A well-loved Dubai institution Jebel Ali Primary School is quickly settling in to its new location in ‘new’ Dubai. The school’s expansion into the secondary environment is being led by a highly experienced and respected leadership team. The staff, students and parents are working hard to ensure that the ‘Jebel Ali magic’ as they call it, continues to flourish in their new, much enlarged environment.
JAPS was founded in 1977, a British curriculum primary school based in Jebel Ali village. Today its new purpose built campus is located in the Akoya Mudon district along the Remran desert road not far from the Emirates Road. The new Jebel Ali now offers secondary schooling as this is an expansive site with large modern purpose built block buildings.
The Mudon area is still under construction in many parts but there are several housing developments and apartment blocks already completed. Jebel Ali is a new school and is an impressive design – white, cream and yellow blocks of up to four floors with some attractive Arabic cladding in places.
The grounds are, as you would expect, not yet well established but trees and shrubs have been planted throughout. There is not much construction immediately around the school and the road nearby is not yet finished. A wall along with high railings surrounds the site and security is present at all times.
We parked outside as the car park inside was fully occupied. The security guards were friendly, welcoming and took ID before directing us towards the entrance. The reception area is bright and fresh with comfy sofas and chairs. It was seconds before we were warmly greeted by Ms Colette Doughty, the Head of Secondary.
With great passion she answered our questions as we were settled in her office. We began by asking why she went into education and her immediate response was ‘I always wanted to be’. She expressed her love for the community of a school and the excitement of developing potential. In the past a teacher had helped change her life while she studied chemistry at night school. This experience gave Colette the inspiration to focus and she worked hard to become a chemistry teacher herself.
The job satisfaction Colette feels is being with the kids, enjoying how fun they are and appreciating the fact they make her really happy.
Colette taught in the UK first but has been working in Dubai for fifteen years now. Her time here she described as ‘a fantastic educational experience’. She moved into management ‘by accident’. She really loves teaching but doesn’t have the time for regular classes. Instead she described her input as ‘butting in and helping out’. She will often wander around the school, enter classes and sit beside a child keen to learn from them about the topic being studied.
What Makes the School Unique
We asked Colette what makes this school unique. She used the phrase ‘it’s the Jebel Ali magic’ and that it feels like it’s been ‘sprinkled with magic dust’. ‘The kids come first, staff are happy and all are free to learn’. She explains how the children have a sense of ownership and that there is a wonderful atmosphere in the classrooms.
The school has a ‘no fail culture’ where, when a mistake is made, pupils are taught to get back up and learn from it. Colette went on to praise the enthusiasm of the students saying ‘I never have to ask for volunteers’. She gave the example of a group of boys who performed a rap number quite independently and spontaneously when asked.
We asked about plans for the future of the school and Colette spoke of the desire to keep the same atmosphere as it grows. JAS aims to maintain a positive attitude and maintain happy students not ‘stressed or results driven’. She believes this is down to teamwork and good relationships between staff and other staff and with the kids.
The school's management strives to keep staff happy and engaged. She joked ‘keep the staff fed or they’ll eat the kids’!! Colette is delighted that after the upheaval of the move and just four terms on this new site the school has managed to retain the atmosphere of the original JAPS. She believes the school’s biggest challenge now is the lack of knowledge in Dubai that the school exists in its current location, and also that is is now a secondary school.
New families to Dubai don’t seem to know what the school has to offer. We wanted key phrases to describe Jebel Ali and Colette said: ‘children first’, ‘no child lost in the crowd’, ‘happy and holistic’, ‘development of the whole child’.
Colette is convinced that teaching and learning across the whole school is excellent. The arts are a very important part of the curriculum with the creative side of the school being very strong. JAPS has devised a ‘Take to the Stage’ evening event which sounds more like a festival – an exciting event for dancing, drama, poetry and music.
We moved on to day-to-day details and asked next about whether bullying was an issue at the school. Colette response was that ‘all kids make mistakes sometimes’ and that ‘social media is a big deal now’.
Colette spoke about how the school has linked up with Theresa Hughes from the UK, an online safeguarding in education expert, now a frequent visitor to JAPS. We spoke about the school’s approach to homework and learned that it has already cut down on the amount to allow for extra ECA time.
Having innovative ideas is a part of school life here and Colette believes that kids are taught to ‘think outside the box’. She used the word SAD standing for Smart Action Delivers. In geography, for example, students may go shoeless for the lesson, while in other classrooms gym balls are used instead of chairs. The school has not yet initiated a BYOD policy, but smartphones are allowed at secondary level. They are not, however, to be used during the school day.
Staff are regularly involved in professional development through the company Infinite Learning where they host and select guided CPD.
