We returned to Arcadia in September 2020 to see how the school had evolved since our initial visit during its opening year in 2017. We visited in less than ordinary circumstances with Covid restrictions in place, and no one could have predicted that the new secondary campus, which was due to welcome its first Year 8 cohort in 2021, would first be used to house Years 3-6 to help the school meet new social distancing requirements.
As students enter they are greeted with a warm welcome. There are the sunny yellow walls of reception, and inspiring words including the school’s vision and its sustainable development goals in its large atria. There are house banners for Poppins, Baggins, Potter and Hood that help to give students a sense of belonging. We are also told that parents are members of the houses too and, in a great show of community spirit, will attend school events wearing house t-shirts and waving house banners.
There’s a grand piano in each campus reception area where students perform, on tune, on Tuesdays, for parents and their peers during the morning drop-off. And there’s a sweeping showcase stairway in the secondary campus – both a functional and architectural feature, which, we imagine, will become a popular meeting place for students between lessons.
As well as helping to build a positive school culture by inspiring and motivating its students, Arcadia reinforces the messages that define what this UK National Curriculum school really stands for. In the words of new executive principal Giles Pruett,
“Arcadia is warm, friendly, and community-oriented, and we are very much about family values".
Back to that entrepreneurialism: The school's positive tone is continued throughout the campus through colourful displays that put student work in the spotlight, promote the school’s Junior MBA programme, as well as celebrate the achievements of its founding family – India businessman Mohan Valrani and his son, Navin.
Arcadia has two well-planned, spacious campuses with ample room and facilities for its current student body of 570 children. It is slowly growing into its footprint of a four-form entry model with 100 students per year group – and there is plenty of space for up to 1,000 students. As Pruett tells us, this is very much “one school, two campuses” where learning and student experiences will be mirrored throughout the school.
During our tour we found the school easy to navigate, and it has clearly been designed for both primary and secondary needs. As you’d expect from a school that’s new and purpose-built, it is contemporary and fresh. While Arcadia is an all-through-school, the primary and secondary campus each have their own classrooms and specialist facilities that really immerse students in fields such as sport, music, IT, design, and the arts. Arcadia feels both friendly and functional: there are shelves, drawers and desks filled with all the latest learning resources and technology.
We toured the campus with Executive Principal Giles Pruett and Head of Primary Mary Donnelly. No stranger to the UAE’s international school scene, Pruett joined Arcadia as executive principal in June 2020, having worked at Jumeirah College and GEMS World Academy. Mr Pruett’s three children attend Arcadia – a pretty strong indicator that he believes in the school. He teaches one history class every week, which is a sign that the principal is a not a school leader who likes to engage from the Principal’s office. During our tour, Pruett was chatty, engaged and clearly very familiar with the children, and teachers, we met en route.
The school has both student counsellors and nurses in both campuses. It's a safe and secure campus, with a security guard to check that only authorised visitors enter the campus, and thermal cameras at every entrance in this time of Covid. The school's focus on health and safety is perhaps unsurprising: Arcadia is named after a Greek island that was a wellbeing retreat for soldiers and aristocrats...
With a growing student council body that will include head boys and girls for all three Key Stages at the school, Arcadia's students are truly given a voice.
As Mr Pruett told us:
“Arcadia is a family, community school. We are all about knowing every child really well, having small class sizes, and delivering a nurturing, holistic education. There’s a focus on high quality learning and attainment, and there is a very strong inclusion programme; it’s very similar to an independent school model in the UK.”
What comes across about Arcadia during our tour is its ambition to try new programmes. Pruett says:
“We have a really good template for education here – we are not constrained by the power of the curriculum. We’re not an exam factory, we’re offering high quality learning experiences.
“Your child is not just going to be doing curriculum-based learning. We want our students to have a better learning experience than that. Universities are looking at applications more broadly than ever before, and we offer the breadth programmes and enrichment experiences that will make your child stand out amongst the other A* students.”
