After all these changes and iterations, we felt it was time to visit and uncover what day to day life at GEMS Al Barsha National School is like for both students and staff.
GEMS Al Barsha National School (GNS) is situated on what is often colloquially know as “School Street”, a stretch of Al Barsha South home to several schools and just off the arterial connections and key commuter routes of Umm Suqeim Street (D63) and Hessa Street (D61).
The attractive building has clearly been designed to reflect the intention of delivering an education of international standards that is rooted in the Arabic and Islamic culture. The school’s curriculum, (explored in more detail in our School Review) is a purposeful blend of the English National Curriculum and the UAE Ministry of Education’s Arabic, Islamic and Social Studies curricula.
Education at GNS is delivered in a mixed sex environment from FS1 to Year 3. From Year 4 onwards there is a single sex learning environment.
We received an exceptionally warm welcome on our visit to the school, and spent the first portion of our day interviewing the Principal, Karim Murcia. Mr Murcia moved across to the new iteration of GNS after a stint leading the boys school. Originally a secondary trained languages teacher, Mr Murcia hails from the UK, where his prior career saw him lead a number of outstanding schools.
We asked Mr Murcia to explain to us what first drew him to a career in education. He responded that his own education had “transformed his life” by addressing some of the challenges his family had experienced. As a result, he had become passionate about the transformative power of education.
After studying for a degree in French and Arabic in London, Mr Murcia began his teaching career as a secondary teacher, quickly progressing to Head of Languages and becoming a Senior Leader. 2015 saw his first appointment as a Principal, a role where he founded a new Islamic ethos faith school, just outside of London. This school was quickly judged to be both “outstanding” by the UK’s school inspectorate, OFSTED, and amongst the top 1% of schools for student progress in the country.
The opportunity to lead GNS proved appealing to Mr Murcia for the parallels in Islamic ethos as well as the connections to his own part Arabic ethnicity and passion for the Arabic language.
The GNS community currently comprises 77% UAE nationals, with a total of 1150 student enrolled across both the primary and secondary school. Non-Emirati students typically hail from other Arab nations. The male/female split is, at present, almost an equal 50/50 and the proportion of students with additional needs is, we are told, “in line with other schools”.
Mr Murcia explains that serving this “unique” community is a very special responsibility, one which has caused he and his team to reflect upon and “crystalise” the school’s mission statement of late. The end result, which Mr Murcia feels truly captures their endeavours is “Nurturing our Community and Empowering through Excellence”. This focus on empowerment is a deliberate nod to the fact that many students are likely to be among the “next generation of leaders” in the UAE. Summarising, Mr Murcia believes that GNS offers a, “premium British curriculum, rooted in the culture, values and vision of the UAE”.
As our discussion progressed, Mr Murcia shared a very detailed set of improvement priorities for the future of the newly unified GNS. GNS has joined several other GEMS schools in working towards a foundation accreditation in High Performance Learning and the curriculum is being enhanced by relationships with Arts International (including a recent performing arts residency, where students explored the twin themes of Expo 2020 and the UAE’s 50th Jubilee with two celebrated British stage professionals).
For Post 16 students, who are currently offered AS and A Level options (students can choose from Business, Maths, IT, Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, Sociology and English Language at A/S Level), Mr Murcia soon hopes to offer the IB Certificate Programme. He explained the importance of this new pathway saying that;
“We were so encouraged by our first set of grades. We have students who have demonstrated that they can be very successful at AS Level, and we have students who find it a challenge. Our students need a vocational pathway and we are working really hard to gain that accreditation”.
GNS has recently joined the GEMS Wellington “cluster” of schools, meaning that staff will work alongside their peers at GEMS Wellington Academy, Dubai Silicon Oasis, GEMS Wellington Qatar, GEMS Wellington International School, Al Khail, something that all the teaching staff we meet believe will be of great benefit in terms of their own training and professional development.
The school also hopes to become an Apple Distinguished School, and have prioritised this training for teachers across the current academic year. The school intends to welcome the British Schools Overseas inspectorate in January 2022, and Mr Murcia describes he and his team as being “on a roadmap to outstanding”. If challenges lie ahead, Mr Murcia says that they are the challenges common to all new schools,
“We have Year 13 for the first time. Some of our teachers are teaching the Year 13 A Level curriculum for the first time. We need to make sure that the curriculum is robust and meets our students needs. What we really miss at the moment is our oldest students having role models in terms of exam results. We have put significant staffing and leadership into our Post 16 team to fulfil any gaps that we might have” Karim Murcia, Principal
Concluding our time with this clearly dedicated and enthusiastic school Principal, we ask Mr Murcia to describe something that is perhaps not widely known about his school. He smiles as he responds,
“We had a recent visitor who described our students as some of the most polite and respectful he had ever worked with. Our student community is just incredible. This school is full of hidden gems. I want the world to see what they are capable of and just what they can achieve”.
Our GNS tour is an unusual one for the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com team, as it gives us an insight into the challenges that must occur daily when running a school where boys and girls are together for some year groups and separated for others. We walk with a mix of male and female staff and are amazed and the care and lengths that are taken to ensure that the modesty of female students, in particular, is respected. We comment that timetabling must be a complex endeavour at GNS, but staff and students alike appear completely at ease with allowing extra time for groups of students to enter or exit a space and, in the instance of a male teacher entering a female teaching area, allowing time for girls who wish to be covered to arrange their appearance to their personal preference.
