Cranleigh is set on a beautifully appointed, spacious and state of the art campus. Led by the quietly confident and highly ambitious head, the school has established its identity remarkably quickly. Cranleigh exhibits an obvious commitment to quality throughout and displays strong links to the ‘mother’ school in England. Cranleigh’s delivery of the creative arts is outstanding, helping to give the school the ‘feel’ of a top-tier UK independent school.
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is located on Saadiyat Island and despite its youth, has already created the atmosphere of a confident, private school with a clear focus and ambition.
The school was designed by UK architects Godwin, Austin Johnston and built across seven hectares. It is designed to accommodate more than 1,600 students aged from three to 18 years and is divided into junior and senior sections. At present, there are 1300 students with a maximum class size of 18. Because the school has such a huge campus it feels very spacious, open and modern. The three white block buildings are beautifully designed to create a feeling of space with high ceilings and lots of natural light.
Whilst the Junior School is more traditional in style, the modern architecture of the Senior School has the feel an art gallery or theatre. This building also incorporates a café for all, with a wide choice of nutritionally balanced snacks and meals.
On our visit we the greeting we received from security was friendly and we were warmly welcomed by Rose Prince who is Head of Admissions and Communications at the school. Like many of the staff, her own children attend Cranleigh.
The school has very strong links to the original Cranleigh School in the UK, and the school is clear in that it aims very much to capture the essence of what Cranleigh UK is. This perhaps is partly the reason for the school’s emphasis on the arts, which is, in turn, what sets Cranleigh Abu Dhabi apart. Music, the Performing Arts and Sports, in particular, are given enormous support by the school.
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi was the SchoolsCompared.com Top Schools 2019 winner of the ‘Best School for Theatre and Performing Arts’.
An extended School Day (with many students remaining at school until 6pm) ensures that children are able to participate in the normal academic timetable, spend an hour each day on homework (prep) in school and then participate in a further one and half hours of after school activities.
Far from being exhausted as one might anticipate, students seem to embrace the opportunities that this timetable provides. The Principal, Micheal Wilson strongly believes that “children who perform outside the academic programme, perform better in the academic programme”. He believes that schools have a responsibility to turn out well-rounded individuals and this can only happen if there is a focus beyond the academic.
We visited both the Junior and Senior sections of the school. 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).
Although the buildings are separate, there is an unusual integration of junior and senior pupils, as the older pupils often help out with events such as Junior sports day. Students in Year 8 are allocated duties around the school, including peer mentoring for younger students under the direction of the Deputy Head of Pastoral, in preparation for their move to the Senior School in Year 9.
In the Junior School, there are many stunning specialist classrooms and studios with what seems the very latest equipment. Students from FS1 to Year 3 remain in the Junior School building for almost all lessons aside from Sports. Students from Year 4 upward are also taught in the central school block where there are a wide range of specialist rooms for Art, Performing Arts, Design Technology and Science. Information Technology, including programming, is taught from FS1. Arabic is taught to all students from FS2 upwards; French is taught from Year 3 and in Year 7, students choose between Spanish and Latin.
Also housed within the Junior School building is the team that works with students who have additional learning needs. In addition to students participating in the Gifted and Talented programme and English as an Additional Language, Cranleigh also an SEN team to support the approx. 10-15% of students who are recognised as in need of Special Educational support.
Each floor of the central building is dedicated to a specific area of focus, including Science labs, Art and Design Technology of all descriptions. Design Technology is the most popular optional subject taken by students and is equipped with Laser cutters, Woodwork rooms and separate Food Technology rooms. Students work on projects involving Wood, Metal and Plastic.
Robotics is also offered as an After School activity and Product Design and Resistant Materials feature among IGCSE subjects offered. Both DT and Art departments are beautifully equipped and the staff seemed tremendously enthusiastic. We saw a group designing bookshelves in DT and the work was of a high standard.
During Art lessons each year group focuses on specific genres including Ceramics (using the on-site kiln) and printmaking among others. The Art department had some impressively detailed and creative work on the walls. There were also several examples of ceramic pieces around the school such as mini Totem poles, ceramic faces and a nearly completed tile mural.
Dedicated music rooms enable students to learn almost all musical instruments including Woodwind, Brass and Piano as well as a strong focus on voice coaching.
Full time tutors work with approx. one third of the school’s student body participating in peripatetic lessons. 60 students are currently working for external music exams.
The focus on performing arts is a genuine cross curriculum endeavour at Cranleigh.
2018 saw the school create ‘an original opera in 5 days’ with input from two opera singers and four professional educationalists from the opera world in the UK – a director, music director/composer, designer and choreographer. ‘Water in the Desert: A Zayed Legacy” was referenced by children, parents and staff alike as an enduring special memory and perfect example of the type of initiative that sets a 'Cranleigh education' apart.
The facilities complement the focus on the arts with several amazing areas for dramatic performances around the school. A beautiful theatre is used for major events; we felt it indistinguishable from a professional venue with stadium seating and even royal boxes at the sides!
