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 new 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 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.
Now entering its sixth year of operation, there is a sense of maturity about GEMS FirstPoint School that has grown as the school has developed. 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 1,630 students at the time of its third KHDA inspection which took place in January 2019. The school was rated Good by the inspection team for the third year.
Much of the direction of the school results from the efforts of the former Principal, Stephen Sharples. One of his important early contributions 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 has been set up with a number of positions which have been 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. It is expected that new Principal, Matthew Tomkins, will continue with this open and innovative approach.
The majority of the 130 staff are from the UK with a sprinkling of other native-English speaking teachers. A further 49 teaching assistants are employed by the school. Arabic and Islamic staff are on full international salary packages. With staff turnover at a very low 5% in 2017 and a remarkable 0% in 2018, this suggests that there is a content and dedicated team at FirstPoint (the average turnover in Dubai is 20-22%). A staff: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. Planned class sizes at a maximum of 22 in FS and 27 elsewhere are on the high side, but in reality, actual class sizes have been lower with Years 1-6 on average 18-19, and Secondary around 21. If the school is willing to maintain these sizes, students will benefit.
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.
What about the curriculum?
GEMS FirstPoint 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. 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. 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.
In October 2019, GEMS FirstPoint was named as one of five GEMS schools that will be Centres of Excellence within the group. GEMS FirstPoint will be a Centre of Excellence for Digital Industries and Sustainability.
Comments on the school's website note that "the ability to think globally and as an innovator has never been as important as it is today, and this may become even more vital for the next generation of graduates. As a Foundation Stage to Year 13 school, we build learning foundations, strengthen them and prepare students for entry into university or the workplace… or wherever they choose to go!".
Perhaps less well-known, GEMS FirstPoint already offers a Centre of Excellence for Golf! Working alongside the renowned Claude Harmon Performance Golf 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.
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. Students from year 9 onwards have access to electives in Music, Drama, Art and Design, Psychology, Resistant Materials, Food Technology, Electronics and Textiles.
The other 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 (2018-19) 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.
Close to 130 children at FirstPoint 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. Equally importantly, according to the school, Firstpoint 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 EAL and SEN programmes. Students requiring 1-1 or small group support are assisted by a team of Learning Support assistants. The school is not academically selective and does not entrance test children as such. Students are screened (via cognitive testing) to establish what support, if any, they may need, but the school aims to be fully inclusive provided that it has the resources.
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 GEMS FirstPoint measures its success based on the added value that it provides to its students and not just the academic grades that they achieve.
There has been a clear effort to ensure that the education being delivered is also of the highest quality.
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 specialist classrooms including the usual Biology, Chemistry and Physics Science Laboratories, but enhanced by Electronics and Robotics Laboratories, an Electronics Workshop, a Resistant Materials Workshop, a Graphics Studio, ICT Discovery Spaces, a Food Technology Catering Suite, a Textiles Studio, and Art and Design Studios. Performance spaces include a 500-seat Auditorium, Specialist Drama Space and Black Box Theatre Space, a Music Technology Suite, Mac Lab, seven Music practice rooms and a music classroom for year 1 upwards, an Ensemble Room and Recording Studio. Students have access to full Primary and Secondary School Libraries.
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.
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.
What about Academic achievement?
GEMS FirstPoint School Sixth Form offers a broad range of Advanced Level courses as well as a variety of BTEC qualifications. To supplement A levels, students will have the opportunity to complete an extended individual or group project and will also take part in the FirstPoint Core Enrichment Programme. A Level options include the usual range of core subjects (English, Maths, Sciences and Humanities) together with newer subjects including Computer Science, Design Technology: Engineering, Design Technology: Fashion Design, Design Technology: Product Design, Economics and Psychology.
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.
FirstPoint also offers the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), the Duke of Edinburgh International Award, and the Sports Leaders Award: level 3 certificate in leadership and sports management. Students are encouraged to participate in a range of internships, and Community and Enterprise projects designed to develop Team Leadership and Project Management.