These logistical issues aside, the school is a fairly typical ‘premium’ UAE school, adorned with many Arabic style design touches.
What is noticeable as we tour the school is a sense of calm and quiet. This is a peaceful school and we see only exemplary behaviour from students in all phases and year groups.
An interesting aspect of meeting the teaching team at GNS is the fact that many roles have two leaders to fulfil them, one for the boys and one for the girls. We were interested to explore how these partnerships work day to day.
Sarah Leonard, Head of Foundation Stage and Primary (Girls) works in close partnership with Matthew Barron, Head of Primary Boys. Ms Leonard tells us that the feel of this school is something very special … “You can’t make up this feeling” she says, “parents comment on it and when we interview for staff, they comment on the feel of the school”.
What Ms Leonard enjoys most about her role are the “relationships and connections throughout” and of course, the “incredible children”. For Mr Barron, who has been with the school since 2017, the connection between the two leadership roles is simple to explain. “Our work is primary. There is a complete partnership between boys and girls teachers. That is how we create consistency in assessment, curriculum, timetables. Our teachers plan together to ensure that every child experiences the same level of expectation and opportunity”.
In the Secondary school, the same parallel leadership role is held by Ms Terri Hadfield (girls) and Mr Vincent Marielle (boys). Together they describe the benefits of working together in such a way, especially in a school where secondary is “very much aligned with primary, the Year 6 to Year 7 change is mapped so well” in a community of “engaged students and skilled teachers”.
We are lucky enough to spend time with a large number of GNS teachers and leaders during our visit. From PE to Inclusion, Innovation to Pastoral care and more, our day at GNS gives us a very distinct feel for the people working in every area of the school. As the veteran of many school visits, our Reviewer is very much impressed by the authentic ease in these relationships, the long tenure of many of the staff with the school and by the support and friendship that is clearly being offered to new members of the team.
We meet a group of GNS parents, with children ranging from Foundation Stage right through to Post 16. The majority of the parents we meet are Emirati nationals, although some are from other Arab countries, much like the make up of the student population.
The parents were warm in their praise for the friendly staff, who had helped even the youngest children to settle in to the school with ease. For one family, this was the fourth school the children had attended, and they were incredibly glad to have now found the right one. All our parent panel agreed that the school offered “individualised learning” and that their children were making good progress.
For many, the defining factor for choosing GNS was what one Mother described as, "the combination of Emirati and Islamic identity, focussed on the values we want to instil, that same cultural acceptance and ideas, as well as the ability to focus on Arabic and Islamic”.
Parents were comfortable with the age of sex segregation (Year 4, this has changed from Year 1 in previous times). They also liked the flexible approach to homework, saying that the school understood that many families had two working parents, making family time too precious for hours of homework!
If the school had any challenges, it was the traffic on “the street” which was a daily challenge for parents. That said, our panel recognised the role for the RTA to improve this and that the school had done all they could. Parents would also like to see a broader range of second languages offered, perhaps to include Spanish and Mandarin.
Our parent panel unanimously found the school “expensive” but also agreed that, on balance, it was worth the expense. Of course, the Emirati families have the option to avail of free local schools, but they had chosen to send their children to fee paying GNS to be around families with the same “philosophies around education”.
If there was one word on repeat during our meeting with a group of female GNS students, it was “opportunity”. The girls all recognised how many opportunities the school created for them, and how the teachers appreciated their hard work when they took these opportunities.
The female students also like that GNS is a “very fair” school, with an “amazing and diverse atmosphere”. One Year 12 student described a real “sense of belonging” to the school, and another who was new to the school (having recently moved from the UK), said,
“I am new to this school but I have never felt left out. I have always felt a bond with everyone from the start”.
After allowing a few minutes gap for the girls to exit, our Reviewer met the GNS boys. This student panel described their pride in the quality of Arabic and Islamic learning at the school. Another felt especially proud of his school as he had heard that a daughter of the Royal family had attended the school!
The boys felt the school was a safe place, where any (rare) bullying was dealt with quickly. They all agreed that they could confide in their teachers, singling out Miss Paula as a particularly kind and listening ear. They shared some very funny and happy memories of school trips, and were looking forward to more of these as Covid restrictions continue to ease.
Many of the older boys had aspirations of careers with the police or in government roles and they felt that their twice weekly careers lessons had prepared them well for this. Others planned for university study after school, with the impressive GNS Head Boy aiming to study medicine.
Would the boys change anything about their school? We had to smile as the first to respond to this question said “nothing, it’s perfect!”. His (perhaps more pragmatic!) friends did however say that they would like more library time and a better range of healthy food choices.
We left GNS with a great feeling about what lies ahead for this latest version of the school. At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, we believe that success in any educational institution is built primarily by high quality relationships…between staff, students and of course, the parent community. By our measure GNS, has relationship building down to a fine art. We look forward to watching the graduates of this unique school take up their leadership opportunities across the UAE.
GEMS Al Barsha National School is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
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