GEMS FirstPoint School is a UK curriculum school located on the outskirts of Dubai, just off the Al Ain and Emirates Roads, close to several large newer communities. It has a particular focus on providing more technical options to students, with a practical approach to learning.
The story so far...
There have been a lot of changes at GEMS FirstPoint School (FPS) since it opened in September 2014. The school is located at the edge of the Villa Community, providing direct access to children living in the local area who can cycle to school. With considerable development planned around this area, the family population is expected to grow in the coming years, making this UK curriculum school an obvious choice on the doorstep.
The school introduces itself thus: We combine our core values with cutting edge & innovative teaching, set in well-resourced and vibrant learning environments. We are structured as mini schools within a larger school environment, each with their own Mini-Head teachers. As a result, the School will ensure every student achieves their full potential with this structure of five age related mini-schools. Each mini-school Head also has strategic oversight which will contribute to a whole school strategic priority.
Much of the early success of the school resulted from the efforts of the Founding Principal, who was replaced by current Principal Matthew Tomkins in January 2019.
One of the important early contributions to the development of FPS was to put in place a range of measures to engage with parents and with the community at large. Access to the Villa project via a walk-way has been opened, enabling students to cycle to school. A Parent Council was set up with a number of positions filled by parents. Parents have a direct say in policy decisions (such as operating hours) and lead think tanks on a range of subjects. Student class reps will also be involved in these discussions. Principal, Matthew Tomkins, has continued with this open and innovative approach.
Now in its seventh year of operation, there is a sense of maturity about GEMS FirstPoint School that has grown as the school has developed.
With no new KHDA inspections as a result of Covid 19, FPS has retained the Good rating it achieved for the fourth year in a row in January 2020. FPS also achieved a Developed rating - the highest of three options - during the first Distance Learning Evaluation which took place in 2020 - the report can be found here.
From initial opening student numbers of 340 in its first year, the school is now fully open to Year 13. Its population had grown to approximately 1,600 students at the time of its fourth KHDA inspection, although this number has reduced to 1,450 in 2021 following the impact of the Covid pandemic and the economic situation.
In total, the Foundation Stage currently has around 110 students divided across two FS1 and four FS2 classes. Key Stage One ( Years 1 and 2) consists of a further 190 students with four classes in Year 1 and 5 in Year 2. A further 465 students attend Years 3 to 6 where there are five classes per year group. Altogether, therefore, the Primary section of the school consists of just over 760 students.
A mark of how well-established FPS now is as a school is the breakdown of students within the Secondary section. Key Stage 3 (Years 7 to 9) now has 350 students with 5 classes each in Year 7 and 8, and a slightly smaller number of 4 in Year 9. Key Stage 4 - the i/GCSE year groups of 10 and 11 - has 215 students, again distributed across 5 classes in each year group - though subject classes will vary in size dependent on students' option choices.
Finally, Years 12 and 13 - Sixth Form - have 4 and 3 classes respectively, but again, teaching classes will vary depending on options chosen. Thus the Secondary school has close to 700 students and is similar in size to Primary. Whereas new schools often have a much smaller cohort higher up the school, an established school can expect to achieve this level of balance. Average class sizes across the school are 22 students (the maximum is 27).
The majority of the 130 staff are from the UK with a sprinkling of other native-English speaking teachers. All teachers have a minimum of a degree in their specialised subject area and nationally accredited teaching qualification. All teachers, with exception of specialised teachers such as Arabic and Islamic, are UK qualified and UK trained. A further 40 teaching assistants are employed by the school.
Whilst staff turnover was at a very low 5% in 2017 and a remarkable 0% in 2018, there had been a more expected level of turnover in 2019, with 20% of teachers leaving the school - the average turnover for international schools in Dubai. How much of this was a reaction to the departure of the original Principal, or simply staff choosing to move on after a long period of commitment is not clear.
An teacher:student ratio of 1:13 is higher than some schools (1:11 seems to be nearer the norm in Premium UK curriculum schools), but should ensure individual student attention. However, this overall ratio does not tell the full story.
Within the FS1 and 2 there is a maximum teacher:student ratio of 2:22, but based on current student numbers this is normally 2:14 - so an average of 1:7. In years 1 and 2, the maximum is 2:25 but again the actual figure is 2:22 - so an average of 1:11. In Years 3 and 4, there are again usually two teachers per class, in line with Years 1 and 2. In Years 5 and 6, resources are shared across two classes - so the ratio is 1.5 teachers:27 students (maximum) but class sizes average 24 in reality - an average of 1:12 overall.
Once students move into Key Stage 3 - Years 7 to 9 - class sizes average 20 students with one teacher (the maximum approved class size is 27).