There is also the strong focus on social enterprise, which the school encourages through its Junior MBA programme for Years 3-6. There are wall displays throughout the primary school that highlight the young MBA students at work, and we were interested to hear how the programme is teaching students as young as eight years old financial literacy and “what it means to grow an idea and solve problems”.
Mr Pruett explains:
“It’s not how much money can I make – it’s about looking at entrepreneurship through the lens of innovation and development. How can we use our innovative and creative thinking ideas to give back to society.”
While Arcadia is a UK curriculum school, there are some similarities to the project-based learning of an IB school. Teaching moves away from the front of the classroom by encouraging students to take part in various practical, inquiry-led programmes. One of these is the APEX (Arcadia Primary Exhibition), which challenges students to step out of their comfort zone and work on self-directed projects; they are then assessed on learning skills including collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and creative thinking.
Mr Pruett says: “All the way through Year 6, the children will be working as a collaborative team to build a service-based project; for example, finding a way to improve the quality of drinking water. It is then presented to the community in an exhibition week at the end of June; it is like a hybrid of the IB Primary Years Programme.”
There’s also an Enrichment Learning programme at the school, which offers three free extra curriculum activities from Year 1 upwards; school finishes at 2pm for FS and 4pm for Year 1 upwards. During our visit we saw some of these enrichment classes in action, including robotics and dance classes; we also heard how Year 7 students are learning to sew and designing pencil cases as part of a fabrics class.
Ms Donnelly told us: “These enrichment classes are all included in the tuition fees so that every child is getting a whole education; it’s not just about focusing on the academic. We are exposing students to different choices, perhaps activities they would not normally have chosen to do. As time goes on, we will streamline the programme to utilise the extra-curricular time for children who are particularly able in certain areas.”
The conversation on our tour also turned to the school’s current adoption of a school in Nepal as part of its service-learning provision, to really get “our children immersed in providing support worldwide to those who are less fortunate than ourselves.”
These programmes all give students a valuable opportunity to develop non-academic skills. And, with universities increasingly looking for students who have creative skills rather than just strong academic results, this is hugely important. It all should offer some reassurance to parents looking at the secondary school. While Arcadia has no track record of GCSE and A level results yet, its experienced leadership and the strong, well-rounded performance of its primary school suggest it should perform strongly.
Our tour of the primary campus began with the Foundation Stage (FS), where there are two ground-floor atriums for free-flow activities that are surrounded by large, well-lit classrooms with floor to ceiling windows. It’s a welcoming, happy place with neutral colours, pops of colour from student’ artwork on display, and a very child-friendly design including low-level furniture and reading corners.
Arcadia’s FS is designed for free flow learning and for the school’s Early Years Explorer Programme, which gives students the opportunity every day to choose an activity linked to phonics or maths learning.
Ms Donnelly tells us: “There is a very collaborative environment here, and we want our parents to feel that they are part of a small community. Even when the school is at full capacity, it will still have that small school feel in this part of the campus.”
The other two floors of the primary campus are dedicated to primary learning with large, well-lit classrooms and specialist facilities. The library which is described as the “central hub of the school”, is an open plan area with lots of space for independent learning, shelves stacked with fiction and non-fiction books, space for library literacy classes, a themed stage and reading area, and a large reading tree that students can sit under.
“The library is a very special place and it’s a fantastic space where children can roam freely," Ms Donnelly told us.
Specialist facilities include a computer lab, canteen, art rooms, music rooms, a food and science lab, a dedicated science lab complete with mini lab coats and equipment for practical experiments, and a dance studio. There’s the Dojo studio which gives junior MBA students the perfect space for blue sky thinking, computer lab, and a Google-esque tech zone where students stand up to work on robotics.
Arcadia has a multi-purpose room used for PE and sports as well as performances and assemblies. Outside there is a rooftop play area with climbing equipment, a garden, and a football pitch; there is also a swimming pool for weekly swimming lessons and the school’s primary swim squad. There’s also a large outdoor balcony, used for activities such as the Year 3 sleepover and film night, which “prepares them for the outdoor adventure trips in the following years.”
