IDEA Early Learning Center, located in Victory Heights inside Sports City, opened in September 2016. The school has come on in leaps and bounds since our first visit, and is new very well embedded into the community. It is currently also scoring a very high Parent Rating on the WSA School survey...
In Dubai it is unusual to find a preschool (or as IDEA is termed, Early Learning Center) in purpose built accommodation. IDEA opened in 2016 and is now into the third academic year of operation. We were keen to revisit the team and learn how this purpose built, strikingly modern early years setting has embedded into the local community.
IDEA is situated in Dubai Sports City, on the outskirts of the popular Victory Heights development. Many parents use a pedestrian entrance directly from the community – a refreshingly green and down to earth experience for Dubai children! Those who need to use a car to access the centre can make use of the plentiful on street parking.
IDEA caters for an unusual age range, from 9 months to six years. In the British system this would take children up to the end of Year 1 and in the American system KG2. This is a new proposition for Dubai, and appeals to parents who feel their child would benefit from being in a smaller more homely environment for longer before joining “big” school. In addition, families who will be in Dubai for short periods of time may like to keep siblings together for simplicity and ease of travel/commuting.
Our first welcome at IDEA was from the friendly and professional and security guard who is stationed in an office at the entrance to the centre. We were issued with a guest pass and asked to sign in and as we did we noticed just how popular this young man is with parents and teachers alike. Inside the bright and open reception area we are welcomed by the smiling reception team and Farheen Effandi, Director of IDEA.
A classic ‘expat’ with roots and family life that spans several countries, Farheen has B’Ed in Early Childhood Education and a Montessori Diploma, all gained whilst living in Australia. Prior to embarking on a career with ‘the little ones’ (as she smilingly terms them) Farheen taught science to older children in a Brisbane school. Her career since then has seen her work as an Early Years Leader and consultant in Bahrain, Pakistan and London but now with a three year old daughter of her own, Farheen is keen to settle in to a new life and career in Dubai.
A second team member, Curriculum Coordinator Magda, was also keen to offer her perspective on working at IDEA. Having now been with the setting for 3 years (always working with children aged 2), she described IDEA as friendly, relaxed and a happy place for employees. Magda feels completely trusted and that in her classroom she had ‘freedom to be creative’. She felt that each day at IDEA was approximately ‘70%’ child led, with some carefully added adult led and focussed activities. Magda would like to study for her Cache 5 Early Years Management Diploma and felt that all staff had the backing to further their education and qualifications.
Teachers working with the younger children at IDEA are required to have a minimum of Cache* 3, whilst the ‘KG’ teachers must be degree qualified.
[*Cache qualifications are qualifications awarded by the Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education - the UK's leading provider of vocational qualifications for those working in the care and education sectors. Cache qualifications are divided into five different levels, ranging from Level 1 (entry level) to Level 5 (for experienced professionals).]
IDEA offers The Creative Curriculum from the US. An overview of this curriculum can be found here. According to Farheen, it is designed to offer a seamless transition into the American school system yet, she says, contains milestones and objectives comparable to other curricula, meaning that whichever system a child transitions to, IDEA will have provided a solid educational foundation.
During our visit we spoke to several members of the teaching team who also enthused about the curriculum, one describing it as ‘inspirational and liberating’ for both children and teachers. The curriculum’s solid foundation in literacy, communication and language was also praised by the team.
Idea offers twice weekly Arabic lessons during morning classes. French lessons are planned for the coming academic year. Extra-curricular ballet and multi-sports are delivered by the well regarded Gulf Stars group, at an additional cost. Once a week there is a free parent-led playgroup which is open to all families in the local community.
Throughout our tour we were impressed by the willingness of the children to chat with our reviewer. The older children were able to clearly describe their learning and had clear enthusiasm for the teachers and ‘school’.
