NLCS: The Value in Dubai's Costliest School

With the official launch of North London Collegiate School Dubai last week, we take a look at just what parents at the school will get for their money...
NLCS: The Value in Dubai's Costliest School
By C Hoppe
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"The UAE's most expensive school officially opens" the National newspaper wrote as its headline, choosing the one facet that North London Collegiate School Dubai itself would have probably downplayed, on its official opening with 250 students last week.

But then fees catch attention in an emirate where parents are very much caught between the desire to give their children the very best education, but to do so affordably. NLCS Dubai's fees range from AED 83,000 for Pre-KG (currently discounted to AED 66,400 after the Founder's Discount) to AED 130,000 for Grade 12. Grade 12 will open next year, with fees discounted to AED 104,000. 

Given this interest, that the newspaper chose to put fees in its headline was perhaps unsurprising. It certainly did the job - the story has been shared 2,500 times, multiples of the amount of shares a standard education article would get.

Previously the highest fees asked by a school in the UAE ranged from AED 84,000 for KG1 to AED 124,000 for Grade 10 at GEMS Nations Academy. However, Nations lasted just 12 months before being merged with GEMS Dubai American Academy

Fees at NLCS Dubai are clearly equally ambitious. However, in truth they are nowhere near as shocking as they once might have been. Fees across the UAE in general, but in Dubai in particular, have been growing year on year, making premium plus fees far less unusual. Even some Not for Profits now have fees that exceed AED 90,000 for their senior years.

However, for profit schools still top the fee tables. Repton School Dubai has Year 13 fees topping out at AED 120,000, Kings’ School Al Barsha at AED 100,000 for Year 13 and GEMS World Academy AED 112,000 for Grade 12. 

For top end fees, parents clearly want to understand what they are getting. decided to explain why and how we think NLCS Dubai, as the 'poster school' for premium fees, may actually earn fees averaging AED 106,000.


Track record...?

Would you pay more for a school that, certainly statistically, seems to provide a guarantee of good results - academically at least?

Yes, you would. We know this because you do already. There is a link between the highest performing schools in the UAE and top end fees.

More: See Dubai School Fee Insights

Higher-rated schools in Dubai are not only permitted to increase their fees by twice the inflation rate for schools, they do so.  This proves you will pay more for higher-performing schools, if you can afford to.

Note, there are signs that this equilibrium is being challenged, with Repton School Dubai, an Outstanding rated school, announcing it would reduce fees by 10% in 2018/19 as a response to market conditions.

NLCS has made much of its academic track record in its marketing. And in a way, rightly so - the school has much to be proud of.


In 2017, NLCS in London ranked first in The Times GCSE league table, and lodged the highest average IB Diploma score in the whole of the United Kingdom. The school prides itself on providing an all-round education, on being an Oxbridge feeder, consistently gaining swathes of seats in the UK’s top universities, and being able to name check exceptional teachers with real passion for their subject.

However, the UAE has tasted UK imports before and understands that cultures do not always graft so easily. The UK school attracts the best and brightest students and teachers because it has history, and it is as much of a guarantee of results and good working environment as you are going to get. Can the UAE school claim to be an academically successful school without a single student taking an exam there? The school is not the same, the teachers are not the same, and the environment is wholly different.

That said, for those who doubt NLCS can succeed in the way it has in the UK, there is some thing to be said for the expertise the school can draw from. And NLCS can actually prove this is not an idle claim with a real world example.

NLCS Jeju in South Korea opened in 2011. Unlike the Dubai school, which is IB all the way through year groups, Jeju follows the UK national curriculum up to 16 and then the IB Diploma curriculum for post 16 schooling. It offers a mixed-gender boarding model, and what NLCS calls the ‘diamond model’ of gender segregation: it is co-educational from ages 4 to 11, then gender segregated from 11 to 16, before coming together again for sixth-form.  

In the UAE, NLCS will be co-educational throughout. It will not offer boarding facilities.