The make-up of student population means that there is a strong demand for particularly expert staff, with over 80 nationalities in the school, many being non-native English speakers. This is addressed in Primary school through dedicated Teaching assistants working with EAL students and by an intensive programme in Secondary. Additional after school programmes are offered free of charge.
Although the largest single nationality group is British (at 17%), Indian and Egyptian students each represent 9% of the student body and the school also boasts over 100 Emirati students representing 7% - a sign of just what an international school this really is.
What about the curriculum?
GEMS FirstPoint School offers the National Curriculum for England, including GCSE, A Level and BTEC qualifications.
The school describes itself as an "individual development institute" and specialist technology school, where students are taught the foundations of knowledge and encouraged to use technology and enquiry to discover the world and their own strengths and competencies. It is a GEMS Centre of Excellence for Digital Industries and GEMS Centre of Excellence for Golf.
The enterprise and technology programme which was a clear focus of the school at the outset, has been further developed with cross curricular links between Maths, Science and IT being built into the curriculum and a focus on programming for all students from year 1.
In Primary School, students follow courses in Computer programming, Enterprise learning and a Thematic Curriculum which is a project-based approach to learning that encompasses History, Geography and Visual and Performing Arts. The Year 5-8 curriculum is tailor made and student-centered, designed to provide children with the skills to be critical thinkers, creative problem solvers and forward thinking.
As students move through the Secondary school, an options phase takes place over a number of weeks for both GCSE and A Level students in which students attend a number of information sessions and are supported through the process of choosing their academic direction. This process starts with Q&A sessions (with parents), followed by individual appointments with Heads of Department.
Students from year 9 onwards have access to electives in Music, Drama, Art and Design, and Psychology. Enterprise classrooms have been extended to include Graphics, Textiles, Electronics, Resistant Materials, Food Technology and a workshop with full time Woodwork and Science technicians.
In June 2019, GEMS FirstPoint was announced as the GEMS school that would partner with German Engineering group Siemens as part of the KHDA' Rahhal initiative, which enables students to join companies for up to three days per week to participate in industry-level courses, qualifications, support from industry experts and internship experiences.
FPS has used the KHDA Rahhal Programme to establish itself as the 'Lead for Industry Collaboration' developing relationships with Siemens and other corporate businesses and thus able to offer business and commercial internships and links to industry for students from Year 12 on one day per week. There is a whole-school focus on careers, and opportunities for internships and developing career-focused competencies. FPS aims to enable students to participate in career-based activity with competency and skill development assessed and measured from FS upwards.
In March 2021, the school announced further enhancements to its BTEC programmes announcing that it will become the first school in the UAE and the region to deliver two specialised courses in digital game design and esports for its students.
According to the school, the new BTEC courses, which will be offered from September 2021, will offer "industry-level hardware and software and be held in a specially created creative media suite and immersive room". The initiative is supported by Exam Group Pearson Edexcel and the British Esports Association, with further sector and university partners to be announced.
Matthew Tompkins, Principal/CEO at GEMS FirstPoint, said: “Our school continues to respond to the evolving needs of industry and listen to student voice, tracking the ambition of our students and truly personalising the pathways we provide for them. We have industry-qualified staff delivering the courses, developing opportunities for the future workforce in an industry that is experiencing exponential growth and a need for skilled practitioners.”
The BTEC International Esports and BTEC International Creative Media – Game Design qualifications will be an option for Year 12 and Year 13 students at GEMS FirstPoint, but esports will also be offered as an extracurricular activity for all year groups across the school, complete with internal competitions and leagues.
Perhaps less well-known, GEMS FirstPoint already offers a Centre of Excellence for Golf, working alongside the renowned Claude Harmon Performance Golf Academy, The Els Club and the David Leadbetter Academy. The school offers a bespoke curriculum to elite level golfers, allowing them to gain qualifications both academically and vocationally without impacting on their training and coaching development.
In addition, the school states that it strives "to educate the whole child and to give every student the environment to express their creative talents and academic abilities in innovative and enterprising ways". Curriculum development has been central to this aim, including developing a relevant and thematic programme of study. As part of the school's commitment to ensuring innovative practice in school, it is currently part of a two year action research programme alongside Harvard University called ‘Project Zero’ which allows the FirstPoint team to work alongside other schools and professionals to introduce the latest in progressive pedagogy into the school.
GEMS FirstPoint School Sixth Form offers a broad range of 26 Advanced Level courses as well as a variety of 5 BTEC qualifications, the Elite Golf Programme and Asdan qualifications. There are 16 options at GCSE in addition to the Elite Golf Programme and Asdan.
