GEMS Cambridge International Private School Sharjah is a new addition to the GEMS schools in the UAE, which opened as planned in September 2019. It is located in the Muweilah School Zone, close to the University area.
The story so far...
True to their statement that GEMS would focus on the non-premium school sector, the announcement of the launch of GEMS Cambridge International Private School (GCS) in Sharjah, shortly before the end of the last academic year, provides Sharjah-based parents (and those within commuting distance) with the option of an affordable UK curriculum-based education from the UAE's largest school group, underpinned by the success of its Cambridge brand.
Clearly, parents needed no second invitation to enroll their children at the new Sharjah school with 840 students joining it at its opening in September 2019. The school has also been joined by 60 teachers. Whilst not quite as successful in terms of student numbers on opening as the GEMS Founders' Schools in Al Barsha and Al Khawaneej, the new GEMS Cambridge International Sharjah school is not far behind.
In explaining why families should choose the newest member of the GEMS Cambridge schools, GEMS said "the new school draws from the GEMS Cambridge success story [that] is based on a legacy that is 36 years old. A multicultural legacy further enhanced by the presence of over 45 nationalities at our GEMS Cambridge schools".
Quite why it has taken GEMS so long to establish a further UK curriculum school is Sharjah is something of a mystery - waiting lists in Sharjah schools have been notoriously long. Perhaps the fact that an affordable school was the only way Sharjah parents might be attracted has not previously offered the incentive required. But with the slow-down in demand for premium sector schools in Dubai, it seems that GEMS has decided to look north at last.
The Sharjah school is the fourth in the UAE to carry the Cambridge name, along with the original Dubai school, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, The Cambridge High School Abu Dhabi which is also over 25 years old, and the newer GEMS Cambridge International School , also in Abu Dhabi. The opening of GCS also brings the number of UK curriculum schools operated by GEMS in Sharjah to three, with the established Westminster School Sharjah and the relatively recently purchased Wesgreen International School already operating under GEMS ownership.
Interestingly, the Cambridge International School Dubai was rated Good by the KHDA (Dubai's regulator) for the 11th year running in the 2018-19 inspection round. And both the Cambridge High School Abu Dhabi, and its sister school, GEMS Cambridge International School Abu Dhabi are also currently rated Good by ADEK. As Sharjah Education Zone does not publish the results of inspections, we can only trust that GCS will aim for a similar quality.
The existing Cambridge schools do not appear to aspire to reach a Very Good or Outstanding rating, but rather to maintain the Good rating that the regulators expect all schools to achieve. Inevitably, there are some compromises as a result - notably in respect of subject options for Grade 9 and 10 and Sixth Form students very often, with a focus on the Commerce or Science streams traditionally found in Indian curriculum schools. By contrast, GEMS' premium international curricula school, such as GEMS Jumeirah College, GEMS Jumeirah Primary School and the GEMS Wellington schools are consistently rated Outstanding or Very Good, with academic subject choices and achievement reflecting these ratings.
The school is located in the building formerly occupied by GEMS Our Own Boys School, in the Muweilah School Zone, overlooking the American University of Sharjah. The building has been extensively renovated. GEMS says that "The school is strategically positioned to provide the best access to students and families across Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman".
In line with Sharjah Education Zone's grading structure, the school follows a pre-KG to Grade 12 structure (equivalent to FS1 to Year 13), and opened from pre-KG to Grade 5 (Primary school) in its first year. It will extend classes to Grade 8 from September 2020. Classes are mixed gender to Grade 4, becoming single gender from Grade 5 onwards. The initial intake of students comes from 40 different nationalities, with the largest proportion (approximately 40%) from Egypt, followed by students from India and Pakistan. Class sizes are 25 in KG and up to 30 from Grade 1 upwards.
GEMS says that "Dedicated and passionate teachers [will] deliver education to the highest standard", but has not revealed further details. We now know, in line with the practice at the other GEMS Cambridge schools, that whilst the leadership is largely from the UK and has direct experience of the National curriculum for England, many teachers are from other English-speaking destinations, including the sub-continent, and are currently receiving intensive ongoing daily training and mentoring to support their professional development. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com has been informed that teachers are largely from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and the UK, with many of the first three nationals not having previous UK curriculum experience.
Principal and CEO, Mrs. Albie Huyser is a South African national with UK curriculum training, most recently having served as Deputy Principal at Cambridge International School Abu Dhabi and therefore ideally placed to support the new staff in their development. One of the advantages of this 'on the job' training is that teachers are being provided with development in the latest UK practice, and in some cases, UAE practice, which in relation to ICT is felt to be ahead of the UK.
Student leadership as a further focus of GCS with students taking the lead on areas such as innovation and sustainability with an organic garden already flourishing. Students also take leadership roles in relation to the Library and as a team of prefects.
A further benefit of the new school environment - as opposed to an established organisation - is that all staff are working together to build relationships and expertise. This extends also to the Arabic team who feel supported, can appreciate and experience Best Practice and have found that barriers to cooperation with other staff have been removed. The team is coordinating the inculcation of Islamic values within the curriculum for both English and other subjects. As a result, there is a fluid, problem-solving approach which enables the Arabic staff to feel supported - something that many UAE schools struggle to achieve.
According to the GEMS press release, "Not only will we implement the best practice from our family of schools, but we will also create a unique school with its own identity and strengths. We will create a learning environment that enhances academic achievements by instilling values, which guide the daily lives of our students".
GEMS Cambridge International School Sharjah is anticipated by GEMS to have a current capacity of some 1,600 students, suggesting a final student roll of around double that number once expanded to Grade 12.
What about the curriculum?
The school follows the National Curriculum for England which provides students with an education that is recognised around the world. It is a skill-based curriculum, supported by excellent textbooks and resources, with its own standardised testing mechanism. The curriculum fits into the English public examination system, which is recognised by universities throughout the world.
