Following our last visit to Cranleigh, our team described the school by saying that “Arguably this is the most successful school at achieving the feel of a British public school of any in the UAE, in the best sense of the word”. Since this visit, more well-known UK public schools have opened branches in the UAE (albeit most in Dubai) and it was time to revisit Cranleigh to see if this significant accolade still holds.
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is located on Saadiyat Island, the new cultural home of the capital (the school can count the Louvre, and soon the Guggenheim as neighbours), and therefore almost an ideal location for a school – particularly one with an arts focus. The school makes an impressive first impression, with an architectural style, which we would loosely summarise as glass, angles, columns and modern blocks, that would equally fit one of the emirate’s high end hotels or art galleries.
Our day at Cranleigh leaves us with the very distinct impression that here, every detail is considered vital. As newly appointed Principal, Michael Wilson (read our interview with Mr Wilson HERE) points out, the translation and reimagining of the UK school began not only with the location (as a former Headmaster of Cranleigh UK, Mr Wilson has been involved with the school since inception and describes "standing here and literally choosing the site" on Saadiyat) but with the site plan, which is centred around the large (real grass) sports field.
How does the school feel? Experience it.
Pointing to the large oil painting of the Cranleigh UK which dominates his office, Mr Wilson explains;
“In the UK school, that grassed area out front is the social hub of the school. It’s really vitally important. You’ll see the children congregate and mingle there. They gravitate to the grass in every moment of free time and just ‘plop’ themselves down… It’s where friendships form and issues are ironed out. We wanted to recreate that feeling of an open, social and recreation space being central to the school, which is why our green space is right at the heart of the site plan”.
We enter via the main reception area, a quite spectacular entrance, but before doing so we pause to look at the surrounding area, full of attractive apartment buildings. We later discover that these apartments are the teacher’s accommodation, which were purpose built in tandem with the school. This commitment clearly pays dividends across the board , but perhaps most importantly to students looking for long term relationships with their teachers. Turnover in staff currently sits at around 10%, exceptionally low by UAE standards.
The school follows an England and Wales based curriculum initially, with EYFS and IGCSEs. Note, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi offers IGCSE not GCSEs with the exceptions of Arabic Second Language, Fine Art and Dance due to the unavailability of suitable IGCSE courses. The difference between the international and UK based qualification has widened with recent reforms. Visit our curriculum page here for more information.
In 2018, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi had a cohort of 31 students take GCSE exams out of which 25% received A*. 51% A* - A and 92% A* - C.
The school then moves on to A Levels, hosted in a relatively new Sixth Form Centre (opened in 2016). The school had considered the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme whilst it "watched closely the current overhaul of the UK's post-16 education landscape". However, the school has eventually settled upon a ‘hybrid’ A Level route, complementing the more traditional study mode of A Levels with an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). The EPQ is similar in concept to the IB Extended Essay, but more in-depth in delivery. It is completed over the two years of Sixth Form.
We spoke to Elizabeth Kelleher, Head of Business, Economics and Careers at Cranleigh, asking her what sets Cranleigh Sixth Form aside from other peer schools. We found the Sixth Form as ambitious as the rest of the school, with Elizabeth describing how the team focus “…not only on content knowledge, but on core and life skills”. These "core and life skills" are honed via weekly careers sessions and an extended, non-traditional work placement (which runs from October to March, and sees students working with companies such as SAAB and PWC three hours per week for 20 weeks).
Cranleigh Sixth Form has adopted the "Harkness style teaching" for its sixth form, which is a dialogue-based approach that allows students to further develop their independent thinking through tutorial style lessons around an oval table.
Class sizes are small, with a maximum of 18 per class (throughout all phases of the school) according to information provided to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. The single largest demographic within Cranleigh Abu Dhabi's student body is British (30%), followed by Emiratis (17%) and then Americans (13%).
The majority of staff at Cranleigh have extensive independent school experience, whether they have come from public schools in the UK or British International schools elsewhere.
The 2017 ADEC report ranks the overall performance of the school as Very Good [note, Abu Dhabi schools are inspected once every two years]. As the report notes, "Students’ achievement is rooted in their outstanding learning skills and personal development."
Key Strengths of the school include: the range of learning experiences that promote students’ personal development and learning skills; leaders’ vision and direction and their promotion of innovation; teachers’ knowledge of their subjects and their students; the school’s promotion of and students’ respect for Islamic values and their appreciation of the heritage and culture of the UAE; the quality of children’s education in the foundation stage.
Students' attainment and progress is mostly Very Good across the core subjects of English, Maths, and Science. As the report notes, "Learning skills are outstanding for almost all students because they are motivated and eager learners. They frequently choose to work collaboratively or independently, making mature decisions about how best to achieve their goals, including by working innovatively with ICT."
Impressively, students’ personal and social development, and their innovation skills are ranked as Outstanding across the school. "Almost all students," the report finds, "are highly responsible members of the school community, with intellectual curiosity and independence of mind."