In 2017, NLCS Jeju reported an average IB DipM score of 38, with 39 percent of students scoring over 40. That is some result; if the school could pull that off here, it would pip JESS Arabian Ranches, with their IB DipM average of 35.5, as the UAE school with the highest IB average. While that is very much an if, NLCS can at least show it has experience and evidence of success in transposing the UK school into a very different international environment, so far very effectively.

Note: the UK school offers both the IB Diploma and A' Levels. If a school is big enough, this is something that WSA recommends, allowing academically well-rounded students to opt for IB, and students who are specialists to focus on subjects where they perform well. In the UK school, two-thirds of students opt for A' Level over the IB (98 percent achieving A*-B). This will not be an option available in the UAE.


History and Alumni

Even the oldest schools in the UAE do not really do the alumni thing very well, certainly not when compared to British private schools. This is to some degree understandable. Many private schools in Europe measure their age in 100s of years. Schools in Dubai at the most in tens of years.

NLCS London is actually not that old compared to many UK private schools, however, it is still three times the age of Dubai's oldest school, Dubai English Speaking School, which opened in 1963, making it 53. NLCS was founded in 1850 to give girls an equivalent education to the top British male private schools of the age.  

This not only gives it history and tradition, but also gives it a lot of alumni - Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, actress Rachel Weisz, and scientist Rosalind Franklin being the most well-known and celebrated. 

NLCS also has an international alumni in South Korea, and will have a family very soon in Singapore too.

How much each country-specific school can benefit from each others' alumni remains to be seen, and really depends on how integrated the schools become operationally.  If the Dubai, Korea, and Singapore schools form close partnerships, then a single NLCS alumni is a possibility. If the schools are run as standalone businesses, then the benefits will be far more muted.

The school has the intent of forging links: 

"NLCS Dubai retains a deep connection to our London 'mother’ school, and an unremitting commitment to replicating the NLCS quality and ethos. Our London school has a key role in recruiting and training our teaching staff. We benefit from regular monitoring visits and inspections, and are committed to forging substantial links between pupils and teachers across our schools. NLCS Dubai follows in the footsteps of our already highly successful overseas campus in Jeju, South Korea, creating a family of schools that continues to build our ‘community for life’, via our Old North Londoner networks."

 Only time will tell us how successful it proves to be in doing so.


The Teaching Staff

NLCS Dubai Principal, Daniel Lewis. Image source: The National.

A key to ensuring the brand is consistent across schools lies in staffing, and there is no more important position than the headmaster. Fortunate then, that Principal Daniel Lewis is NLCS ‘through and through’, having worked 16 years with the school group. He was also responsible for the set-up and launch of Jeju.

In addition, Bernice McCabe, former head of NLCS London, is now heading up International and will likely be closely involved with the Dubai school. McCabe is highly-rated among her peers in the independent sector in the UK, and is likely to be a source of considerable added value to NLCS Dubai.

NLCS has clearly ‘cherry-picked’ its teachers thoughtfully, globally - and locally. The school has recruited several candidates closer to home, primarily from the highly-regarded Sharjah English School and the Kings’ group of schools.

On the whole, NLCS Dubai teachers are UK educated and highly-experienced, often both in the UK and having held positions in key overseas international schools. A significant proportion of upper management already have NLCS experience, primarily in NLCS Jeju.

All teachers emphasise their passion not just for teaching but their specific subject, in keeping with the British private school ethos.


How Selective is Selective?

There’s no escaping it; across all three NLCS schools, the admissions policy is selective. While not everyone is a fan of selective schools, it is proven that bright students tend to do better when surrounded by other bright students. In other words, being selective is a value adding factor.

NLCS Dubai clearly aims to be selective. Its website states:

"The assessment process may include (for younger pupils) testing for school readiness, behavioral development, sociability, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and mathematical skills. For older students, testing may include verbal and non-verbal reasoning, working memory, processing speed, mathematical ability and interview.”

