Mollon
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GEMS Founders Al Barsha is a school that has thrived since opening in 2016. With a record breaking 1800 children having started with the school on day one, the KHDA Good rated GEMS Founders, Al Barsha now educates almost 4500 students. From September 2021, the school will expand into the adjacent campus (once occupied by GEMS National School for Boys, now known as GEMS Al Barsha National School), a move which will, in the words of Principal Matthew Burfield, add “100% more space for 1000 more students”.

Work is already well underway to bring what was once two Al Barsha schools into one campus.  For now, our impression is that this does not yet feel like "one school" and that it will take time for it to do so.  Of course, what any school needs to bring it to life is students and they will not be using the new space and facilities until September 2021.  What is clear, however, is that when this enormous space is working as one, GEMS Founders Al Barsha will be a school of unprecedented scale and size.

Already completed is a huge bus parking area, ample space for the 85 buses that will eventually serve the school. Already, thousands of children attend GEMS Founders “from the borders of Sharjah, out to the desert and right over to Jebel Ali” says Mr Burfield, making transportation a key priority! Without such dedicated spaces, the sheer scale of a school like this could of course be a traffic jam in waiting, something Burfield plans to avoid.

The school plans to ease congestion with a huge new parking area for buses

“We intend that somewhere between 3500 and 4000 students will come to school on buses, meaning that for remainder of our families, parking and entry should not be a problem”.

After a brief look at the existing school building, we enter the new school via a brand-new play area, which is intended for children from Year 3 and up. The play space features an exciting, all wooden obstacle course on which children can time themselves with a solar powered stop watch! For older students, there are seating areas and a mini basketball court.

The new play area, which sits between the new and old buildings

We enter the building into what will become the GEMS Founders, Al Barsha ‘Inclusion Hub’. The space will be shared by Small Steps, an external therapy group who will work with children with particularly high needs, and “Flourish” the school’s own inclusion team who provide extra support to children in core subjects. Mr Burfield is especially excited by the addition of this space,

“Earlier in my career I spent 10 years as a Specialist Education Co-ordinator. To me, you just don’t have a real school unless it is an inclusive one.  In our new Inclusion Hub, there will be eight classrooms, a sports hall, outdoor physical development space and access to the football pitch outside. There’s also a lift, which will allow children with physical challenges to access other parts of the school. The space will have its own entrance too. The Inclusion Hub is integral to the school but has its own separate facilities. I think, of everything, I am most excited about this!”.

The ground floor of the new building will be dedicated to Foundation Stage 1. These children will again have their own entrance and every classroom will open out onto a central play and learning area. The FS1 areas were not complete at the time of our tour, but look to be bright and light. We look forward to seeing how the school makes use of the space.

A classroom in the new extension

In total, from September 2021, there will be 16 FS1 classes, plus 20 classes in FS2. Around 500 of the expected 1000 new students will be added to these two youngest year groups. With 25 children per class, this will mean in the region of 1100 children in Foundation Stage alone.

“If you think about it,” said Mr Burfield “what this means for the rest of the school is that only 500 students will share all the new facilities. I can’t tell you how excited my staff are, especially the PE team! We are adding a new football pitch, new two new sports halls and there will be a swimming pool, a facility that will be run independent of the school by Hamilton Academy. Parents will be able to opt for extra curricular swimming and our GSCE Sport students can swim as part of the course. It will be a great addition to the school”.

The Sixth Form study area

With FS1 and Inclusion Hub students on the ground floor, the remainder of the new building will be given over to secondary students. The school has inherited a number of new facilities from the old school, some of which will remain in use and some which will be repurposed. For example, a Design Technology room will be introduced for use for years 7, 8 and 9. Mr Burfield intends for the reach of these new facilities to go beyond his students, however.

“My intention for any school I run is always that we put the lights on a 6am and off at 10pm. Schools should be hubs of our community! I want GFS parents to come here and take evening classes, I want every facility used and every opportunity taken” commented Mr Burfied.

Similarly, Mr Burfield envisages a Food Technology room used for Food and Nutrition classes for students and the broader community.

All this new space and new facilities will mean plenty of new teaching hires for the school. Currently the school employs 260 teachers, from September there will be 325. As was previously the school’s hiring policy, one in two of these teachers will be curriculum of England trained and 50% with different backgrounds from around the world. “We find this works,” said Mr Burfield. “We are a truly international school in this way”.

Continuing our tour of the school, we view one of the three new libraries. The team are particularly happy to be adding a library dedicated to Foundation Stage. At the other end of the age spectrum, Mr Burfield “cannot wait” for his Sixth Form students to see their dedicated new study zone. Secondary students will also have a large new dining space, set up with new food stations to feel like a mall ‘food court’.

The spacious new secondary dining hall, which will have a 'food court' feel

Some of the new building’s interior décor will retain the Arabic styling and features that were created for GEMS National School for Boys. The exterior will be recognisably “Founders” however, and the older, existing school building will be refreshed and redecorated over the summer to ensure the extended campus looks as one.

Despite the new facilities and space, GEMS Founders Al Barsha fees will remain unchanged, starting at AED 22,455 for children in FS1 and rising to AED 33,683 for Sixth Form. Mr Burfield is noticeably proud of what his school offers at this affordable price point saying that:

“We know how important it is to offer what we do. This school has changed how the UAE perceives education at this price point. We are all really proud of it and excited for the next phase. I just love this school!”.

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