In celebration of the school’s founder, Mohan Valrani there is a striking ‘wall of fame’ style display about the Indian businessman’s personal journey. This isn’t a school that feels like a corporate organisation at all, and Donnelly talked to us about how giving and involved Valrani is with the school with a genuine, heartfelt appreciation.
The secondary campus is all ready to welcome its senior students with dedicated floors and hubs for middle school, GCSE, A Level, and BTEC students. We were impressed by the large, naturally-lit classrooms, the wide corridors with plenty of space for students moving between lessons throughout the day, and the attention to detail and care in creating a secondary school. With the school’s focus on project-based learning, entrepreneurship and other programmes, Arcadia looks well prepared to give its students the space and resources to work both within and beyond the curriculum.
While the school is currently being used by Year 3-6 primary students, once it opens for secondary next year it will have classrooms on the first floor, specialist classrooms on the second floor, and A Level and BTEC hubs on the top floor.
There are specialist facilities for a wide variety of GCSE, A Level and BTEC subjects, including science labs for chemistry, biology and physics; art and design studios; food technology, textiles, drama and dance studios, a green screen room and film studio, and a computing lab equipped with the latest Macs. There’s a sixth form hub with library and common room, as well as a canteen with a friendly American diner feel.
The secondary school overlooks a superb outdoor sports field with 400m athletics track; other sporting facilities include a shaded sports court, 25m outdoor swimming pool with touchpads for gala events, and a very impressive indoor climbing wall. There’s also a multi-purpose hall which can be used for PE and sport, and then transformed into a 600-seater auditorium for school productions, assemblies and other events. In the music department, there is a small stage and open performance areas, six music practice rooms, recording studios and a large music room which is well equipped with many percussion, wind and string instruments.
There are plans to keep Year 6 in the secondary school to help students with the transition from primary to secondary, once conditions return to pre-Covid.
Mr Pruett says: “As a through school head, it is all about making sure our students are ready for that transition and can get used to secondary learning experiences.”
It is important to note that we visited Arcadia in the time of Covid-19, when many social distancing requirements are in place. Here’s a school that has responded well to the demands of the current situation and has made the health and safety of its staff and students paramount. Arcadia is only offering distance learning to vulnerable families and any students affected by Covid after 96% of the school’s parents said they wanted their children to return to school.
To reopen safely, Arcadia is well-equipped with thermal cameras at all entry points, stickering on all floors and stairways, there is infra-red technology in the air conditioning filters, and it has employed a dedicated health and safety officer dealing with Covid precautions. There are also some innovative ideas such as the library book trolley, which goes around the school to give every student an opportunity to select a book as the library is currently closed.
The school has segregated its six schools to ensure that each year group works within its own ‘bubble’. There’s a dedicated entrance for Foundation Stage students at the moment to keep them distanced from the Year 1-2 students; Years 1 and have a floor each in the primary campus; and Years 3-6 have been moved temporarily into the new secondary school.
In FS, each class is split into two bubbles with a teacher and teaching assistant swapping between the two classrooms; we saw the school’s youngest of students socially distancing by sitting on their dedicated piece of a jigsaw, singing happily during ‘carpet time’, actively involved in art and craft activities, and enjoying snack time at their table. We saw students in Years 1 to 6 learning in socially distanced classrooms where there was plenty of engagement and collaboration, smiling faces, sanitised desks and a positive teaching environment.
“We have a building that goes up to Year 13, but we only have up to Year 8 students at the moment," Mr Pruett tells us. "We didn't need to use parts of the campus for one more year, so we are fortunate to be able to house our upper primary students temporarily to ensure no cross-contamination between our year groups".
With the Covid-19 restrictions at the forefront of our minds, our team completed the Arcadia School Experience visit via a series of online meetings. First up, we met two Arcadia parents. Both families had been a part of the school community for four years. Mum Sheren had twins in two separate Year 5 classes and Nicola has child in FS2 and year two.
