An established, Outstanding, primary school situated in one of Dubai’s prime residential areas, Horizon English School (HES) has a clear identity and vision. Its focus on ‘community’ is supported strongly by parents, students and staff and is backed up by various initiatives and programmes both inside and outside the school. There is a vibrant, warm and welcoming feel when visiting this very professionally run school. Performing arts, music and sport are to the fore at Horizon English School.
HES is a primary school for international students aged between three and 11 years. It is situated close to the Dubai Water Canal between Sheikh Zayed Road and Al Wasl Road, opposite Safa Park. It is in fact now on the island that the canal has created, sectioning off part of the older and more established city.
A low wall with black railings surrounds the site and the school is housed in a series of white two storey blocks. Established palm trees line the front of the building and there are many more trees around the campus. On first impression the school looks fairly traditional, well maintained and is in a fairly quiet low rise residential part of town. On the day of our visit there was some roadworks immediately outside of the school, making pedestrian access a little challenging. We later address this point with parents, who tell us that the school very sensibly opened up a new, rear entrance when the works started, quickly alleviating any associated traffic issues during busy times of the day.
Security required ID at the gate and we were soon warmly greeted by Elaine Burrell, the Executive Secretary at the school.
We met with a panel of HES parents: Michelle Hamer, Jacqui Morris, Yolanda Hendrikz, Dana Al Haroun and Gareth Jones.
The overarching message from parents is that Horizon English School is a true community school. Parents used the example of several very well attended weekend family events at the school to underline this. In our previous review visit, one parent had described HES as ‘the heartbeat of our family’ – it quickly became clear that this deep warmth for the school persists.
Our panel were keen to point out that being a ‘Horizon Parent’ meant a significant level of commitment and involvement for the entire family. As Jacqui said “this is a school where as parent, you have to show up”. The ‘Friends of Horizon’ school is a very active parent group in numerous aspects of day to day life in the school.
HES Principal, Mr Wallace, came in for high praise from parents. He is clearly well liked and highly respected at the school. “He epitomises what Horizon is and what Horizon stands for” the parents agreed. Mr Wallace had been the most popular choice for the Principal position from the HES community, and parents were delighted that owners, Al Najah, had listened to their opinions.
The inclusive nature of the school was roundly praised by every member of our panel. For Gareth, whose son has muscular dystrophy, the obvious level of commitment to children with additional needs had been one of the most important factors in choosing the school.
Our panel agreed that children with additional needs are not “taboo or unusual” at HES. From Early Years and up, children are encouraged to naturally include and empathise with their peers who might behave differently to themselves. All parents, whether their child had additional needs or not, saw this as a significant strength of the school.
Parents paid special tribute to the PE teacher who had carried a child in a wheelchair for the 100m sprint at Sports Day. Children with special education needs from across the age ranges join a supportive group named “New Horizons”, who take part in additional activities, even trips, alongside the regular curriculum.
At HES there is a general (and popular with parents and children alike!) ‘no homework’ policy, though some tasks and projects are taken home to complete. The emphasis parents feel is that primary level children should see learning as fun and have plenty of family and play time after school.
HES uses the D6 School Communicator app for day-to-day messages (along with Twitter). Parents generally use Facebook or WhatsApp groups to keep up to date. The school has recently added the SeeSaw app (for communicating academic progress) and the Teamer app for booking sports and events.
There are a lot of trips on offer to HES pupils both locally and overseas such as a ski trip to Switzerland. Parents were generally happy with the cost, variety and relevance to the curriculum. Many extra-curricular clubs and activities are provided to students and some even for parents (guitar lessons and daily ‘boot camp’ exercise sessions to name just two!). Most of the student activities are free, though some sports are provided by external operators at an additional cost.
Parent culture at HES appears to be sociable, with welcome evenings for new parents, family beach days and regular sporting opportunities. There is a popular cafeteria on site where parents often stop for a coffee and to chat.
Parents agreed that, considering the high quality of education and new facilities underway, the school offers very good value for money. That said, there was distinct irritation over the transparency of fees, with parents describing some ‘optional’ fees as ‘not really optional’. Clearer, more transparent invoicing and presentation of costs was something that they would like the school to look at.
Uniform was a cause for some significant negative feedback from parents (a complaint in many schools in Dubai). Whilst quality of the individual items was seen as satisfactory, the school has ‘phased in’ a new uniform slowly, meaning that there are currently a number of different versions that are permissible to be worn. Parents felt that this relaxed approach had caused presentation standards to slip and all agreed that they would like the uniform rules applied more rigorously. This is something Mr Wallace later confirmed as a significant and imminent priority for the leadership team.
