If a measure of a new schools success is the number of students joining it, then Gems Founders School is with out doubt one of the most successful to have opened in Dubai, having close to 3,800 students from over 100 countries enrolled in its fourth year of operation.
GEMS Founders Al Barsha has been rated Good on its first inspection (the minimum rating sought by the KHDA) in the 2018-19 inspection process. An abbreviated version of the inspection report can be found under the Inspection report tab. An update of this review will be completed once the full reports have been published.
The story so far...
As one of GEMS Education's more recently opened UK curriculum schools, GEMS Founders School (GFS) Al Barsha appears to have proven what many commentators have advocated for the education scene in Dubai: There is a clear and significant gap for good quality schools which are moderately priced, without the need for extravagant facilities, but with the promise of delivery of a recognised curriculum by qualified staff in a modern and attractive environment.
The sum of the maths is this: Mid Price + Premium Curriculum - Expensive Facilities = an immediate 1800 students on its opening year in 2016; for the 2017 school year 3250 students, and in 2018-19, close to 3,800 students. The fact that the school has been able to successfully manage this growth in its first years, and achieve a KHDA Good rating on its first inspection, is itself a testament to the school's success. Students come from 102 nationalities, with a predominance of Indian children (23%) and an equal mix of boys and girls.
According to the school it offers "the best value for money in the UAE. We are a DSIB rated “Good” school in our very first inspection with modern state of the art facilities and a truly internationally recognised curriculum. Most importantly the culture and ethos at our school is second to none with the most positive and kind community you will find".
Under the leadership of Principal Matthew Burfield and Vice Principal Janet Foley, the school has accepted children from FS 1 to Year 12 in the current academic year. As an indication of the demand for the school, and its success in meeting this demand, GEMS Founders School opened with 14 Foundation Stage classes for 2016 and this has risen to a total of 24 in 2018 - split between 8 FS1 classes and 16 FS2. Year 1 also has 16 classes currently, whilst Years 2 and 3 have 14 each, there are 11 classes in Year 4 and 10 in Year 5.
In common with most new schools in Dubai, the demand, and therefore number of classes, drops as students head towards Secondary school, ranging from 9 in Year 6, to 8 in Years 7 and 8, and 6 in Year 9, whilst Year 10 has 5 classes. Unusually, Founders has gone ahead with opening Year 12 (the first year of Sixth Form and A/AS levels) without waiting for students to complete their IGCSE exams in Year 11. The first Year 11 students will sit their IGCSE exams in June 2020.
Class sizes range from 26 in Foundation to 30 from year one upwards - high for a premium school, but then this is a premium curriculum school at an affordable mid-range price point. Some 212 teachers support students throughout the school, and, in order to address adequate support within the Early Years and Key Stage 1 classes, a teaching assistant is available in each classroom. Teachers are recruited from the UK, India, South Africa and within the UAE, and the vast majority are native English speakers.
According to the school, "GEMS Founders School has a good mix of experience levels and different educational backgrounds. Staff range from newly qualified teachers to those who have taught for over 20 years. This blend allows us to benefit from the most current and up to date thinking form those who have just completed their university courses as well as those who have been teaching in multiple schools in multiple contexts. All teachers at GFS have a teaching qualification either a BEd or a BA/BSc followed by a PGCE/iPGCE". The school does not disclose the budget for professional development, but in common with all GEMS schools, we would expect this to be an area of ongoing focus.
What about the curriculum?
As is evident, GFS follows the English National Curriculum, with the EYFS curriculum in the Foundation stage, and IGCSE, AS and A Levels through the Oxford AQA and Cambridge International Examination Boards in Years 10 and 11, and 12 and 13 respectively.
GFS offers a broad range of twenty-two courses at IGCSE level. These include compulsory subjects such as English Language and Literature, Mathematics and at least one of the Science routes, as well as other subjects placed in five different option blocks. This is similar at A Level where students choose from subjects in five option blocks as well as the compulsory Independent Project Qualification (IPQ).
There is full provision for children with special education or additional learning needs, and a specific focus on mindfulness and foreign languages with Arabic and French as part of the curriculum and Spanish as an after-school activity. The school intends to offer further foreign languages which in all likelihood will be parent led.
GFS has an appointed Career Guidance Counsellor who works closely with students from Year 9 upwards. The school believes the process for university preparation should begin in Key Stage 3 and encourages students to be mindful of the choices they will have to make throughout their academic lives. Students also have mentors from the middle and Senior Leadership who they are able to discuss career related questions with. Two other resources available to students are Unifrog and the GEMS College & Career Counselling Network.
The school offers a broad range of Extra-curricular activities, although in term 3, the majority are payable. Extra curricular activities are provided by external providers ESM and Delta. GFS also provides free after school activities once a week during terms one and two. In term 3, activities include Football, Basketball, Tennis, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Ballet, Robotics & 3D designing, Hip Hop Dance, Social and Emotional skills, Home of Chess, and Nutty Scientists and Experiment. Approximately 900 children participate in paid after-school activities and the range of teacher led activities.
What about academic achievement?
With no students having reached the point of external exams as yet, and the first cohort of Year 11 and Year 13 students due to sit IGCSE and A Levels respectively in 2020, it is probably too early to discuss academic achievement as measured by external exam results just yet. However, the abbreviated KHDA report issued in April 2019 notes that student achievement is broadly Good in terms of Progress for English, Maths and Science, and Acceptable in terms of attainment. Attainment is stronger in the Secondary and post-16 sections of the school, with English being a particular strength at post-16 (rated Good for attainment and Very Good for progress). For Arabic-based subjects, the ratings were almost entirely Acceptable.
On a further positive note, two key performance measures which very direct impact student achievement - those of Teaching and Assessment, and Curriculum Design and Implementation - were also rated at least Good across the school. This suggests that academic achievement is on the right track. We hope that GFS will buck the GEMS trend of being somewhat reticent in publicising exam results for individual schools, and allow parents and students to celebrate their achievements openly when the first set of exam results come in next summer.
What about the facilities?
The school may not have the most extensive (and expensive) facilities, but students are not hard done by either. There are, in fact, a wide range of facilities that includes a large auditorium, dance studio, specialist art rooms and music rooms, IT and science labs and a 3D printer equipped Mac Lab, as well as primary and secondary libraries and a canteen offering hot meals. GEMS Founders also offers a large multipurpose hall used as a gymnasium, but fully fitted with a stage, retractable seating, lighting and sound.
The only obvious facility missing from the school is a swimming pool, which in line with the school's mid-range fees, will not be added to the school's range of facilities. There is plentiful outdoor space both for sports and relaxation, including shaded courtyards for outdoor play as well as refurbished roofs that are astro-turfed and can be utilised as outdoor eating and play areas, as well as for 5-a-side football and cricket.
So what is the price point?
Fees range from AED 22,000 for FS1 to AED 27,000 through to Year 6, just AED 31,000 in Year 10, and AED 33,000 in Year 12. That is a very gentle increase for Dubai, and means if you can afford the school now, the chances are you will still be able to in 3-4 years time. This is not the case for many of the school's peers with considerably sharper year on year increases. Approximately 60% of children travel by bus to the school and make use of the service following on from their participation in after-school activities.
The price point clearly has made the school accessible to a wide demographic.
And if proof of the pudding were needed of the obvious success of the GEMS Founders brand, this can be seen in the opening of the second Founders school in Al Mizhar in September 2018, which will no doubt go on to follow closely in the footsteps of GFS Al Barsha. GEMS cannot be faulted for reading the market and delivering the product that many parents so obviously wanted and clearly appreciate.
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