In launching the school, GEMS advised that GCS "will offer a robust values-based approach to education with a strong focus on design thinking and problem solving. This will form a core part of the curriculum which will enable students to explore innovative solutions to complex challenges".
Since many students at the school have come from neighbouring schools in Sharjah and surroundings, there is a very definite focus on building students' oral skills and self-confidence and developing resilience, perseverance and diversity. One particular element of the curriculum which students seem to particularly appreciate is the Wetel WeTV programme which is designed to develop students' writing and presentation skills, whilst at the same time enabling them to develop self-confidence.
Students are also expected to do homework which is aimed at reinforcing and reminding them of curriculum content, but GCS firmly wants the students to be able to enjoy their time outside school, and, certainly at this early stage in their learning, not to burden them with additional school work.
The school will offer a wide variety of enrichment opportunities. Extra-curricular activities take place during school time - during the last two lessons on Wednesday afternoon. Teachers are offering 'taster sessions' in activities that give them personal enjoyment. GCS aims to equip its students with all the necessary skills required "to explore the opportunities of the present and face the challenges of the future with confidence".
Currently, GCS provides i-Pads on loan to students, but will implement a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy in due course. Students who are Gifted and Talented or Musical will also have specialist support.
Once students reach Year 11/Grade 10 and Year 13/Grade 12 they will be prepared for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) courses, Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and A Level Examinations.
According to GEMS, in 2018, one in ten A Level entries at the Cambridge schools received A* grades and more than 80% achieved grades A*- C. In addition, over the past 3 years, GEMS Cambridge students have been accepted to 97 universities in 26 countries and have received partial to full scholarships to these universities. Unfortunately, in line with GEMS' policy not to be specific about students' success, they do not mention the percentage or number of students who have gone on to university, nor the details of those who have received scholarships.
What about inclusion?
Following best practice - GEMS has long been a staunch supporter of inclusion across its schools, having introduced the first Achievement Centre at Jumeirah Primary School in the early part of 2006 - GCS offers an inclusion team who offer support to children with additional learning needs, with intervention groups established by wave, depending on the level of support required. This team also provides professional development to Teaching Assistants and Shadow teachers. Where a student requires 1-1 support, the Inclusion team will lead the hire of an appropriate person (though parents will pay the salary of the individual).
The Inclusion team will also support children with Gifts and Talents and provides a separate English as an Additional Language team which is already supporting 77 children in the school.
What about facilities?
The GEMS Cambridge International School Sharjah campus has state-of-the-art facilities, including a spacious school library (offering a panoramic view of Sharjah University), as well as a Multi-purpose hall, Prayer rooms, Cafeteria, Clinics and Parent café. Academic and sporting amenities include advanced science labs, ICT laboratories including robotics, a STEAM Lab, audio-visual facilities, an art and music room, as well as Indoor and outdoor play areas for KG students, and a range of dedicated sports areas.
As a school in its first academic year - let alone its first term - it is unusual to have the opportunity to receive direct parental feedback so early on. This is a potentially risky move for any new school - after all, they potentially will have no real idea about what parents really think..
The team at GCS certainly do not have any cause for concern. The parents that we met (with children in Grades 5, 4 and KG2) simply could not be more thrilled at what they have found and what their children are experiencing. Firstly, GCS has established a Parents' Committee which has been enthusiastically received. It meets weekly and on Tuesdays there is an Open Door policy which enables parents to come into school and see what their children are doing, as well as providing them with the chance to discuss any concerns. The parents we met described their experience at GCS as like 'joining a family'. They particularly praised Ms. Huyser for her very open, enthusiastic and communicative character, for the creation of such a friendly environment and for the availability and openness of teachers.
Secondly, parents are delighted with the curriculum and more particularly the method of teaching and the relationships between children and teachers. Children are motivated and enquiring, and are learning at a rapid rate in comparison with their previous experience. Teachers have been quick to identify individual student needs and to provide support. Parents told us that their children are so happy to be at GCS that they would gladly come in to school at the weekend!
If there has been a concern, it has been the switch away from text books towards on-line resources via the i-Pads used across the school.
However, eight weeks on, parents are now enthusiastically embracing modern technology and their children's use of it. The final word was from one parent who stated "I am blessed to be part of GEMS Cambridge School Sharjah".
In common with arrangements for all visits by WhichSchoolAdvisor.com to individual schools, GEMS Cambridge Private School Sharjah was requested to ask parents and staff to participate in the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com survey. Unfortunately, it was not possible to arrange this.
If you are a parent, teacher or senior student at GCS, please share your experience with other potential members of your school community by taking part in our Survey here.
GEMS has, over the years, earned a reputation for "doing what it says on the tin". We have no doubt that GCS will follow closely in the footsteps of the other GEMS Cambridge schools in terms of curriculum, staffing and ethos. Despite the list of facilities, we would not expect to see "bells and whistles" - there is no mention of a swimming pool or Performing Arts Centre, for instance.
However, for parents seeking an affordable, "good" quality of education, with an established UK curriculum, GCS Sharjah will no doubt be a solid option.
What about fees?
School fees are broadly comparable with the Abu Dhabi schools and marginally higher than the Dubai school. The school is currently enrolling students from Pre-KG to Grade 5 with very limited availability and will offer Grades 6, 7 and 8 from September 2020. Judging by the parents that we met at the school, we would expect these higher grades to fill quickly.
The school fees range from AED 20,000 in pre-KG to AED 22,000 for Grades 1 to 5 rising to AED 30,000 per academic year for Grade 12, (subject to SPEA approval). GCS also offers Founder Scholarships according to its website, but does not provide details of what these might be.
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