The school is situated in an area of Dubai that has seen significant construction (of the new Dubai Water Canal and more) in recent years. Parent feedback was that the school had dealt with any disruption sensibly and that the school and neighbourhood is now about to enter a more settled phase.
A bus service (owned by parent company, Al Najah) is available for families living further afield and a helper (who is also school employee, and knows the children well) accompanies the children on the bus.
Looking to the future, the parents were mindful of the challenges that all schools face in the ever evolving Dubai education sector. They saw that HES needs to be able to communicate the vision and feel of the school in a highly competitive marketplace. As Gareth succinctly put it the “heart is strong here but it is hard going up against all the new schools”. That said, the parents were confident that the school has the strong leadership and clear direction to continue to thrive.
It was a great pleasure to meet a group of year 6 pupils (all holding positions of responsibility such as House Captain or Head Boy or Girl).
We asked what was so special to them about HES and all agreed on its ‘community’. They felt proud to be in this friendly environment where “the teachers listen and understand us” and “you feel at home”. Students feel this is a school that has clear rules, but is not too strict or formal – “there is some fun in every single lesson!” said one. Mr Wallace is clearly as well thought of and popular with the children as he is with parents. Our student panel all agreed that he was “kind and approachable”.
Most of our student interviewees were long term pupils of the school, and were a little sad to be living through the building work, only for it to be completed once they leave! That said, such was their dedication to the school that many felt that they would like to return for a visit and see how different the school is next year.
Contrary to parent opinion, the students liked their uniform. The main colour of the HES uniform is yellow, which “really sums up that this is a happy school”. They would however like ‘match kits’ to play competitive sports in, something which many other schools seem to have and that the children had noticed the absence of.
Staying with sports, all the children were in praise of the PE Teachers and the school’s success in sporting events against other schools. One comment, however “we really need a girls touch rugby team!”.
Turning to technology, mobile phones are not allowed for students. In years 5 and 6, students were given an ipad by the school on long term loan. This was (naturally!) a popular initiative. Students felt IT within the school was up-to-date and mentioned the new 3D printer.
The children had a host of special memories about their time at HES. Many related to sports, such as the BSME games, the World School games and inter-school events. They were very proud to have raised 16,000 AED for charity recently and really appreciated the special fundraising and family events that happen at regular intervals. Family movie nights and trips the beach were appreciated and they laughingly described ‘sponge the teacher’ which had been very popular at a Halloween celebration!
Last words then from the children? “This is a ‘big but small’ school and we love that. Everyone knows each other and everyone is kind”.
Our first port of call was the Early Years area. We entered via a gated outdoor play area where we saw children playing happily with a large Chinese dragon puppet (our visit almost coincided with Chinese New Year). This lively area has space for active play, a sand area and mud kitchen and lots of varied resources. The children were laughing, relaxed and busy at play. Inside, large classrooms enclose a central play area where again, there were a huge variety of activities on offer. Adults were engaged and supervising but it was clear that the children were making choices in line with their own interests. We saw children involved in loud and lively play such as dancing and singing on ‘stage’ to quieter activities in comfortable, cosy nooks. We also saw another fully shaded outdoor space with a good selection of climbing frames and equipment. The Early Years area overlooks a large astroturf playing field. There are also two multi-purpose courts, however one is currently the site of the temporary swimming pool.
Moving on to the provision for older children, classrooms continue to be arranged in clusters around central spaces. We saw these open spaces in use for quiet work, group activities and one and one sessions with teachers. The indoor corridors are light, bright beautifully decorated with children’s artwork and with well-organized storage lockers.
The whole school is very well maintained, but every area still manages to have an atmosphere of warmth – this is not an overly formal school. We were impressed to find that the Senior Leadership Team offices are spread throughout the school, meaning that they are very much ‘present’ in day to day life of the school.
On the second floor, the library spaces we saw were inviting with wonderfully decorated dens, murals and soft bean bag seating. One large open plan classroom is designated to science and cookery (and is also home to the school’s pet iguana!) and another specifically to innovation. This includes a 'green screen' wall.
The main IT suite was very spacious and well equipped. There was a Year 1 class having a coding lesson during our visit, which looked great fun. The music room is huge with stacks of African drums, keyboards and other instruments.
There was considerable construction work ongoing at HES at the time of our visit, but we noted how well managed it had been in order to minimise disruption to students. Large temporary fences had been constructed, shielding the children from most of the works and ensuring safety. We were pleased to see the ‘temporary’ swimming pool, a facility that had been put in place to ensure lessons were not disrupted as the main pool is replaced. The temporary facility was almost impossible to distinguish from a permanent pool!
Principal Ian Wallace was keen to explain that the improvements were much more about upgrading provision than increasing student capacity, commenting that;
“We are enhancing our music provision with a music technology centre. There will be one large classroom with a studio attached. This will be where our computing curriculum can interact with music in the form of sampling and music creation.
