GEMS World Academy, Dubai is a private Pre K-12 international school located in Al Barsha, Dubai. The school was first established in September 2007 by GEMS Education, although its first year of operation on its permanent site was in 2008. It is a pure International Baccalaureate curriculum-based school.
The story so far...
When GEMS World Academy (GWA) opened in 2007, it was designed to be THE premier school within the GEMS Group. It was the first to offer the International Baccalaureate curriculum within the Group and to achieve World School Status (and only the second school within the emirate to be authorised by the IBO at that time). The design of the school, its location in an area that was decidedly under-developed, and the provision of some facilities that were certainly ground-breaking, but potentially superfluous (notably the planetarium), meant that many observers believed that it was too "individual" (and too costly), to be a real success.
Ten plus years on, GWA, reflective of its name, is a very diverse, international community with approximately 1,550 students, and made up of more than 90 nationalities, making it one of the most demographically diverse and truly international schools in the emirate. While the largest student nationalities are noted as European, Arab students, students from India, the USA and UK also create a number of large minorities. There are almost 100 Emirati students at the school. Close to 300 students of determination attend GWA, a school that has always been supportive of students with additional learning needs. The diversity and internationality of the student base - says the school - facilitates international mindedness, a core aspect of the International Baccalaureate curriculum offered by GWA.
GEMS World Academy Dubai, has a capacity of approximately 2050 students and currently has around 1,550 students - a significant reduction of approximately 400 students compared with 2016-17. The impact of demographic changes in Dubai is very noticeable here. Teacher numbers have also fallen by around 20 to 164 in the past academic year. Teachers are mainly British nationals, and are supported by some 78 teaching assistants, giving a teacher to student ratio of 1:10 - among the lowest in the UAE.
In June 2020, GEMS announced the appointment of a new Principal to guide GWA's progress further.
Dr Saima Rana has extensive experience in international education, having devoted her career to improving the educational standards of inner-city schools. She leaves her position as current Principal of Westminster Academy in London, to join GEMS Education ahead of the 2020-21 academic year. Dr Rana has a strong background in school improvement, combining traditional school improvement techniques with a commitment to collaboration between the local community and businesses in order to accelerate regeneration and standards. She has worked as a senior educational consultant for Cambridge Education Islington and as a leading schools improvement consultant with focus on teaching and learning, raising standards, ICT, assessment for learning, curriculum, change management and building schools for the future.
Dr Rana specialises in Secondary School Educational Policy, ICT, Globalisation, The Knowledge and Digital Economy. Dr Rana is a member of a number of educational Boards, including the International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association (ISBCA), The Duke of York Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award (iDEA), Paddington Development Trust (PDT), Mosaic Community Trust (MCT), University College School (UCS), the Institute for Ethical AI in Education (IEAIED) and the BCS School Curriculum and Assessment Committee. She is also Founder and Trustee of Nagar Fort (NFS) in Pakistan. Dr Rana has a PhD in Education from University College London – Institute of Education, School of Mathematics, Science and Technology.
Teacher turnover in the 2015-16 academic year was unusually high - running at 35%. However, this figure was reduced to 21% in 2016-17 and has reduced still further to 14% both in 2017-18 and 2018-19, well below the Dubai average of 20-22%. Staff turnover is always an area of concern, and the improvement in staff retention (lessening the challenge of bringing on a substantial number of new staff each year) is a positive sign.
In a positive step towards supporting parents with children of different ages, GWA now offers an extended day care for Pre-K and KG1 families, where the normal pick up time is 1.15pm. At no additional cost, children in Pre-K and KG1 may now stay at school for a longer school day from Sunday – Wednesday, finishing school together with the rest of the Elementary school at 2:50pm. This means there is a much easier pick up schedule for families who have older children.
From September 2019, GWA introduced a Nursery section for children aged 2 by the 15th September cut off date.
What about the curriculum?
GEMS World Academy, Dubai is authorized by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) to offer all three IB programmes – the Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP). The school also recently (in the 2018-19 academic year) began to offer the IBCP - Courses programme - which offers students a "scaled-down" (with a reduced number of subjects) and usually more vocationally focused programme. Some 10 students are participating in the IBCP.
As mentioned earlier, GWA was the first GEMS school to deliver the IB programmes - a pioneer in Dubai along with the Innoventures-operated Dubai International Academy. A second full IB curriculum school - GEMS International School Al Khail - was opened to meet the increasing demand for a curriculum which has become highly regarded globally for its enquiry-based cross-curricular approach (with the subsequent demand for independent thought, research and learning), and the breadth and depth of study at the Diploma level.
In keeping with the internationality of the IB programmes and the very wide mix of nationalities at GWA, in the 2018-19 academic year the school introduced its Language Institute, through which it offers 12 mother tongue languages as part of the curriculum for GWA families. There is no additional charge for the mother tongue classes.
GWA also operates a Week Without Walls (WWW) programme, designed to help students from Grades 6-11 become more internationally minded and better global citizens. During WWW, students engage in sustainable service projects. gain awareness of the issues that transcend national borders. and develop an understanding of issues such as poverty, indigenous people and environmental degradation and preservation.