A Level options include the usual range of core subjects (English, Maths, Sciences and Humanities) together with newer subjects including Computer Science, three Design Technology options of Engineering, Fashion Design or Product Design, and Economics and Psychology. To supplement A levels, students have the opportunity to complete individually the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) or take part in a group project and the FirstPoint Core Enrichment Programme.
Students participate in the SPECTRUM programme which is designed to enhance each student’s capacity for high achievement by empowering students to attain the knowledge, skills, confidence and values that are characteristic of successful leaders. Each student is provided with an expanded learning experience to attain increased qualifications that enhance both their university applications and career aspirations. Lessons are personalized for each individual, allowing students to build on their individual motivations and optimize their strengths and abilities.
The programme focuses on Academic Essentials: aimed at building independent learners and academic excellence, such as research and reading strategies, managing information, project planning and time management; 21st Century Skills: Enhancing the key skills such as Communication, Collaboration, Innovation and Digital Technology; and the Global Futures Curriculum: In partnership with Singularity University, this course offers the opportunity to study exponential technologies with the view to long term ecological sustainability.
Extra Curricular Activities are available from Foundation Stage Two and include approximately 15 different clubs each afternoon. The programme offers a wide range of activities which include sports, arts, robotics, creative movement, iPad photography skills and junk modelling. FirstPoint also offers the Duke of Edinburgh International Award and the Sports Leaders Award: level 3 certificate in leadership and sports management.
What about Academic achievement?
The school's aim is to ensure that all students make great progress, "be they A* students, students with additional learning needs or those in the middle ground." The school feels that it is the latter who are often overlooked in schools and wants to ensure that FPS measures its success based on the added value that it provides to its students and not just the academic grades that they achieve.
FPS uses GL and CAT4 baseline Assessments, PISA and Progress Tests, TIMMS, PIRLS and IBD (Arabic A and B). PASS is also used. FPS says its results were ahead of the Dubai private schools average in all three areas (Science, Reading and Maths) and that its results were also significantly ahead of the OECD average in all areas as well.
Whilst we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com totally support an all-round education and an all-round view achievement, we do believe that in the latter context, both academic results and value-add data (the achievement of students over and above their baseline expectations) should be available to parents.
Unfortunately, most GEMS schools do not provide detailed information about their academic results, although both GEMS Wellington International and GEMS Jumeirah College do provide full details. We were therefore very pleased to see that FPS has released more detailed information than in previous years.
In 2020, with the cancellation of the GCSE and A Levels examinations as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, and grades awarded on the basis of the school's evaluation, FPS Principal, Matthew Tomkins, did announce that 80% of results were graded 9-5 (the equivalent of A*-C), and that more than a third of all grades were the equivalent of an A grade or A*. Two thirds of students achieved the equivalent of grade B and above across all subjects. In fact, considerably more information has since been added to the school website, revealing comparative data for 2019 also.
For GCSE, 34% of entries were graded 9-7 or A*-A, compared with 24% in 2019, whilst 67% were graded 9-6 or A*-B against 44% one year prior, and 93% of entries were awarded 9-4 or A*-C 93% compared with 78% in 2019.
We would still like to see a more detailed breakdown of student numbers and exam entries to be able to see the scale of quite how well FPS students performed compared with other schools.
Still more information was forthcoming with regard to A Levels, with 54 per cent of students achieving an A* grade, 18 per cent of entries achieving A* and 41 per cent achieving A* to A grades across the 27 subjects offered in Sixth Form. One third of students received the highest grade of A or A* in English.
2020 A Level results improved with 48% of entries graded A*-A compared with a mere 13% in 2019, and there was a similar large jump in A*-B grades - to 73% from 41% a year earlier. A significant 92% of grades were awarded at A*-C 92% compared with 67% in 2019.
Again, without further detail, in terms of student numbers and exam entries year on year, it is very hard to see how well students are performing overall; we hope that FPS will reveal the full scale of achievement in 2021.
Students are supported in terms of subject and future educational choices with guidance from a dedicated Career’s Counsellor (an Oxford Graduate) and have access to Unifrog to research universities and courses. Various Higher Education webinars and events are organized all through the year with external speakers from Higher Education invited to speak at the school a regular occurrence.
A key focus of Firstpoint is its commitment to inclusion which "is an essential part of what makes FirstPoint School a distinctive, progressive and unique community". The school's view is that "inclusion means truly accepting everybody, celebrating our differences and learning to value each other. It means understanding that we are not all the same, that our learning challenges are as unique as our fingerprints and that we all have a duty to contribute to the community we belong to".