When we asked why the parents had chosen the school, both were first keen to praise the very efficient School Registrar, Lisa White. Their first impressions and communications with Ms White and the school had been incredibly efficient, much more so than other schools they had contacted. For Nicola, whose children joined the school following the family’s move from Bahrain, this had made an international move much less stressful.
Sheren and her family have been in Dubai for longer, but were previously with another school. For Sheren and family, it was the location of Arcadia that was the initial attraction.
“I used to drive past it and think, why I am driving so far, in all this traffic when this school is so close to home?"
She decided to tour the school on something of a whim, without any concrete plans to move her children. “I didn’t think I would make a quick decision, but I just fell in love with the place! After that, we didn’t even wait until the end of the academic year, we just made the move at the start of the next term. That’s how sure I was about it! It has been a great move for us all”.
We later asked the parents about the topic of traffic and parking around the school. They agreed that the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 crisis had, in fact, improved parking around the school. This was because the school had now opened up so many entrances and exits to facilitate social distancing. The school does not have a designated car park, and parents that wish to park their cars must do so in the community. There had previously been some issues with parents parking on pavements, which our panel felt was unsafe, but otherwise they were satisfied with vehicle access to the school. As with any Dubai location, the local roads and motorways could be congested at times.
Both parents praised the design of the school, describing it as “minimalist and modern”.
Their absolute favourite element of life at Arcadia? No homework (at least in the primary phase!). Children at Arcadia take three ‘enrichment’ activities per week, meaning that the typical school day finishes at 4pm for the Junior and Senior schools and 2pm for the younger children in Foundation Stage.
Typically, children will choose two sports and one other enrichment activity. Unlike some schools, Arcadia have been able to continue with a (slightly limited) array of activities during the time of Covid restrictions. This has been done but creating a four weekly rotating block of activities in which classes participate in their ‘bubbles’. Both the parents and the children we met were delighted to see these activities continue.
The cost of all of these enrichment activities are included in the school fees as is the cost of the school uniform. Both Sheren and Nicola were in receipt of a ‘founding family’ discount and both admitted that although they were very happy with the school, they might think differently about whether the school represented ‘value for money’ if they were not. As it stands, both were happy with what they were paying for especially given the quality of education and facilities at the school.
When asked if they felt that the school had any challenges, Sheren commented that the current ‘small community’ (the school is not yet full to capacity) could be both a challenge and a blessing. Some parents felt that lower numbers impacted things like competitive sports and joining teams, whilst others felt that lower numbers meant more individual attention for their children. Nicola was happy with most practical aspects of Arcadia life, but she did wish that the younger children could have a ‘pull over’ T shirt rather than a button-down shirt for their school uniform. She felt this small change would encourage independence.
Sheren and Nicola both felt that communication was a real strength of the school and that parent teacher meetings were well run and effective. The school and parent community were, at the time of our Experience visit (September 2020), just in the process of forming an ‘official’ parent organisation and were allocating roles and planning some exciting events.
Our parent panel praised the school for the quality of online education they received during the recent school closures. As Sheren put it “there were a couple of bumpy moments at first, but that was to be expected. By the end it was as smooth as it could possibly be and we had great support from the teachers”. Nicola agreed and said that when the school start was delayed for a week at the beginning of Term 1 (due to the need for Covid testing for staff), the quick switch over to online learning had been “seamless”.
Overall, the Arcadia parents we met gave us the impression of being happy, committed, and proud of their children’s school. They agreed that Arcadia was able to challenge each individual child (using "very modern teaching techniques") and that any additional needs were quickly catered to. One of Sheren’s children had been flagged for possible dyslexia, and the support and guidance she and her child had received had been excellent.
As part of the Experience, we also met Jimena and Mahmoud, secondary students in Year 8 and junior school students Mia and Alicia from Years 6 and 5 respectively. All the students agreed that they loved the ‘Junior MBA’ programme, the brainchild of Arcadia School CEO, Navin Valrani. Commented Mahmoud:
“It’s so interesting and helps us to see all the different sides of business."