There is an open acceptance policy for SEN, as long as the school believes it can help the child applying. There is a basic entrance test and JAPS is looking at introducing scholarships.
Our last question for Colette was advice for any prospective parents thinking about JAPS. She said ‘I urge parents just to come and see us... you can only get a feel from a proper visit’.
Our next conversation was with Mr Peter Hill the Director at Jebel Ali. He has been in Dubai for a total of over 18 years and his previous job was as Principal of Dubai College. His passion for school began when he was a student himself and wanted to ring the school bell in the playground! He spoke of how he genuinely enjoys teaching and "watching young people develop and change in front of your eyes".
Peter's specialism is history and politics and he is able to find some time to continue to teach. At Jebel Ali he describes how he loves the sharing and teamwork among the leadership staff. We asked Peter why he sees Jebel Ali as unique and he used the phrases "the culture, spirit and emotion of the pupils"; that "there is a framework of data but a flow of emotion"; "that children at JAPS want to learn..."; "that all are equal but with individual focus... "
"This is a collaborative, caring environment," Peter tells us.
Mrs Lizzie Robinson is head of the primary section and her original career choice was chiropody. As a student she went into an infants school and was so smitten with the children that she immediately chose to train as a teacher. She also describes Jebel Ali as ‘magical’ and loves coming to school every day.
Lizzie feels that JAPS is ‘a special and extraordinarily happy place’. She began her teaching career in Wales after her training in Manchester. She then worked in London before the move 11 years ago to Dubai.
She expressed why the school is unique by using these phrases ‘a kind school where people help each other’, ‘the children are impeccably well behaved, polite and independent’, ‘the teachers are of all ages and varied amounts of experience’, ‘parents are regularly asked what they want from the school’, and ‘everyone invests in the children’...
We discussed JAPS with four parents next – Jani, Jo, Hanane and Nicola who have children from between 7 and 13 years old. We asked why they had chosen this school and it was "the reputation of the old school that had won them over". One parent had visited when their child was just two years old and was very impressed from the start. What most impresses the parents we spoke to is its ‘community feel’ and ‘how well rounded it is’. The school they told us ‘reflects the values we hold at home’. Parents also noted the adults and kids of all ages mix well.
Issues, they feel, are sorted out at once. For example on day one of opening the traffic was terrible but by the next day it was solved. Many staff were outside directing and ensuring things went smoothly. Leadership was also able to meet and greet families as they arrived. The parents we spoke to feel that staff take great care of the pupils and run booster clubs when necessary. There is therefore no need for private tutoring as there is ‘real personal care for each individual’.
The parents told us the school’s biggest challenge has been the move from the old to the new site and ensuring that the same atmosphere was maintained. We next spoke of value for money and the parents all agreed for the level of care and quality ‘they cater for every type of child’, and the return is good
JAPS' school uniform is a white blouse or shirt with navy trousers or skirt at secondary or striped shirts or dresses at primary. Our parents are ‘fairly happy’ with Stitches the provider who comes to the school at the start of each year. ‘Mastercook’ is the school's food provider and it costs 1,500 AED per term. A soup, salad and main dish are on offer or children bring their own snack box from home.
The traffic situation at drop off and pickup our parents feel is safe as there are traffic wardens and the security guards are excellent. There is a bus service available but the demand is such that only two buses are required. These parents are happy with the school trips on offer and feel the cost is reasonable. Clubs and activities at Jebel Ali they describe as ‘great’ – ‘children get to do everything’. There are two programmes running side by side, one the school provides such as school sports and music etc and one outside paid for programme offering clubs such as karate, ballet, rugby, golf and swimming.
An active parents association exists and leadership staff really pay attention. The PTA chairperson also sits on the board of governors. Parents receive a weekly letter which communicates news and dates to remember. There is also an ‘open door’ policy for parents to pop in at any time.
The pupils’ individual communication book was also described as ‘really good’. Parents can book an appointment with teachers easily and there are also regular parent teacher meetings. The WhatsApp system is used among parents to keep in touch within each class.
We inquired about the level of homework children are given and received these comments: ‘A nice enough balance’, ‘consolidates classroom lessons’, ‘we as parents get to see what our kids are learning’, ‘we can get involved with the online tasks’.
Overall parents believe their children are challenged and that, wherever needed, learning support ‘is very strong and supportive’.
Our next question was ‘is education here as good as in your home country?’. We heard ‘probably better’, ‘standards are higher here’, ‘expectation is high’, ‘the school competitive but children are not pressured’. It was also mentioned that kids from Jebel Ali who have gone back to the UK have been ahead in their new schools.
