The WSA Visit - October 2015
Located in the popular Al Raha Beach housing area, close to Abu Dhabi Airport, Al Yasmina Academy is among the newest and most modern of the Aldar Academies (the Al Mamoura School which opened in 2016, being the newest). The school opened in 2007 and, in 2015, put in place a management team that works across, and ensures links between, the whole school. As a result, the Senior management structure is larger than many schools of this size, with a whole school Principal, supported by 3 deputies and 5 assistant principals representing a mix of Primary and Secondary leadership. There is a cross-over of specialist staff through the Primary and Secondary school between years 6 and 7 aimed at creating a seamless transition for students moving between the sections. This seems to make perfect sense in such a large operation, where the two schools are almost indivisible and can barely be told apart.
Two of the most striking aspects of Al Yasmina are its rather unimaginative exterior appearance and entry through a small security and reception area with limited space and guest seating. This sets the tone for the whole school – it is all about maximising space, facilities and opportunities for the students who attend the school – not about grand entrances and plush seating or interiors designed to impress! The Primary School is located to the left of a large central atrium area, which also features a cafeteria and juice bar (open to students from year 6) and on either side of which 2 sports/multi-purpose halls are located. The building is 3 storeys and very substantial in size and space.
Foundation, years 1 and 2 are located on the ground floor of the building and are grouped in blocks of 5 (plus one separate Arabic) classrooms, located around large central areas which are used as appropriate dependent on the age groups, so full of play equipment and art resources for Foundation and Key stage 1. Classes each have access to outside space which is fenced off for safety reasons and includes practical play equipment, rubber floored tri-cycling tracks and, further afield, a climbing wall and rope climbing equipment for older Primary children. The rear of the building also offers massive Astroturf multi-sport pitches, ball courts and a very large and spacious swimming pool facility, which includes separate pools for Primary and Secondary. The whole school is very well resourced and students’ work is on display throughout corridors and central areas.
Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 are located on the upper floors of the building. Again, all classrooms are exceptionally large and spacious, all equipped with interactive white boards and central areas which allow students to break out for additional work or activities or small group interaction. Lap top trolleys and I-pad banks are visible in each central area. There is a “bring your own device” policy for Secondary school, but all IT equipment is provided in Primary. There is also a separate Primary library and 3 specialist Music rooms.
The Secondary school is set to the right of the atrium area. If the Primary School seems busy but relatively spacious, the impression of the Secondary school is rather more cramped. This is in large part due to the numerous specialist rooms which include 8 science labs, multiple Art, Graphic Design, Design Technology (including a bank of sewing machines), ICT, Specialist music rooms, music practice rooms, Food Technology, a Drama Studio and Dance Studio – all these in additional to the usual classrooms. The artworks on display are varied and demonstrate some amazing talent within the school. There is, of course, also a very spacious library and study area. The Sixth Form Common room overlooks the atrium from the first floor and is clearly very popular with students.
Currently students sit either Cambridge or Edexcel IGCSE’s in year 11 and AS and A2 in Sixth Form. There are 73 students in year 13 and the school’s current capacity does not allow for much expansion – hence a new Sixth Form Centre is due to be built in time for 2016/17. Some of the most pleasant aspects of the Secondary school are the outdoor seating areas which allow Secondary students to enjoy their lunch outside during the cooler weather. Lunch breaks are split into 2 sessions, so that the entire school is not gathered at one time and additional staff are on hand to supervise the outdoor areas and playing fields.
As with all Aldar schools, there is a strong focus on English Additional Language support, given that over half of students joining the school require additional support. As is also common at Aldar Academies, children in the Foundation years follow a programme of immersion, rather than separated learning. Thereafter, they are supported by a strong team in the Additional Learning Centre. Arabic and Islamic Studies (or Social Studies) are taught for 200 minutes per week (5 lessons each of 40 minutes) separated into native and non-native speakers (Arabic A and B). Literacy teaching in Primary is topic-based (similar to the IB curriculum Unit of Enquiry) with the same topic being taught across English, Humanities and Art classes for each half-term period. From year 4 children learn French and from year 7 both French and Spanish are offered.
There is also a strong focus on Special Educational Needs provision within the school – again this seems to be a particular focus of Aldar Academies. A Head of Inclusion works with 2 SEN coordinators (one for each section of the school) with 13 specialist teachers and teaching assistants working with children across both schools. Where shadow staff are employed to support individual students, Aldar Academies subsidises 50% of the costs for parents. The school even arranges Simulation Days to enable children to appreciate the effects of disabilities such as blindness or deafness and works strongly with the Community to support initiatives such as an Autism Desert Camp.
The school operates a strong Open Door policy and visitors to the classrooms are welcome – an unusual feature of many schools in the UAE, who prefer that classes are not disturbed. Whilst we can understand that this may be an issue during tests or for specific subjects occasionally, we have found that children in schools with an open door policy do not seem to be concerned by visitors and nor are their teachers – both are generally very proud to show off their classrooms, work displays and activities. We particularly welcome Al Yasmina’s willingness to show the whole school and not just the sports or specialist facilities.
Al Yasmina was rated Very Good with Outstanding features in its 2015/16 inspection. As such, it is one of the most popular schools in Abu Dhabi and we can well understand why parents are so keen to see their children enrolled here. It is a very large school and at times, the size can be a little overwhelming – particularly as it really is just one very large building with some inevitable overlap between Primary and Secondary, although time-tabling of activities and breaks aims to ensure that there is little crossover between Primary and Secondary students. However, what the building lacks in character, its staff, students and their work most certainly do not.
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