These are not just idle words. The most recent KHDA report again rates the provision and outcome for students with SEND as Very Good - only one level away from the top Outstanding rating which has been achieved by a very small number of schools in Dubai.
The school provides a comprehensive, extensive and ongoing programme of professional development to ensure that ‘quality first teaching’ is at the centre of the teaching and learning process. Teachers are regularly observed and monitored to ensure that students of all abilities are included and encouraged.
In April 2021, GEMS FirstPoint School was awarded the Most Inclusive School Award for the Middle East in the MEA Markets Awards.
Close to 150 children at FPS are identified as Students of Determination. According to the school, there are many children with specifically diagnosed learning difficulties. The school is rapidly developing a highly effective and professional Inclusion Support Team to ensure that all students are able to access the curriculum and perform to the maximum of their capability. It has also launched the ASDAN curriculum, a UK-based programme developed specifically for children with additional learning needs.
There are also over 200 students who have been identified with Gifts & Talents and over 100 students who are designated as English Language Learners.
Equally importantly, according to the school, FPS is implementing strategies to encourage the students themselves to engage with inclusion across the school to ensure that no member of the community feels socially isolated or vulnerable.
The 2017-18 KHDA report noted that "The school has a very inclusive ethos and has rapidly developed practice so that students who have SEND not only take a full part in school life, but also make progress in line with their peers".
The school appointed an SEN coordinator early in 2015 who is responsible for coordinating the ELL and SEN programmes. Since that time, the Inclusion Support Team (IST) has grown significantly and now comprises three specialist teachers, seventeen Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) and fifteen Inclusion Champions (one in each year team and one in each subject department covering the whole school).
The school has four separate designated therapy spaces for use by external therapists as well as for intervention work by members of the IST. Parents are given the option to source their own LSAs but they would need to meet certain minimum standards in terms of qualifications and experience. Most parents are happy for the school to take care of recruitment.
Only students facing the most complex and challenging learning barriers are asked to pay additional fees and this is directly related to the provision of LSA support. There is a scale of costs ranging from AED 5,700 to AED 57,000 per annum depending on the level and frequency of support required.
FPS is not academically selective and does not entrance test children as such. FPS ensures that students are not refused admission based only on their experience of SEND and that such students will receive ‘sibling priority’ when applying for admission.
What about facilities?
Facilities are designed to allow students to work with the latest technology, play in safe and exciting environments, and explore their own ideas and problem solving capacities using a wide range of resources and materials, and have fun in doing so.
The facilities include a vast range of 84 classroom, each with interactive white boards, specialist classrooms including 11 Science (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) laboratories, and Design Technology, Food & Technology Workshops as well as three computer labs. There are also two art rooms, three music classrooms and 7 music practice rooms, a 500-seater auditorium, together with one dance and two drama studios.
Cutting edge facilities include an immersive classroom, recording studio, black box room, and robotics teaching rooms.
Students have access to full Primary and Secondary school libraries. Highlights of general facilities include a dedicated FS playground and activity hall, a Junior indoor play area and a Primary Canteen and Secondary Canteen.
Sports have also certainly not been overlooked with facilities that are equally impressive, including a full size multi-sports hall which includes a climbing wall and an array of trampolines in addition to the usual equipment, a learner pool for FS2 to Year 2 students and an outdoor 25m shaded pool for older students. Outside, Cricket Ground nets, an all-weather sports field, Netball Courts and Tennis Courts are also provided.
What the inspectors say
GEMS Firstpoint had its fourth KHDA inspection in January 2020. Although the school retained its Good rating (the level to which the KHDA expects all schools to aspire), there were significant improvements across a wide range of key indicators. The school was also inspected in 2017 on behalf of British Schools Overseas where the UK OFSTED inspection criteria were used. It was also rated Good by the BSO inspection team at this time.
In 2019, we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com stated that "in fact, this really should already be rated a Very Good school, based on the almost entirely Very Good ratings for Student Achievement in the FS and Primary sections, for Students' Personal and Social Development across the school (a mix of Outstanding and Very Good), for the Curriculum (rated Very Good across the school) and for the Protection and Guidance, and for the Care and Support of students across the school - rated Outstanding and Very Good respectively.
Nine measures for Student Achievement - seven of them in the Secondary and post-16 sections - had improved in the most recent inspection. Unfortunately, in common with many Dubai schools, the provision of Arabic as both a first and second language, and Islamic Studies remains an Achilles heel with the majority of measures rated Acceptable, although attainment in Secondary for Arabic A has improved to Acceptable this time around.. Given the fact that a significant population group within the school is Arab, this is an area that still requires considerable focus.
