So what exactly does 150,000,000 AED get you when you're building a school. Answer... Quite a lot - but actually building it will be more complicated and take you longer than you probably expected.
That at least is the finding of GEMS Nations Academy, a project with a project cost considered by founding principal, Tom Farquhar to be “proportional to its ambition”.
That ambition has had people talking since its launch back in 2015. No other new school has generated quite so much public attention as GEMS Nations Academy. But then few have made its claims. This is a school that said "Outstanding" was not good enough, that it would be “beyond outstanding”, something until its arrival UAE schools had held as the pinnacle of ambition. If its claims got parents excited, the anticipation was soon tempered by news of its fees - for many "beyond possible". KG 1 will cost new Nations parents 84,000 AED per annum; Grades 6 to 8 'only' an additional 34,000 AED on top of that.
But then this is a school that is aiming to deliver not only something world class, but also unique to the UAE - already the world's largest private education market. With Nations GEMS Education has promised Dubai its first truly "21st century school.".
So it was with a sense of some expectation that WhichSchoolAdvisor.com toured the newly school with just one single question: how close GEMS Education has got to delivering on its very lofty ambitions? Would the school, open at last, actually be "Beyond Outstanding?".
Rather prosaically, the truth is it is way too early to tell. In fact, if you're honest it is never going to be something you are going to be able to pick up from the lushness of the carpet, or whiteness of its walls, the main things you get to experience on a tour. What does build a great school is a matter of huge argument between educators but it will lie, infuriatingly intangibly, somewhere in the mix of teachers and leaders, curriculum, its educational approach and philosophy, the inherent culture of its children, and in proven results - not just academic, but those reflecting the wider aspirations of the school and its parents - sporting, artistic and academic.
This Nations is only rising, and its light only just permeating and warming its freshly painted walls. The school has approximately 140 students between KG and Grade 5, well below the numbers it had hoped for on its launch but actually not a bad result given the tiny segment that is its target market.
The school opened two weeks later than scheduled on 14th September, and the school is currently utilizing around 15 percent of the building. That said phase one of the build is now almost complete and the school is already pioneering numerous high-tech and environmental features, such as a thermal mass cooling system and acoustic treatments in every room. It is these which we believe have taken additional time to install and simply, 'get right.'
As it promised Nations has implemented the co-teacher/lead teacher model – all of whom are US teaching graduates. The system promises “more classroom dynamism and less testing, while encouraging diversity". On our tour Farquhar also highlighted his recruitment of younger teachers - specifically co-teachers, who he believes have true 'native' confidence navigating the digital world. Nations considers the language of the online world - computer programming - as just another its students need to master - along with English, French, and Arabic...
Although the main teaching and some shared areas in the first section of the school are complete (including Science and Technology labs, Library, Music rooms and a Canteen area) much of the common facilities - notably the vast entry atrium, sports hall and auditorium- are yet to open. However the size and scale of these (particularly the vast Sports Hall with elevated indoor running track and the shaded swimming facilities which are due to be completed within the next 4 weeks) cannot fail to impress. Work on completing phase 1 as well as the shell of the second phase of the school, (not due for completion until student numbers justify it) has also delayed the completion of the external sports areas, but they will also be in place as the better weather arrives.
Staff have been at the school since August 5th and have therefore had plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of GEMS Nations' first students. There is no doubt that the delay in construction has caused some disappointment to staff and parents, but there is no evidence of students being anything other than busy and enthusiastic. The very high staff to student ratios currently, ensure that each child is receiving significant attention - something parents will no doubt welcome.
It is obvious that GEMS Nations is still in the process of delivering on its ambitions in relation to the buildings and facilities, however its commitment in relation to qualified, technology led teachers and innovative teaching and learning practices is already being met - something ultimately we believe will be of considerably more and enduring value, even after the dust sheets come off the 85% of facilities yet to come online.
GEMS Nations continues to show great promise, but while we would have had great satisfaction giving the school its first report card, it is too soon. One thing we will say is that the school could not be "trying any harder..."
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com will return to Nations for a second inspection early in 2017 for an update.
For further information, prospective parents can go to www.gemsnationsacademy-dubai.com, or can contact Ms. Diane Thorson, Director of Admissions at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 04-440-1500 or 600 56 7771.