The classes and staff to teacher ratios are as follows:
Parent feedback for IDEA was positive. One Mum described how her child had struggled to settle in two other nurseries, but had immediately ‘clicked’ at IDEA. She had noticed genuine fun and friendships between the staff members, something that she felt really contributed to how happy her children were in the preschool. From the registrar (Natalie), to all of the TA’s and Teachers, she felt that every member of staff had taken the time to get to know her child, creating a warm and personal atmosphere. On a practical level, she appreciated the preschool being in a ‘cul de sac’ which she felt made drop off and pick up considerably safer than usual. Parking was simply ‘never an issue’.
A second IDEA Mum described in detail how well the team were catering for her son, who had some quite specific additional needs. Before joining, she had been concerned that his needs might be ‘drowned out’ by the relatively large class sizes, but instead she was happy to report him being a ‘pillar of the classroom’ who was accepted, appreciated and celebrated along with all of the other children. She did feel that to make their provision ‘perfect’, a small ‘intervention’ class might be an improvement, but likewise she understood that this might not be possible in a relatively small setting. The team had been very happy to work with external professionals as and when necessary.
Our parent panel all answered an emphatic ‘yes’ when we asked about whether they felt part of a community at IDEA. This was the ‘best bit’ in fact! Communication was a central pillar of this sense of community with parents reporting high levels of satisfaction with the parent app, email communication and regular face to face chats with teachers and leadership.
The only niggling complaint parents have at IDEA seems to be common to Dubai – uniform (older children are asked to wear a uniform – navy t-shirts and red shorts or skort). Sizing and quality were both reported as poor, and parents were pushing for an imminent change of supplier. Food delivery was available but none of our panel used it or were able to give feedback at the time of our visit.
IDEA has nine classrooms, all situated off a long, central corridor.
The classrooms are spacious with large windows allowing lots of natural light. Walls are kept white with accents of bright colours on the doors and in the washrooms. Each room is well resourced with good quality, age appropriate equipment and there were prominent displays of the children’s art work all around. We noticed detailed written teacher commentary on the displays.
One class notably has a pet hamster, a special friend that many of the children were happy to point out! We noticed that each classroom has an attached washroom with a single toilet and basin.
Although the rooms face out onto the garden/outdoor play areas there are no doors directly to the outside (at present children access the garden via the central corridor). We would love to see IDEA install garden doors from each classroom, allowing children ‘free flow’ to the outdoors. A simple but impactful change that we believe would benefit every student.
The baby room has a quiet, adjacent sleep room and is in close proximity to the clinic. There is a gym/soft play area for indoor active play and cosy spots for story time and quiet reading in the corridor. Classrooms for children over 2 have interactive whiteboards, used for occasional reinforcement activities and less frequently, for movie and pyjama days!
The outdoor areas at IDEA are spacious, if a slightly awkward shape. There had seen considerable improvement here since our last visit, with some play equipment having been moved and a definite effort having been made to create varied areas of interest and activity. One large area to the front of the building is dedicated to bikes and trikes. Farheen has many ideas and plans to maximise very inch of the garden – watch this space!
Farheen was keen to tell our reviewer that every month each class has an outdoor messy play day (all the children arrive wearing swimwear), and one lucky class were just about to embark upon a ‘snow and ice’ themed play session, which had been prepared with incredible care and attention to detail, with many creative and sensory play opportunities on offer. It looked like fantastic fun!
This being a new and purpose built facility, health and safety standards are high. There is a sprinkler system and tannoy for emergency evacuation. Fire drills are regular occurrences. We felt that cleanliness and hygiene were also good.
Core curriculum hours are 8.00am-1.00pm for young children and 8.00am-2.45pm for children in KG1/2. For working parents there is an early drop off (7.30am) and breakfast club and an extended afternoon until 5.30pm.
Overall, our team felt that IDEA ELC was a very well run, well-resourced preschool that had quickly become a real hub for the local community. A word of warning for eager parents however, our sources have told us for the very first time the pre-school has a wait-list...
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