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 at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com believe that whilst results should not be the be-all and end-all, they are inevitably a key consideration for parents, and should therefore be shared.
In a statement following release of the GCSE results for 2017-18, the then Principal commented "GEMS FirstPoint’s first ever GCSE grades were fantastic. I am very proud of our student’s performance which is significantly higher than their UK counterparts, far outscoring them across almost every subject including English, maths and science. Half of all students taking the GCSE in Arabic graded A*-A (7 or better). Over half of all students achieved A*-B across the other core subjects of English, maths and science".
Unfortunately, GEMS FirstPoint did not release its students' GCSE or AS/A Level results in 2019. This is something we find regrettable, since parents and students are denied the opportunity to see how academically successful the school is and to celebrate those successes fully.
What the inspectors say
GEMS Firstpoint had its third KHDA inspection in January 2019. 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.
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 largely of Outstanding and Very Good), for the Curriculum (now 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.
Eight measures for Student Achievement - four of them in the Primary section - 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, and attainment in Secondary for Arabic A rated Weak. Given the fact the largest population group within the school is found to be Arab, this is an area that will need considerable focus.
Student Achievement for Mathematics and Science in Secondary is rated Good, although English in Secondary has improved to Very Good on this inspection. Post-16 English is rated Good for progress and, again, Acceptable for attainment. With English a second language for many students, this is inevitably an area of challenge.
Whilst there is clearly still improvement to be made in Student Achievement, Students' Personal, Social Development and their Innovation Skills are already at a high level. Personal Development was found to be Outstanding across the school. Students' social responsibility and innovation skills were deemed to be Very Good across the school.
In the key areas of Teaching and Assessment the majority of measures were Good, with Teaching for Effective Learning in the Foundation Stage found to have improved to Very Good. Assessment has now improved to Very Good in the Foundation Stage and Primary section.
Curriculum design and implementation together with curriculum adaptation to meet the needs of differing abilities is now rated Very Good throughout the school. A key KHDA focus has been on the use of assessment data to inform teaching and the report notes that this is an area which is also improving. The curriculum was also found to be a strong feature of the school. In many areas, it was found to support high and improving student achievement. Curriculum adaptations are deemed to be very strong across the school.
According to the inspectors, "Care and protection of students is an excellent feature of the school" - 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 "although the influence of the Inclusion Governor is just starting, the entire school is impressively committed to Inclusion". They also found that "Careers guidance is appropriate for the majority, accurately signposting students to vocational or academic pathways. The school is starting to develop early advice and bespoke pathways for students who have very complex needs".
The final key performance measure of Leadership and Management was also largely rated Good. The effectiveness of Leadership has improved to Very Good, although School self-evaluation, from which the improvement plans for the school are developed, retained its Good rating. Parental engagement was found to be successful and effective. Corporate governance - an area where schools have had difficulty in the past - continues to provide highly expert and supportive leadership. Governors know the school well and have recruited governors with specialist knowledge in areas such as inclusion, Arabic and Islamic education.
The management, staffing, facilities and resources of FirstPoint was also upgraded to Outstanding.
Overall, there is much to praise at GEMS FirstPoint and this is very evident from the report. Standards are clearly improving.
Inspectors recommended that the school should:
The focus for the school is very clear. If it can continue to deliver the improvements that have already been made since its first and second inspections, we can see little to prevent GEMS FirstPoint seeing these reflected in an improved overall rating. However, there is clearly need for considerable improvement in Student Achievement (supported by Teaching and Assessment) 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 153 parents participated in the KHDA's pre-inspection survey. They were 'extremely satisfied' with the school's overall provision. They were positive about the quality of education and stated that their children loved going to school. They appreciated the wide breadth of extra-curricular activities.
The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey has received only a limited number of responses. Parents reflected the same 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. 75% 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.
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.
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