The Academy is also a member of the Council of International Schools (CIS) and was accredited during the 2012-2013 school year.
In common with most GEMS schools, GWA also offers a very wide range of extra-curricular activities including sport, science, language, media, and art activities, among others. Teacher-led activities are free of charge, whilst those provided by external suppliers attract a fee.
What about Academic achievement?
GEMS as a group has become rather backwards in coming forward with the publication of exam results for its individual schools (with rare exceptions). We, at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, were very encouraged to see that GWA has bucked the trend by publishing some important data in relation to the IB Diploma results for 2018. The school again bucked the GEMS trend by providing details of 2019 results also.
Whilst exam results are not the be-all and end-all of educational achievement - and there are many well-known and high profile figures who did not achieve well at school - they are, none-the-less, an important factor for parents and students when considering their schooling options. We also feel that results should be recognised and celebrated for all students.
GWA and its 2018 cohort should certainly be proud of their achievement. Overall, the 93 full IB Diploma Grade 12 students achieved a pass rate is 98.9%, and an average score of 33.1 points. This is well above the global average for 2018 of 29.78 and among the higher scores for IB schools in the UAE. The highest achieving student scored 44 points - only one away from the perfect score of 45.
The school can also offer a long list of top universities to which students have been admitted in the past four years including Cambridge, Kings College, Imperial College and the London School of Economics in the UK; Berkeley, Columbia, John Hopkins, Penn State, and Princeton in the US, both McGill and Toronto in Canada, and The Australian University and University of Melbourne in Australia.
For 2019, the average point score was 33.8, up from 33.1 last year. Some 80 candidates sat the exams, and 77 passed, a pass rate above 96%. Ten students achieved 40 points and above, 29 achieved 35+ points and, in total, 60 students achieved over 30 points. These results included 8 students with access arrangements - the majority of whom were enrolled in the Diploma Programme. GWA informed WhichSchoolAdvisor.com that students' results far exceeded expectations and outperformed external testing predictions.
GWA students from the 2019 cohort are going on to universities predominantly in the UK, US, Canada and Europe, including top universities such as Cambridge, UCL, Bocconi and UCLA.
What about the facilities?
GWA has been further developed substantially since its original design and opening. The original main building is still the hub of the school with common facilities including the concert standard theatre, a library set over two floors, which has outside access to a peace garden and terraces for students to use in cooler weather, and a large cafeteria available to students and staff. Payment is made via a card system. There is also a very popular Parent Cafe.
The KG section is separated from the rest of the building in a wing to the front of the building, and has its own private internal corridor to enable the youngest children to be taken to their designated play area without crossing with older students. Regular classrooms are set to the front of the building for the Elementary School, as a some of the shared facilities, including the Planetarium. This is used by all students and staff for all subjects, not only astronomy, but visually to appreciate ancient temples and dive with whales exploring life under water among other things.. Although many questions were asked about its value at the time the school opened, the planetarium has become a unique asset that complements traditional studies and produces a high resolution 360 degree view of the night sky with over 300,000 stars within its database.
To the rear of the building are the sport facilities and also a floor devoted to the Music Centre. In addition to classrooms and practice rooms, this also includes a green screen room, fully equipped music recording studio, an Apple Lab and an extensive range of performance rooms and instruments.
The school is very rich in sports facilities: a 50m Olympic sized covered swimming pool along with a junior pool, tennis and basketball courts, a very large outdoor soccer pitch, skateboarding park, fully equipped gymnasium with fitness center, junior gym, and indoor rock climbing wall, are among those available.
A second building aimed largely for the use of High School students includes a wide range of specialist Science and Design-Technology facilities on the ground floor and more traditional classrooms and a recently introduced Study Lounge for Senior IB Diploma students on the floors above.
What the inspectors say
Despite its facilities (and fees!), GWA seemed to be one of a number of schools in Dubai that made the grade to Good and seemed to lack the ability or ambition to make the move up to a Very Good rating. For eight years, it achieved the Good rating consistently - the minimum expected by the KHDA - and to be fair, as the regulators' expectations increased year on year, GWA certainly stayed on track.
Finally, in the 2017-18 academic year, GWA managed the elusive step up from Good to Very Good. It was very clear from the KHDA report that the key reason for this achievement was the improvement in Students' Achievement, which showed that every aspect of Attainment and Progress for the core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science were rated at least Very Good (with 9 measures in the MYP and DP programmes having improved to this level). All 3 core subjects were rated Outstanding in KG and for English in the Primary Years phase.
In the 2018-19 academic year, GWA retained the Very Good rating. In line with the KHDA's announcement in September 2019, schools already rated Outstanding or Very Good are no longer inspected fully on an annual basis, instead undergoing a one day visit. New reports are not issued and unless otherwise advised, schools retain the previous rating. As a result, GWA retains its Very Good rating for 2019-20.