We were struck by the enthusiasm of the teachers, the focus of the pupils and the small class sizes enabling the teachers to give each individual child time and attention. Several classrooms have tiered or theatre style chairs and desks which allow all the pupils to have face-to-face interaction with what is happening at the front of the room. Other rooms had a huge table to allow the whole class to be seated with the teacher to form a ring, again to allow interaction within the group.
French is taught by French natives as is Arabic and Spanish, so the children have a better opportunity to develop a perfect accent and understand more about the respective cultures. There are several IT suites even one which allows pupils to work on two large screens at a time.
As expected, the sporting facilities are also top tier with two huge grass pitches, four tennis courts, two swimming pools, four netball courts, an indoor sports hall, plus a dance studio and a fully equipped gymnasium. Extra-curricular activities are numerous from sailing to horse riding, from tennis, rugby and ballet to football.
The key stakeholders in any school are, of course, the students. We spoke to four members of student leadership during our tour:
Eisha and Omar were both proud to be members of the first cohort of Sixth Form students at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi. They have relished the opportunity to create a new chapter of Cranleigh tradition with both also saying how proud they are of the history of Cranleigh School UK. Polished and smartly dressed (the Sixth Form students wear business attire), articulate and with quiet self-confidence, we found Eisha and Omar to be terrific ambassadors for the school.
When compared to other schools they have attended, Eisha and Omar told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com that they enjoy more independence at Cranleigh. The students described their teachers as “always listening, always trying to improve”.
The Prep School student leaders, Zayna and Zakwan were equally erudite and complimentary about their school. Describing their school as “good fun with a relaxed atmosphere”, they were happy to say that they had witnessed only rare instances of “unkindness, but never bullying”. The student council (‘Cranleigh Voice’ led by the popular Mr Coulson) was always on hand to intervene with any of the student’s problems or issues. The Cross Curricular Activity programme was very popular (‘there is something for everyone”) as was the huge range of sports on offer.
With all of its impressive facilities, activities and obvious academic rigour, we felt that Cranleigh is a school that truly asks for a ‘whole family’ commitment. It was therefore vital for us to hear the opinions of parents.
Emily had recently moved to Abu Dhabi from the UK. Having had recent experience of UK public schools, she had a clear idea of what she was looking for in her children’s new school and “just felt that Cranleigh had the edge” over the others. With one child needing support for dyslexia, Emily had nothing but praise for the “very supportive SENCO” and described the school as ‘academic, yet balanced”.
Parents praised the staff as the single most impressive aspect of Cranleigh. Pastoral care was described as ‘superb’ with the tutors in particular developing a real depth of understanding of their tutees, their lives and their families. This attention to detail and the “family atmosphere” it created was complimented by all.
Parents believe that the leadership work hard to create an atmosphere of equality and respect. An example of this is the small but notable fact that support workers (such as the cleaning teams) all wear name badges (despite being in the employ of private contractors, these are issued by the school) and parents and children alike are encouraged to greet everyone by name.
“There is a genuine culture of appreciating our privilege here” commented Emily.
A further example of this was the story of Kevin, once an incredibly popular member of the security team whose terrific attitude, popularity with the children and families and complete commitment to the school had resulted in him now being permanently employed as a member of the PE team. “Everyone loves Kevin” said Nahla, “and we are so happy that the school have recognised his good work and are helping him to build his career”.
No school is without issues, but parents agreed that the school (in particular, new Principal, Mr Wilson) is willing to listen to their concerns. A good example of this is a perennial issue in most UAE schools ‘traffic’. Drop off and pick up had once been a “nightmare” but this problem had now largely been mitigated by some sensible intervention and planning.
Looking at the often thorny issue of price, parents agree that this is an expensive school, however they also overwhelming agreed that given the personal attention (there are just 18 children to a class throughout the school) and great quality education, the school represented great value for money.
We met five key teachers, as selected by the school. These were:
The teachers at Cranleigh impressed our team with their noteworthy sense of commitment and an air of polished professionalism. Together, they agreed that the real vision of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is a truly holistic, well rounded education with student centred teaching practise.
Teachers not only teach the curriculum, but have a keen focus on developing skills. Having been through the first few years as a ‘new school’, they all agreed that Cranleigh is now primed to move on to a new chapter – consolidating strengths and improving weaker areas wherever possible.
Cross curricula links were seen as a particular strength of the school, and something that teachers felt they had real freedom to explore. The often praised Performing Arts department seemed like a natural ‘hub’ for these cross curricula initiatives, with teachers keen to bring knowledge acquired in their own departments into performances and presentations.
The teachers were highly complementary of each other, noting professional courtesy, a well-used electronic pastoral notes system and peer observations as key to their own success and personal development.
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi was an ambitious project in the making and then an ambitious new school. During our 2019 visit, our reviewer established the very clear impression that none of this ambition had been lost as the school bedded into life as an ‘established’ school.
Cranleigh has navigated a change in leadership, its first inspection and, perhaps more importantly, the expectations of an equally ambitious school community with both dynamism and an eye on solid relationships and superb pastoral care.
Cranleigh UK may be the school’s guiding light, but Cranleigh Abu Dhabi has already grown into a truly exceptional school in its own right.
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