Describing Jebel Ali to prospective parents we were told ‘it’s the community’, ‘children first is the ethos and the spirit of the school’, ‘this is still the Jebel Ali School it was, only bigger and better’, ‘there is a seamless transition from year 6 to 7 which has taken that stress away’, ‘our kids love coming to school and don’t want to go home’, ‘you sometimes see parents dragging their kids home!’, ‘there are always hugs at the end of term’, ‘our kids are extremely proud of the school’, ‘staff stay so retention is good’, ‘the secondary staff are known as The Dream Team’, ‘it’s like being taught by your friends and relatives’, ‘teachers are passionate and the kids feed off that’, ‘the confidence of the kids is so special’.
Always a highlight of our visits is the guided tours by pupils. Charlie and Mollie are in Year 8 and Sonnie in Year 6. They were close to bouncing with enthusiasm and it was hard to keep up as they excitedly showed us this large campus. Being a new purpose built school the corridors are all immaculate, wide, well-lit and tidy. Large photographs of pupils at work decorate the main corridor walls and give the impression of the learning experiences on offer.
We were impressed by the modern and well-designed canteen with colourful walls and foodie murals. Wall displays are well-presented and clearly the kids own work. In primary we observed a lively and creative lesson overseen by an experienced member of staff. Groups of enthusiastic children were engaged in a variety of tasks. We entered a lovely multi-purpose hall with lots of equipment and a lovely wooden floor.
Moving outside there are plenty of shaded, learning outdoor areas. The art rooms and DT departments are impressive, all well equipped and with state-of-the-art machinery. A beautiful dance studio is available and we were impressed by the large auditorium which seats 650 individuals.
The music rooms, IT suites and libraries are all of a wonderful quality. The secondary library in particular has a different feel as the community have decided on a less traditional style. Three areas have been set up with bean bags or tables and chairs with areas for group work and discussions, not the usual ‘silence in the library’ style. A cool fish mural has been painted across the wall. Lots of blue fish representing the pupils in a shoal swim along with one yellow fish which they say represents Miss Doughty!
The science labs looked excellent and we were shown a professional looking lecture theatre. The huge sports hall is apparently the largest of any school in Dubai and also has a gym alongside it.
Swimming is taken seriously here with a 25m competition pool and a smaller teaching pool. There are outdoor athletic facilities, netball and basketball courts. Spacious rugby and football pitches are also central.
While we were walking by a year groups were running around the track encouraged by staff who were blasting out the tune ‘We like to move it’ playing from a large speaker.
The Pupils’ Views
We were next able to get the opinion of our guides and asked them what it’s actually like to be a student at Jebel Ali. Between Charlie, Mollie and Sonnie they have been at the school from two to nine years. What is special to them mirrored what parents and staff said. They spoke of ‘community’ and ‘magic’. We asked what could be improved and the JAPS pupils would like more outdoor play equipment and they would like a longer school day.
‘There’s not enough time in the day to see everything that’s going on’. Asking them to describe the staff/pupil relationships they feel they are like one big family. The teachers are ‘fun’, make them feel ‘confident’, and they feel very well known as individuals. The student culture they describe as ‘helping each other and at times competitive’.
We inquired what happens if there is an issue of bullying and were told that "we’ve never had any experience of it". There is a student council of three reps from each class and they feel their opinions are taken seriously by the school's leadership. ‘Delicious’ was the word used when we asked what the all-organic Rhodes Meals were like. The school uniform also got the thumbs up. Students described them as ‘comfortable, and breatheable so we don’t overheat’.
We wanted to know their view of the workload as students and they told us ‘teachers push us to push ourselves’, ‘the homework club is useful’, ‘we have a prep lesson for private study every week’. Teachers we were told explain topics very well and our pupils were definitely satisfied with the quality of teaching.
We also learned that there are a huge range of ECAs on offer. Our group believe that the school's link with Dubai Cares, running fairs and taking part in the Box Appeal for labourers connects them to the wider Dubai community. Favourite stories or moments at Jebel Ali are sports day which they described as happy, fun and competitive, the end of year party which ‘made us feel very close’, the Kalba outward bound trip and ‘fun playing tricks on each other’.
Finally we wanted words to describe Jebel Ali to prospective students and were told: "It’s the atmosphere and ways of teaching’, ‘the talented, fun teachers’, ‘the banter is always funny’, ‘if you’re quiet you’re encouraged to speak up’, ‘the interaction is great’, ‘you’re really encouraged to talk to other people’.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com left with the impression that the history and legacy of the school is being well looked after, but we also felt something new... There is now a real sense of optimism in the air that had not existed in the last few years of JAPS. This is a school that no longer feels the need to always talk about the past. We left with the sense that for the first time in a long time JAS feels it can now take control of its destiny, and begin building the future.
Jebel Ali School visit, 11th January 2018
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