Dubai English Speaking School is the oldest not-for-profit school in Dubai and also the oldest UK curriculum school, having been founded in 1963. Although located close to the traditional centre of Bur Dubai in the Oud Metha area and with an external appearance which is very much that of a traditional single storey school building, the location and initial appearance very much belie what is now a thoroughly modern school. However, the original spirit of the school – friendly, amazingly supportive and caring – is, according to staff, students and parents, still very much intact.
DESS is now home to 963 Primary School students of 46 nationalities with a majority being from the UK. Under the leadership of Headteacher- Catherine Dando, who joined the school 3 years ago, and the senior team of Jane Shaddick-Brady (who has taught at DESS for 13 years), Tony Clarkson and Anna Lawlor (whose role encompasses coordination with Dubai English Speaking College for the transition of students), and Assistant Head Teacher Rebecca Eldred a key focus has been the development of the school and a closer relationship with its larger sister. This direction has been driven by a change in structure which means that the Headteachers of DESS and DESC, who previously functioned independently under a single Board of Directors, now work with the Principal, responsible for both schools, to ensure a much more cohesive and aligned approach.
One of immediate impact of this change has been to ensure much closer ties between the Primary School and College with students from year 3 to year 6 making 16 separate visits to DESC over the 4 years and there is now an increasing focus on ensuring that a coherent curriculum is in place to smooth the transition still further. This has led to 106 of 125 students in September 2016 moving directly from the Primary school to the college.
An investment of AED 18m has been made over the past 3 years to improve security and create an entire new wing of classrooms for the Foundation stage, as well as completely updating the Year 1 and 2 classroom blocks. The DESS/C team is very serious about maintaining DESS as a state of the art learning environment, albeit within a traditional setting, retaining the essence of a community school. Staff describe it as an “Oasis of Charm” and the “Home of Irresistible Learning”.
Headteacher, Catherine tells us that staff are passionate and dedicated – not only to their positions but also in their support of the school. They “walk the talk” with a number of staff children (including the Principal’s) attending the school. There is a mix of staff of both younger and older team members and those with their own children attending are particularly invested in the school. The dedication of the team is reflected in teacher turnover which is extraordinarily low – only 1 member of 67 is planning to leave the school this academic year.
Our tour of the school shows us the many updates and improvements that have taken place over the past 3 years. Most evident among these are the new Foundation section which has been added to the rear of the original buildings, overlooking the expansive playing fields, and the redevelopment of the years 1 and 2 block. The Foundation classrooms (4 FS1 classes and 5 FS2) are in a large open plan section with free flow between activities. Equipment is bright and light; resources are extensive. There are quiet rooms for children who need to nap or simply to find a quieter space, and these rooms are also used for Speech and Language support which is offered to children in need by an external organisation.
There is a large dining area where children sit down to formal meals with each other and their teachers. This was specifically included to ensure that children learn to develop their social skills in school. The Foundation section also encompasses its own segregated play areas outside as well as a Dance Studio and their own learner swimming pool. There is a sibling supervision club which enables FS1 siblings to remain in school until their older brother or sister is ready to go home. Class sizes are 22 in FS1 and 25 in FS2.
Overlooking the central courtyard area, the Year 1 and 2 block has also been opened up, with classrooms now at the front of the building, receiving the maximum amount of light, and the common shared areas to the rear to encourage a more collaborative approach. Again, classrooms are open plan, but can be separated with sliding doors if required. More muted tones have been introduced to the colour scheme and this fits in well with the emphasis on Mindfulness and PHSE which has been given core status in the school alongside Literacy and Numeracy. Children learn breathing techniques and take part in calming activities. Feedback from parents has been especially positive.
Children are regularly reminded of the 4C’s which sit alongside the core curriculum – Communicate, Collaborate, Think Critically and Creatively. Development of the skills is planned into the curriculum and children are set individual targets to achieve.
We visited the Year 2 – 6 blocks which are on the opposite side of the main play area and courtyard. Both blocks are due to be redesigned and the children have been involved in the redesign process, contributing to the choice of paint colours, furniture and seating among other areas. Classrooms are large with plenty of open space. The Arabic department has its own section of classrooms where staff are able to stamp their own design ideas and where there is access to an outdoor area. They participate in Continuous Professional Development together with all the other team members at DESS.
The school also offers a full range of sports and creative activities with a large sports hall as well as a smaller multi-purpose hall with stage which is used for assemblies and performances. There is a very large outdoor pool as well as expansive sports courts.
Year 6 follows are more specific curriculum (Leaders leading learning) designed to enable them to develop their independence, with feedback based around the 4C’s. Topics are project-based and students have a wide range of options. An important aspect of this approach is that children are allowed to fail, but in a supportive and positive environment, where they are able to develop skills for future growth and learning. There is also a stronger focus on the transition to DESC with joint events, a collaborative curriculum and a range of joint initiatives, including sports, charity activities and shared initiatives such as health and personal security.
Children with whom we met (10 of various ages), were overwhelmingly positive about their school. They spoke about the very caring teachers, the focus on both sports and academics which allowed students of all abilities to fit in to the school, the opportunities to travel and participate in interactive learning and the charity activities in which they supported schools in Dubai and Nepal. There was an emphasis on the family feel of the school and that no child felt excluded, a sense that DESS does not feel like a large school (helped by a whole school playtime that takes place on Thursdays). Above all, students emphasised the supportive environment that allowed them to overcome their fears.
Parents were equally positive about DESS. They feel that the focus is on the children and not on “the business of education”. Children are engrossed in their learning supported by fantastic staff and a community where everyone works together. They emphasised how the support provides roots and stability so that even as friends come and go in transient Dubai, children are able to deal with changes. There is also a strong sense of pride in the school and the positive culture that it offers including a sense of reality which parents felt was also vitally important.
Some of the parents we spoke with were “Second generation families”, having attended the school themselves in the 1990’s. They noted the excellent teaching across the board – including Arabic for native speakers – but especially wanted to see the school remain largely as it is from a structural and cultural perspective. They cherish the “heart, the feeling, the familiarity and the history” – and “shininess would ruin what the school is about”. For them, changes to the school have been solely positive – none of them would consider moving their children to another school, no matter how far they drive or how long the journey takes.
High praise indeed. If a traditional school with a modern twist and with a strong focus on academic and personal skills is what parents are seeking for their children, they should certainly investigate DESS.
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