Jimena arrived at the school three years ago from her native Spain, completely unable to speak English. She is now fluent and tells us that even when she arrived, she was made welcome and felt at home despite the language barrier. Said Jimena:
“At Arcadia, I have never felt lonely.”
Over the three years, Jimena has received "fantastic" support in acquiring the English language.
Alicia joined Arcadia three year ago and, although nervous at the time, felt that “there was something special about the place” from the very first day. “I felt like I belonged from day one” Alicia told us.
All the students said their teachers are ‘terrific’ and even ‘unique’! The secondary students had particular praise for a new teacher, Miss Ahmad, who teaches History, Drama and English and ‘makes everything so interesting and makes sure we understand’. Alicia told us that the teachers felt more like friends and that they worked hard to help new students settle in. Our student panel agreed that they could approach the Senior Leadership if they needed to and would feel comfortable doing so.
The students had very much missed their school during the lockdown period. As Mia explained “I missed school and it was so exciting to be back! At first it was strange with all the masks and changes but the teachers have made it feel fine. It’s just so nice being back and seeing everyone”.
If there was one thing the school could improve upon it was...the food! The children would like more choice and, importantly, better pizza! As an aside, they all also mentioned they would like more shade in the areas they are required to wait for pick up (which had changed and become longer wait times due to Covid-19 restrictions).
Our last school Experience meeting was with a group of Arcadia teachers. We met Madeline Storey, Head of Year 2, Jennifer Green and Micaela Jenkins of the FS2 team, Bryan Cahill, Head of Year 4, Tania Ahmad, Head of Key Stage 3, John Paton, Head of Inclusion and Lucy Grier a Year 3 teacher.
We began by asking some of the teachers how children had adapted to returning to school, with the Covid-19 restrictions. In the Foundation Stage, Ms Green and Ms Jenkins said that the team were monitoring the children’s emotional health closely but that they had been amazed with just how resilient students had proven. Despite the restrictions, the team were finding as many ways as possible to help children ‘interact, explore, be challenged and take risks’. Ms Jenkins felt that the fantastic space in the Foundation Stage areas had really helped with this.
In Year 2, Ms Storey reported children were delighted to be back in school and that her students were making rapid progress now they had a solid routine. “They just don’t seem to mind the masks!” she told us. Mr Cahill, who had recently joined the school from a school in London said that he felt incredibly fortunate with all the ‘amazing space’ available at Arcadia. Mrs Ahmad felt that much of the success of the secondary phase return to school was down to the considerable maturity of her students.
We then asked the teachers to share examples of innovative ways of working and teaching at Arcadia. Ms Storey felt that the school’s ‘fantastic’ enrichment opportunities were a great example of the school working innovatively. Mr Paton gave the example of working with students with additional needs on responding to emails appropriately by modelling online conversations. This had been particularly important during the distance learning process. “It’s a great thing to focus on” he said “as we can build both conversational and online skills”.
The current restrictions in schools had meant that children had little access to props for Drama lessons and Ms Ahmad had therefore been amazed to see her students use their ipads displaying images of daggers during a scene in Macbeth! Definite innovation from the Arcadia students!
When it came to their own career development, our team of teachers had nothing but praise for the school. Mr Cahill said that he was impressed at how quickly he had been invited to discuss his professional development with Mr Pruett, after joining the team this September. All the teachers agreed that Mr Pruett was keen to find out their aspirations and help them to pursue them. Both Mr Paton and Ms Green highlighted that not only their professional development was supported but that their was a great structure for the development of Assistant Teachers and Learning Support Assistants, a system which had really helped their respective departments to flourish.
Overall we greatly enjoyed our visit to Arcadia, and our meetings with the school's community. Our overall impression was of a dynamic and innovative school which emphasises both academic attainment and emotional and social wellbeing of students in equal measure.
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