The protection, care, guidance and support of students is also ranked Outstanding by ADEC. As the report notes, "Students feel safe and know what to do if they have any concerns. The school is safe and secure. Bullying is not tolerated and the school is a pilot for a national review of internet safety including cyber bullying."
Key areas for improvement have been identified as: further refining the quality of all teaching to ensure it consistently matches the best practice in the school; further improvement in the leadership and teaching of Arabic, particularly as a first language; the greater involvement of all school leaders in evaluating the school’s performance."
The entrance opens onto a large foyer which is light and airy. Offices are to the rear of the foyer and great care has been taken to ensure that each has windows at both ends, so that the light streams through to the Reception area. Several impressive student art works are on display.
There is a very comfortable seating area with large sofas for visitors. This side of the building looks out over the quadrangle with staff accommodation on one side, the main auditorium and sports facilities and a further teaching block (for the Senior school) surrounding the sports fields in the centre.
The classrooms for the Early Years and Junior School are located on the ground floor, leading off onto corridors to the left of the main lobby area. Each corridor has classrooms on both sides and a central area for play and group activity. Between the corridors are outside shaded areas which are used for PE for the youngest children currently.
Classrooms are spacious, light, bright and airy and pieces of students’ work adorned on the walls add to the busy atmosphere.
Great care has been taken to ensure that even the youngest children can see outside (low-level windows) and that equipment is totally appropriate to their needs – much has been produced locally to the school’s specifications.
The spacious school canteen is also located on the ground floor. Food is prepared on site and we had good feedback from parents and students alike.
Older students are accommodated on the Second floor, where there are also specialist Science labs (we were particularly impressed by the labs offering both ‘lecture hall’ style seating and practical work spaces) and the Library.
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi operates an extended day with students at school from 7.30am (for 30 minutes tutor time) to 3.30pm and later, as Prep time and Sports activities are built into the schedule (the Foundation Stage children attend until either 12.30pm or 2.30pm (depending on the needs of the child and family). Some children will take more than one Cross Curricular Activity (CCA), resulting in a school day that finishes around 6pm. This is an important point of note for prospective parents – the format of a Cranleigh school day has taken inspiration from the UK boarding school, where children’s home/school balance is an entirely different matter.
How does the school feel? Experience it.
Relationships between children and their Tutors (for those unfamiliar with this very British term, Tutors are perhaps best equated as ‘homeroom’ teachers) is a particular concern for Mr Wilson. Children are taught by specialist subject teachers from Year 5 and up, making tutor time an essential element of monitoring happiness and wellbeing.
Parents may find it useful to understand more of the typically British public school terms in use at Cranleigh. The Junior School is made up of Pre-Prep students from FS1 to Year 2, and Prep from Year 3 to Year 8. Senior School students are from Year 9 upwards. The division in this way is based on the traditional UK expectation that students at the top of the Junior School will sit the Common Entrance exam for UK public/boarding schools (this is offered at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi also). Students that remain in Abu Dhabi then join the Senior School in anticipation of sitting the UK public exams (IGCSE and A Level).
The ranges of CCA activities at Cranleigh is incredibly impressive with very varied options for children of all ages. We liked the sound of ‘Cranleigh Cartoonist’, Parkour and ‘Engineers to Be’ for Year 2 and with its proximity to the water, older students are able to take part in a range of water-based activities, as well as the more traditional sports and after-school clubs.
Fees are at the very top end for Abu Dhabi, where schools tend to have lower fees than in neighbouring Dubai. They range from 65,000 AED in FS1 to 96333 AED in Year 12. This is at the very top of the range in fees (and would be even for Dubai). However, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is positioning itself as one of, if not the premium option in the capital, operating in a very exclusive location, with the experienced staff you would expect from a similar school in the UK.
The school’s high fees have undoubtedly put pressure on Cranleigh to deliver quickly. Whilst some schools might have been rocked by the departure of a founding Principal (in March 2018, the hugely influential Brendan Law left Cranleigh for a role with GEMS Education) the Abu Dhabi school appears to have not only sustained momentum, but been reinvigorated by the arrival of Mr Wilson. Mr Wilson has a long-term association with the Cranleigh brand, and was formerly Headmaster of the Cranleigh Prep School in the UK.
It should be said that Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is has now passed the ‘new school’ phase. As Principal, Michael Wilson, describes;
“School’s are in a constant cycle of ‘do, review, renew’. Well now we’ve had the do and then the review, it’s time to renew and keep a constant focus on raising standards”.
Cranleigh leaves a hugely positive impression in terms of its scale, appearance and its highly organised, busy, bright and cheerful atmosphere. It has quite a reputation to live up to, but following our second visit to the school, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com team was left feeling the school is delivering on all its early promise.
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi has a scholarship program, which is "designed to broaden access to its holistic and enriching educational model, as well as to attract and support talented students who show passion for and potential in their chosen field." There are scholarships available in Sports, Visual Arts and Performing Arts. Applicants from across Abu Dhabi are invited to apply as long as they are entering Year 7 and above.
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