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.
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.
Almost fifteen years on, GEMS World Academy, 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.
In June 2020, GEMS announced the appointment of a new Principal to guide GWA's progress further.
According to GEMS, Dr Saima Rana has extensive experience in international education, having devoted her career to improving the educational standards of inner-city schools. She left her position as 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.
Unfortunately, it seems that the appointment of Dr. Rana not been a particularly popular one among staff and families at the school.
Significant numbers of staff - including key members of Senior management - are understood to have left the school over the course of the 2020-21 academic year. In itself, this is not surprising, with staff turnover often a result of the arrival of new leader. However, feedback from parents to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, as part of our School Survey, suggests that it is not solely an issue of disgruntled staff.
Recent comments from parents in the last term of 2020-21 have included:
"Very unhappy school. Unprofessional leadership and teaching staff. No one cares about students' academics and wellbeing. The school focuses on the highly achieving students they call them ELG, and ignores the average. if your kids were a bit above average before joining Gems World Academy, they will regress before you know it, unless you are willing to pay a fortune on tutoring. Toxic environment, I wouldn't recommend this school to anyone."
"The new principal has made way too many changes and the school has fallen apart."
"So far, fantastic teachers were the school’s main strength. However, due to Dr Rana’s HR policy, many in secondary school will leave, partly because the climate has become toxic, and partly because contracts are not extended. The entire secondary leadership team has been replaced throughout this school year. The amazing and successful IB coordinator is leaving. This is a school in crisis."
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) was a positive sign. Although no new KHDA inspection report which would include staff turnover figures is anticipated, it would certainly be no surprise to find that turnover has increased significantly at during 2020-21.
GEMS World Academy Dubai, has a capacity of approximately 2,050 students and at the time of the last published KHDA inspection in 2019 had 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 had 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.
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.
From September 2019, GWA introduced a Nursery section for children aged 2 by the 31st August cut off date.
In a positive step towards supporting parents with children of different ages, GWA 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.
GEMS World Academy, Dubai is authorized by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) to offer all four IB programmes – the Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP). The school has also introduced the IB Career-related Programme which offers a more practically-based course. The school also recently (in the 2018-19 academic year) began to offer IBDP - Courses - which offers students a "scaled-down" (with a reduced number of subjects) programme.
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.
GEMS as a group had 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 had 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 2019-20 and 2020-21 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.
In common with the IB Diploma results for 2020, the 2021 results were also based on Centre Assessed Grades, whereby teachers submitted predicted grades to the IBO, together with assessments undertaken by students as part of their DP studies. The 2021 results for the school's IB Diploma cohort of 92 students indicated a 100% pass rate. However, there was a significant two point increase in the overall average point score to 38. The school also revealed that 41% of passes had been awarded 40+ points (compared with 13% in 2019-20 and 12.5% in 2018-19).
The process of Centre Assessed Grades has led to general evidence of grade inflation - the global IB average score was raised from 31.34 in 2020 to 32.99 points in 2021, a further significant leap from the figure of 29.62 in 2019, when students took the IB examinations. This appears to be more marked in the UAE, where the average has grown from 2019, when it was 32.26, and 2020 when it was 34.41, to 35.89 in 2021 - we would anticipate that there will be a correction in 2022 when students are expected to sit exams in the usual way.
As a result we would strongly encourage families considering results as a factor in their decision about their choice of school, to look at the history over the previous years where possible.
2019-20 IB results included an average point score of 36 for the 110 students who were registered for the Diploma programme. These students achieved a 100% pass rate. Three students were the highest scorers, each achieving 43 points (just two shy of the perfect 45), 13% of students scored above 40 points, 61% scored above 35 points, and 89% of students scored above 30 points. Four students had been at GWA since its opened and scored an average of 38 points.
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's 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 was 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.
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.
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 retained its Very Good rating for 2019-20 and for 2020-21.
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 was - as is so often the case - more variability in the Arabic core subjects. Islamic Education remained rated Good across the school. However, whilst Arabic in the PYP section (as both a first and additional language) was largely rated Good, it remained 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 was almost a case of a school of two halves. Whilst students' Personal development, understanding of Islamic values, and Social responsibility and innovation skills were almost entirely rated Outstanding in the KG and PYP (the exception being a Very Good rating in PYP for the second measure), and was rated Outstanding in these sections for Teaching and Assessment, there was more variability in the MYP and DP sections.
Personal development in MYP had been downgraded to Very Good, and this was also the rating given for the Understanding of Islamic values in the MYP and DP. There appeared 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 scored 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 had 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. (Hence our concern at the developments in the 2020-21 academic year).
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.
In terms of the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey, we have received feedback from 63 parents, who have rated the school at 3/5, or a positivity rating of 60% - surprisingly low for a school of this KHDA rating, facilities and academic success. Perhaps most tellingly, only 65% of parents would unreservedly recommend the school to others (compared with a UAE average of 81%). An unusually high 22% would not recommend the school (the UAE average is 9%). 43% of respondents had considered moving their child to another school - again significantly higher than the UAE average of 27% and two percentage points higher than in 2019-20.
Given that a year ago 71% of parents would have recommend the school to others, the fall by 10% in this regard suggests that 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.
Part of these results may be driven by parents' views of the school's academic performance - 57% were satisfied compared with a UAE average of 74%, but a significant proportion of parents were partially satisfied (32%), whilst 11% were dissatisfied. This factor also appears to have driven a higher proportion of parents to resort to external tuition (45% against a UAE average of 29%).
It also seems that communication to parents and disciplinary policy are areas about which parents have some concerns. Only just over half of parents were satisfied whilst 19% and 25% respectively with dissatisfied.
Many love the curriculum (however you need to do the research on IB to see if it fits with the needs of your child). 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: Do fees offer Good Value for money, half of respondents partially agreed that they did, with 25% totally disagreed, and the remaining 25% felt that they did.
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.
The KHDA pre-inspection survey in 2018-19 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.
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 quite to manage the level of achievement that would ordinarily be expected under such circumstances.
Over the past three years, it seemed that GWA had many of the pieces in place to realise its potential. It is, therefore, saddening to see current feedback from teachers and parents about the school. We would hope that these will be acted upon by GEMS to ensure that GWA is able to return to the path on the next stage of its journey towards excellence.
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 2020-21 range from AED 40,000 for the 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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