The DSIB inspection team defined the strengths of FPS as:
Whilst there is still improvement to be made in Student Achievement, Students' Personal, Social Development and their Innovation Skills are already at a high level. Personal Development remained rated Outstanding across the school. Students' social responsibility and innovation skills were Very Good across the school.
Whilst the key areas of Teaching and Assessment are now all rated Very Good in the Foundation and Primary sections, they remained Good in the Secondary section - a further area of obvious focus in order to ensure that achievement in the Secondary and post-16 sections continue to improve. A key KHDA focus has been on the use of assessment data to inform teaching.
The curriculum was also found to be a strong feature of the school. Curriculum design and implementation together with curriculum adaptation to meet the needs of differing abilities are rated Very Good throughout the school.
According to the inspectors, "Across all phases, the provision for the protection, care, guidance and support of students reaches the highest levels." - high praise indeed, which is reflected in the Outstanding rating across all parts of the school with regard to Health and Safety and Child Protection, and the Very Good ratings for Care and Support.
The inspectors particularly noted the ethos of the school in regard to students of Determination, remarking that "the entire school is impressively committed to Inclusion". They also found that "Older students are provided with helpful advice and guidance on career choices and possible higher educational pathways."
The final key performance measure of Leadership and Management was also largely rated Very Good. The effectiveness of Leadership is Very Good - the report notes that "Leaders are rapidly developing key aspects of the school as they promote the school’s mission and core values", although School self-evaluation, from which the improvement plans for the school are developed, retained its Good rating - likely a reflection of the lack of overall progress in Arabic and Islamic Studies.
The relationship with Parents and the Community improved to Very Good with inspectors commenting that "Positive partnerships with parents are a feature of the school."
However, Governors received a thinly veiled 'ticking off' with the report noting that "The board of governors and the local advisory board (LAB) have not been successful in addressing last year’s inspection recommendation to improve students’ achievement in Islamic education and Arabic."
The management, staffing, facilities and resources of FirstPoint retained their rating of Outstanding.
In terms of areas of improvement, the DSIB inspection team recommended that:
The focus for the school is very clear. There is clearly need for improvement in Student Achievement (supported by improvements in Teaching and Assessment) specifically in relation to Arabic and Islamic and in English and Science in the Secondary school and post-16 phases.
If you would like to read the full KHDA inspection report - and we strongly advise that you do so in order to understand the reasoning behind the ratings - you will find it here.
Some 134 parents participated in the KHDA's pre-inspection survey. Most parents (93%) who responded to the survey expressed satisfaction with the quality of the educational provision of the school. Most agreed that school leaders act on their concerns and that teachers supported the development of their children's skills and happiness. They considered that their children are safe at school and that bullying is not a problem. The inspectors also noted during their visit that "Parents speak enthusiastically about the school improvements that enhance the quality of their children’s education."
The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey has received only a limited number of responses. Interestingly, all of the respondents had moved their children to FPS from other schools in Dubai. Parents reflected the same positive views in relation to their children's enjoyment of school and a strong sense of belonging. Overall they were largely satisfied with the academic performance of the school, although 50% felt that their child needed additional tuition - we assume that parents of Primary-age children are involved in this context.
As usual, there was some disagreement as to whether fees represented value for money - whilst 40% agreed that they did, 50% partially agreed and 10% felt they did not. And despite 30% of respondents having considered moving their child to another school, 80% would recommend the school to other parents unreservedly.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at GEMS FirstPoint School, please share your experiences with other potential members of your community by completing our Survey here.
In our opinion, it should be noted that FPS did make significant improvements in 2019-20, and we really do believe that this is a Very Good school in almost all aspects, even if the overall KHDA rating does not yet reflect this.
We asked FPS what they felt made their school special.
They told us:
There is no doubt that GEMS FirstPoint is a large school and that student numbers will continue to grow. The benefit of this is evident in the facilities and curriculum range that is offered. Some families may feel that it is simply too large for them, but certainly at the present time, GEMS FirstPoint is a school with clear focus, a sense of industry and ambitious goals which aims to become an integral part of the community, and for families living in the area, it is definitely one to consider.
What about the Fees?
Fees start at AED 40,183 for FS, rising progressively by increments of approximately AED 5,000 for Years 1- 3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10 and 11. Fees for Years 12 and 13 are AED 68,734. There is a application fee of AED 525 and a registration fee which is 10% of the tuition fee upon acceptance of a place (off-set against the tuition fees). Both of these are non-refundable. There is mention of additional tuition fees for English Language Learner support, but details are not provided.
Sibling discounts of 10% for the 3rd child, 25% for the 4th child and 50% for the 5th child are also available.
GEMS FirstPoint 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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