Originally to be part of the GEMS Winchester brand, the decision to create a completely new brand has certainly worked for the GEMS Founders school - if a measure of a new school's success is the number of students joining it. On this measure alone, Founders has been without doubt one of the most successful schools to have opened in Dubai, reaching 4,200 students from over 100 countries in its fifth year of operation.
As one of GEMS Education's more recently opened UK curriculum schools, GEMS Founders School (GFS) Al Barsha has clearly proven what many commentators had advocated for the education scene in Dubai: There was 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, n 2018-19, close to 3,800 students and by 2020, over 4,200.
The fact that the school has been able to successfully manage this growth in its first years, and achieved a KHDA Good rating on its first (and second) inspection, is itself a testament to the school's success. Students come from 102 nationalities, and although the KHDA states that the largest demographic is Arab, there is a predominance of Indian nationals (23%) and an equal mix of boys and girls. GFS has also succeeded in attracting around 100 Emirati students and also educates a substantial number (over 600) of students who have been identified as students of Determination.
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 13 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 by 2018 this had risen to 24.
In common with most new schools in Dubai, the demand, and therefore number of classes, drops as students head towards Secondary school. Unusually, Founders went 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 sat 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 240 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 - there are over 60 teaching assistants across the school. Teachers are recruited from the UK, India, South Africa and within the UAE, and the vast majority are native English speakers.
With a teacher:student ratio of 1:18, delivering the level of personal attention and support can be a challenge - higher fee UK curriculum schools typically have a teacher:student ratio of 1:12 or thereabouts - and this is clearly where a compromise has been made in order for the school to deliver a UK curriculum at an affordable price.
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.
Clearly GFS is making the right decisions in terms of recruitment. According to the KHDA, "comprehensive recruitment processes ensure that all staff are well qualified, have appropriate expertise and benefit from up-to-date guidance and professional development." Staffing is always going to be a concern when a school is operating at affordable fees - Founders seems to be showing that the right mix of staff in terms of background, experience and salaries can provide quality of education without delivering frills.
And with staff turnover at a low 12% compared with a UAE average of 20-22% in international schools, it seems that GFS teachers also appreciate their workplace.
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.
As a sign of its commitment to offer a genuine UK curriculum experience, the school was inspected by the British Schools Overseas accreditation organisation in 2019 and was awarded a Good rating.
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 a specific focus throughout the school 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.
There is full provision for children with special education or additional learning needs, and according to the 2019-20 KHDA inspection report, "Governors and senior leaders communicate a highly inclusive school ethos which is welcoming to students of determination. Significant investment in specialist staff enhances the effectiveness of the department. Inclusion leaders are well qualified and skilled. They are successful in promoting the best practices of inclusion."
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.
We at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com are always among the first to say that the quality of education provided by a school cannot be judged on exam results alone. However, there is no doubt that they are an important criterion and one to which we believe parents should have transparent access.
Disappointingly, GFS has not fully published its IGCSE, AS and A Level results - something of a shame since in not providing this information, there is a (hopefully) unwarranted suggestion that they were not as positive as had been hoped for. To be fair, the cancellation of exams as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 means that results would have been based on grades calculated by the school's own staff, but evidence from the Exam Boards has suggested that overall, these centre-assessed grades provided a higher outcome than would have ordinarily been expected.
The school's website notes that "Our first full set of IGCSE and A level results are due in 2020 but our early entry for 2019 showed that we challenge our children to the highest level. We had 80% of our children entered for IGCSE Maths achieving a 9 (equivalent to an A*) and our first AS level results in English Literature showed 100% of those entered gaining either an A or B grade".
In a statement issued at the time of IGCSE results being issued in August 2020, GFS did announce that 44 per cent of students had achieved a grade 9 and 77 per cent of entries were graded at 9 - 5 (pass) - suggest that close to a quarter of exam entries were failed. However, without knowing which subjects were included in these calculations and having much broader details provided in terms of student numbers and exam entries, it is very hard to judge just how well (or not) students performed.
Matthew Burfield in a statement said: “GEMS Founders School, Dubai, celebrated its first full set of IGCSE/GCSE results this year and we are so pleased to announce an outstanding set of results.“We are so proud of our students and even more so because our top 10 achievers all were founding students when we opened in 2016. These children took a risk to come to GFS in 2016 with no prior results and have proven that it was indeed the right choice, for us and them. Well done to all of our students, their teachers and their families.”
Similarly, GFS provided limited details of its students' successes, noting that 35% of exam grades were A*-A and 56% of grades were A*-B. 100% of English Literature exam entries, 80% of Psychology entries, 63% of entries for Mathematics and 47% of Science entries received A*-B grades. However, with no details of entrants or exam entries, it is impossible to judge just how strong student performances were.
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 KHDA inspection report for 2019-20 notes that: "High-quality school facilities and resources provide a stimulating environment for high-level learning, sport and recreation. The facilities and resources for the early years are excellent, and a well-stocked collection of books in Arabic is increasingly used by students".
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.
Having achieved a Good rating on its first KHDA inspection - an achievement of which Founders was justifiably proud, the school consolidated its inspection rating in 2019-20 with a second overall Good rating.
In addition to the KHDA inspections, Founders also participated in an inspection by British Schools Overseas in 2019 - which aims to assess schools based on the criteria used by the UK Government - and was also rated Good. The report can be found here. GFS is also accredited by British Schools of the Middle East (BSME) and COBIS (the Council of British International Schools). However, it is clear that there is some considerable way to go before Founders is likely to move up to a Very Good rating.