Lots of schools talk about STEAM [STEAM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics], but we want to make sure that it is truly central to everything we do and every aspect of our curriculum. So part of the improvements will be a dedicated STEAM lab and learning space.
Next, we will continue to improve our facilities for children with additional needs with improved inclusion provision. Finally! A new swimming pool. So again, it is very much about improving what we do, not just increasing capacity. That is the big thing for us”.
Throughout the school and in almost every classroom we visited, teachers invited students to explain the work they were engaged in. We found the children to be confident, articulate and clearly able to explain their own learning.
We met with four HES department leaders, these being:
• David Tangney – Head of PE
• Martin Cole – Head of English
• Lizzie Varley – Deputy Head
• Ali Gomaa – Head of Arabic & Islamic
We immediate noticed a positive, collaborative atmosphere between the teaching teams. Very much on the ‘same page’ regarding the past achievements and future plans for the school, we enjoyed hearing from these motivated and committed professionals.
A common theme throughout our meetings with the HES Principal, parents and students, was the strength of the PE department. Mr Tangney told us that his focus is always on increasing opportunities in sport for every child, whatever their abilities. His vision is to see every child competing in at least one competitive sport. The number of sports on offer is said to be excellent and improving - right from water polo to skiing.
In his own career, Mr Tangney feels that HES makes every effort to support his personal development.
For Mr Cole, Head of English, his focus primarily is on maximising enjoyment of reading and writing. He believes that if children read for pleasure first, they will naturally acquire the skills to tackle new vocabulary. “The children are at the centre of everything we do at HES” said Mr Cole.
Deputy Head, Ms Varley is exceptionally proud of the inclusive education on offer at HES. “We have 28 children with additional needs and/or a shadow. That is great because not only do we give those children the support they need, we are creating a school which truly reflects society. As adult, you can’t teach children the lessons they learn from interacting with all sorts of different people”.
In her role as Deputy Head, Ms Varley is looking beyond the current curriculum and at a Global Framework looking at attainment right through to 2030. In order to achieve this, her ambition is to maintain and strengthen leadership at all levels in the school. “We will continue to embed success into the culture of the school”, said Ms Varley.
Arabic and Islamic studies are clearly given great attention at HES. Mr Gomaa told us that his team has the clear ambition of being the “best school for Arabic and Islamic in Dubai”. Mr Gomma went on to say that “We have constructed a solid 7 year plan to achieve this. That is where we are headed and all the team are focussed on this aim”.
The overall goal of the teaching team combined? “We are aiming for school that is beyond outstanding”.
With soon to be upgraded facilities, an “Oustanding” KHDA rating, talented teachers, an involved parent body and fantastic students, Mr Ian Wallace is a Principal in an enviable position. It is obvious, however that neither he, nor school owners Al Najah, are complacent. Mr Wallace makes clear that he has a continued and constant focus on the future of the school.
Mr Wallace was appointed acting Principal after the departure of Mr David Baldwin. Mr Wallace was popular choice with parents, with our panel agreeing that he had “calmed everyone down” after the relatively short tenure of his predecessor.
Mr Wallace joined HES five years ago as Assistant Head (he was promoted to Deputy Head prior to taking on the role as Principal). Prior to HES, Mr Wallace was with Star International School, which has since been acquired by HES owners, the Al Najah group and become the ‘sister school’ to HES – Star is now named Horizon International School.
Referring to his appointment as Principal, “I think that when Mr Baldwin left the feeling from parents was that I should just take it on, which was lovely and the just the greatest compliment I could get! I think it is fair to say I was the parents’ choice and as a result they felt the owners had really listened to their views”.
Knowing he has the support of the parents has been a tremendous boon for this first time Principal. “I think it has worked out well for everyone. I have had such tremendous support, I feel like I have come on board with the backing of our community. That is one thing I am always so grateful for”.
Mr Wallace is keen to support his team on their own journeys to leadership positions. “We have a very bespoke approach to Professional Development” he said, adding that “the owners have given us a very healthy budget for training and development and, as a result, we have many ambitious middle leaders – a great position for any school to be in!”.
Once the new facilities are complete, the focus on the future for HES will centre on the curriculum. “We want a truly broad curriculum” said Mr Wallace. “We need to ensure two things, one, that we have a moral compass in absolutely everything that we do, and two, that ‘STEAM’ is not just an add-on or a tick box exercise. It is going to be something that we live and breathe in every aspect of our provision”.
Mr Wallace concluded our discussion by considering what makes HES unique. “Being a standalone primary school here in Dubai sets us apart. We are specialists in the field and get to focus purely on primary education. That is the purpose and journey of the school”.
Horizon English School Dubai is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
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