The KHDA inspection team defined the strengths of GWA as:
In terms of Student Achievement, ratings for the key indicators remained largely the same in this inspection. All ratings for the three core English-based subjects were Outstanding, as was also the case for English in the PYP. Ratings for Mathematics and Science in PYP and across the MYP and DP sections of the school were again rated Very Good. In the DP section, Mathematics attainment improved from Good last year to Very Good, whilst Science progress was rated Outstanding for the first time.
There is - as is so often the case - more variability in the Arabic core subjects. Islamic Education remains rated Good across the school. However, whilst Arabic in the PYP section (as both a first and additional language) is largely rated Good, it remains Acceptable in MYP and DP. This is clearly an area where GWA still has work to do.
In terms of the other key performance standards of Students' Personal and Social Development and their Innovation skills, and Teaching and Assessment, it is almost a case of a school of two halves. Whilst students' Personal development, understanding of Islamic values, and Social responsibility and innovation skills are almost entirely rated Outstanding in the KG and PYP (the exception being a Very Good rating in PYP for the second measure), and is rated Outstanding in these sections for Teaching and Assessment, there is more variability in the MYP and DP sections.
Personal development in MYP has been downgraded to Very Good, and this is also the rating given for the Understanding of Islamic values in the MYP and DP. There appears to have been some issues with disruptive students in the MYP section which caused this reevaluation. Teaching and Assessment were also both rated Very Good in the MYP and DP sections.
When it comes to the other key performance standard of the Curriculum, in terms of its Design and Implementation, it was deemed to be Outstanding across the school. In regard to adaptation of the curriculum to meet the needs of individuals or groups of students, the rating was Outstanding in KG and Very Good across the remaining sections of the school.
GWA scores extremely highly in all aspects of the Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of its students, and also for the provision and outcomes for Students of Determination - every measure was rated Outstanding. Once again, a GEMS school has shown just how well students with additional learning requirements, or with gifts and talents can be supported in a mainstream environment - this is a real strength across the Group.
The ratings for the five key measures for the category of Leadership and Management remained unchanged. Parents and the Community, and the Management, staffing, facilities and resources were again rated Outstanding, whilst the other three remained Very Good.
The inspection team had many positive comments to make in respect of GWA. In particular, they noted that "Senior leaders vision of an inclusive and aspirational learning environment is shared widely. They pursue academic excellence and ensure students make good or better progress, whatever their starting points...Parents are closely involved in their children's learning and local partnerships are exploited well..."
Without question, the strength and ability of the leadership in any school is fundamental to Students' Achievement.
In terms of specific areas of improvement, the KHDA inspection team found that GWA should:
If you would like to read the full KHDA Inspection report - and we strongly recommend that you do - you will find it here.
The KHDA pre-inspection survey received responses from just over 200 parents. They reflected overwhelmingly positive views of the school as a whole, especially with respect to communication of their children's progress. However, only a little over two-thirds felt that their children have a close relationship with an adult at school and approximately one-third felt that bullying was an issue. These latter concerns were reflected in comments made by some 460 students who took part in the KHDA's Well-being census in 2017-18. Only 53% felt that they had a strong relationship with an adult in school and of those who responded, approximately 50% expressed concern about social isolation or verbal bullying. This is obviously an area of concern that the school will no doubt address and a reflection of the issues seemingly identified in the MYP section.
In terms of the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey, feedback was, broadly, positive. Whilst most parents are broadly satisfied with communication, a sizable 18% were not and a slightly higher 22% were dissatisfied with the disciplinary policy at GWA. A worrying one in three parents were concerned about bullying, being moderately to extremely concerned - and again reflective of the KHDA Feedback.
Many love the curriculum (however you need to do the research on IB to see if it fits with the needs of your child) and the academic performance of the school is rated highly. Teaching is widely praised – as are the school’s facilities. The school is expensive, however parents we spoke to did not generally raise this as an issue. When asked the question: Does this School offer Good Value, the most common answer was “Partially Agree”.
Interestingly, whilst 71% of parents would definitely recommend GWA to others, though 14% would not, 41% of respondents said that they had considered moving their child to another school. It seems that there is a level of uncertainty among parents at GWA at the moment, which was certainly not there when we reviewed it a year ago.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at GEMS World Academy, please provide your experience to other potential members of your community by completing our Survey.
For a number of years, we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com have wondered how it was possible that a school which was originally set up as GEMS' flagship, with wonderful facilities and an excellent curriculum, could never seem to quite manage the level of achievement that would be expected under such circumstances. It seems that GWA now has many of the pieces in place to realise its potential. The comments related to student behaviour and possible bullying are a concern. We hope that these will be addressed swiftly and effectively. We look forward to seeing GWA reach the next stage of its journey towards excellence.
What about the Fees?
The standard of facilities at GWA need to be paid for, of course. This is a school clearly targeted at parents who want everything for their children, and can afford to pay. Fees for 2019-20 range from AED 40,000 for the new Nursery section, AED 65,747 per year for pre-kindergarten and KG1 students and AED 82,247 for KG2 to Grade 4 inclusive, rising to AED 114,128 per year for grade 11 and 12 students. This makes it, with Repton and North London Collegiate School Dubai among the most expensive schools that we have reviewed.
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