The NLCS Jeju website offers more information on the testing in South Korea, stating:

“Entry to the school is selective. Admission is through group and individual assessment into nursery, reception and years 1 to 3; the school sets entrance tests in mathematics and English for applicants to years 4 upwards as well as making use of the CAT test. All students are interviewed before a final decision is made on their entry to the school."

Ultimately, how selective a school can be of course depends on how much demand it has. This matters far more than the school's own selection criteria. In the UK for example, hundreds would be applying, but only 20 students would get a place at Post-16. In the UAE, only Dubai College has been able to claim that level of demand, and that was in the past, prior to the influx of new schools over the last half decade which has opened up choice to parents across the UAE to a level previously unimagined. 

It seems obvious that NLCS will not be able to generate the level of demand its sister school in the UK can until year in, year out it tops academic league tables in the UAE. And that cannot happen overnight. Like all new schools NLCS's biggest issue will be marketing for students.

Interestingly, the stricter the school is on its school fees, the less possibility it will have of recruiting the best and brightest students in the UAE. The most obvious solution for this is for NLCS Dubai to launch academic scholarships.


Maintaining The NLCS Standards

Although NLCS Dubai will not be inspected by the KHDA for the first three years of operation, we should expect a progress report from the NLCS brand itself.

Teams of both in-house and external inspectors employed by NLCS London inspect NLCS Jeju annually. The reports are public and address issues much like the British Schools Overseas publications. The reports look, primarily, at curriculum, pastoral care, teaching, leadership, and management.

The 2017 report on NLCS Jeju found most of the provision to be outstanding, noting the IB Diploma results had risen from an average 37 points to 38.

Recommended improvements included additional pastoral care, improvement in the quality of marking, and... “in the junior school there is a need to continue to ensure that there is stretch and challenge in every lesson”.

The school's website indicates NLCS Dubai will subject itself to similar inspections. We think it is in the school's interest that it does so, not only to ensure the brand values remain consistent across schools, but as a very compelling marketing tool to assure parents that NLCS Dubai is very much NLCS in London.

“Finding the right school before moving here was a huge consideration... The school stood out, and I loved the way the education was delivered in London.... It is very important to us to know the children will be getting the same standard of education here in the UAE as in the UK..." Parent, Tina Wiklund, the National.


The Facilities

What is empirically evident is that NLCS Dubai boasts the facilities one would expect from a premium-plus school. Highlights include 13 science labs, premium IT facilities, tennis courts, a slew of sporting pitches and fields, swimming pool, and Performing Arts centre.

One of the benefits of all new schools is that the facilities and equipment are brand new. That advantage should not be underestimated. Conclusion

NLCS Dubai has a lot to live up to in terms of the staggering academic success achieved by the original school in London and, increasingly, by Jeju's IB Diploma results.

In Jeju, the brand has proved it can ‘transplant’ the best of the UK school, acknowledging both the original ethos of NLCS, while taking into account the host country’s culture. By recruiting Daniel Lewis, responsible for the set-up and launch of Jeju, as Principal, NLCS Dubai has given its chances a huge boost in terms of pulling it off a second time.

NLCS Dubai is, however, different in multiple ways. It is a fully co-curricular school, it is the first IB continuum school (Jeju opts for  GCSE up to the age of 16), and the most important difference of all, it is in Dubai, arguably the most competitive private education sector in the world.

Dubai increasingly offers an almost dizzying choice to parents, with an incredible mix of curricula, home-grown as well as international school brands, all at an astonishing range of fees. The emirate is increasingly the centre of the universe, and a giant laboratory for private schooling. NLCS is a hugely welcome addition to the emirate, but success here will be tougher to pull off. The school may well end up challenging Dubai's most successful selective schools, but it will need to play to its strengths, and be at the top of its game consistently for some years to come.

Founding parents such as Tina Wiklund clearly believe this is not only doable, but a goal very much worth investing in.

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