The KHDA inspectors in their report for 2019-20 identified the strengths of the school as:
The overall Good rating does rather belie the fact that Student Achievement is more variable than might at first be expected. Whilst progress (the measure of student achievement from their starting points) is rated Good across all three core subjects of English, Maths and Science, attainment (the level of achievement measured against curriculum standards) is rated Acceptable throughout Foundation Stage and Primary, though the Secondary section and Sixth Form achieve Good ratings for English and Maths.
Meanwhile, Islamic Education and Arabic as both a first and second language are rated Acceptable - although worryingly, Arabic as a second language attainment in the Secondary section has fallen to Weak. This will undoubtedly be a red flag for the school.
As far as the second Key Performance Standard of Students' Personal and Social Development and their Innovation Skills is concerned, there has been improvement, with Personal development rated Very Good across the school, and Students' Understanding of Islamic values and awareness of Emirati and world cultures having all improved to Good - the same rating as their Social responsibility and innovation skills attained a year ago and retained for 2019-20.
Both Key Performance Standards of Teaching and Assessment and Curriculum retained their Good ratings in the most recent inspection. As the two key standards that contribute towards Student Achievement, this is a reflection of what can be expected - improvement in these two key performance areas will almost inevitably impact positively upon Student Achievement.
Where inspectors were clearly impressed by improvements made over the past year was in respect of the Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of students. Health and safety, including arrangements for child protection/ safeguarding, were rated Outstanding across the school, whilst Care and Support also improved to Very Good.
There were also improvements in ratings for Leadership and Management - rated largely Good, but with improved Very Good ratings for Parents and the community Management, staffing, facilities and resources.
Inspectors commented that "The school effectively engages parents in their children's learning and in school life. Parents, including those of students of determination, are well informed about their children's learning and development. Reports to parents are detailed, effectively personalised, and include helpful comments on their children’s next steps in learning. Effective links with a wide range of partners, including other schools, have a positive impact on students' learning and development".
In terms of areas for improvement, the inspection team identified the need for GFS to:
If you would like to read the full inspection report - and we strongly recommend that you do so in order to understand the reasons behind the ratings - you will find it here.
Some 219 parents responded to the KHDA's pre-inspection survey with 90% professing themselves satisfied with the quality of education provided by GFS. According to the report, all parents who responded thought that their children are safe in the school, and almost all were satisfied with the quality of education. Most felt that leaders listen to them and act on their views. A minority of parents had concerns about bullying and about their limited involvement in school activities.
Over 700 students responded to the KHDA's Well-being survey, and almost all students who responded to the survey felt safe in the school. Most were happy with the ethos. Most claimed to be involved in organised activities, including sports or music and the arts. These results were broadly in line with inspection findings. Almost all student feedback was more positive than the average for Dubai. A minority of students thought that there is frequent verbal or social bullying. However, Inspection findings did not support these views.
The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey has received a significant number of responses. Close to 80% of respondents feel that their children enjoy going to school and have at least quite a strong sense of belonging. Most parents are satisfied with the quality of education provided by GFS, with the level of feedback provided and with the disciplinary policy. However, half our respondents also felt that additional external tuition for their children is necessary. Despite the comments made by parents and students to the KHDA, the vast majority of parents had no concerns in relation to bullying.
An overwhelming 77% of parents would recommend GFS to other parents, and close to 80% had never considered moving their child to another school - a considerable achievement given the usual teething problems associated with any new school. Even school fees are felt to be acceptable to the majority of respondents, with only 3% feeling that they do not represent, at least partially, good value for money - and with over half agreeing that they do.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at GEMS Founders School Al Barsha and would like to share your experience with other potential members of your community, please take part in our survey here.
There is no doubt that GEMS took a significant step into the unknown with the launch of GEMS Founders Al Barsha - filling a gap for good quality British curriculum education with native English speakers in a well-resourced facility at an affordable fee level. They clearly used their experience of large-scale affordable schools that had long been part of the portfolio for mainly Indian families seeking a British curriculum, at schools such as Winchester School Jebel Ali and Cambridge International School.
An earlier attempt to introduce the same model with GEMS Metropole School has never quite achieved the standards of GFS, in part because of its higher fees due to the inclusion of a higher standard of facilities (including swimming pools!).
It would seem that in terms of a model that includes mainly UK leadership supported by less expensive teachers from other countries as well as a mix of experience, it has been possible to achieve the promise of good quality at an affordable price delivered by teachers trained to deliver the curriculum well. Interestingly, recent changes of leadership at Cambridge International and GEMS Winchester School (recently relocated to Dubailand from Oud Metha) have followed in the footsteps of GEMS Founders in terms of leadership staff.
We would fully expect GFS to continue to attract families for whom the price point and curriculum work. We would like to think that the school will not be complacent now that it has shown that it can make the model work to a Good standard. And we do very much hope that GFS will be transparent in terms of levels of academic achievement through publication of its results going forward. This will ensure that parents will be able to see for themselves whether the promise is really being delivered.
Fees range from AED 22,455 for FS1 to AED 27,559 through to Year 6, just AED 31,642 in Year 10, and AED 33,683 in Year 13. 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.
GEMS Founders School Al Barsha is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
If you are the owner or the principal of the school and note any inaccuracies, or would like to update data, you can now open an account with us. You will also be able to add admissions availability per year group, and advertise current job vacancies. This is a free service. Please help us keep prospective parents up to date with your latest information.
Are you looking for a place for your child, and want help from our school consultants? If so, click on the link below, and we will forward your request for information to the school or schools of the same type that we are confident have availability. This is a free service for our readers. Request Information