We at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com know that the concept of a not-for-profit school can be confusing for parents. Not for whose profit? What does ‘reinvestment’ really mean, where does the money go, and are there tangible benefits of this reinvestment for my child?
There is perhaps no better known not-for-profit school in Dubai than Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) (this time, our School Experience takes us to the Arabian Ranches campus) where, to quote Principal Shane O’Brien “after salaries, the most significant budget expenditure is continuing professional development for our staff”.
So for the JESS team, the answer is simple. Your money goes to teacher salaries and teacher training, which should result in quality teaching, and a better education for your child. Not-for-profit…with a culture of transparency? We’re keen to know more…
JESS is a well-known Dubai institution and many residents will recognise the name and brand whether their children attend the school or not. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that the school has become synonymous with the very best of education in the UAE. The challenge for schools as high achieving as this is clear: how does an outstanding school keep on improving? Where does the drive to be better come from when the regulator recognition and top notch attainment is already there?
See our JESS ARABIAN RANCHES SCHOOL REVIEW for more information on school ratings and academic attainment.
JESS Arabian Ranches can be found just off the main entrance to the Arabian Ranches development. The sand coloured buildings are similar in architectural style to the local residences. The school car park is relatively small but well managed and the team have reserved a spot for our Reviewer. Our ID is checked in reception and we are admitted to the ‘behind the scenes’ areas of the school via a pass activated electronic gate.
Our morning begins with a chat with a panel of parents (over hot coffee and chocolate brownies, arranged by the welcoming and highly organised JESS marketing team). Our parent panel represent the full span year groups at the school right from FS1 to Year 13.
There’s a distinct sense of identity to being a JESS parent, something we notice early on in our discussion. Parents of many nationalities share the same clear commitment and total pride in the school. There’s almost a sense of relief at having their children here, and at not having to think about comparisons to other schools…such is our parent panel’s confidence in the education their children receive.
One Mum in particular had this to say of her son joining JESS in Sixth Form:
“I cannot tell you how positive our welcome was when we joined. We all felt welcome and at ease from the start. I knew at once that this was a school where my child could be himself. He is totally accepted for what he is. An example? Well, I couldn’t believe that at the first ‘open mic’ event we attended, he sang! I MEAN…HE SANG! Such confidence…that would never have happened at his last school. To me, this school is all about acceptance and inclusiveness”.
The twin themes of ‘acceptance and inclusiveness’ continue throughout our parent feedback session. One parent told us that her children had “asked to move to JESS [from another Dubai school]. They did their own research on schools and wanted to come here “for the challenge and the chance to really be themselves”. Another parent laughingly commented that “It’s cool to be hardworking here. Really! How do they manage that? I wish I knew!”
The reputation of the school (and sister school, JESS Jumeirah) had been another factor in choosing this school. Parents also wholeheartedly agreed that the school was truly “not-for-profit” and that joining JESS means “becoming part of a community”.
As with any school, there are challenges from time to time and the JESS parents agree that ‘cost’ is one of them. That said, being clearly able to see where their money is being spent goes a long way to mitigate this concern.
“It’s obvious that the money is being reinvested in the staff” said one parent.
The parents were also excited to see the improvements to sports facilities which are due in late 2020 (primarily a large new indoor sports hall).
The parents feel that JESS students receive “a lot” of homework but that what is given is good quality. Much of the homework is completed in prep time at school, minimising the impact on family life.
Overall, our parent panel felt that JESS Arabian Ranches represented not only excellence in academic life but somewhere that (as one Mum commented), “It’s ok to stand out. Children can mature into wonderful young people with real world values here. They have so much independence, but in an environment that is safe and secure. We value that as a family”.
Responses to the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com parent survey largely echo that of our panel, however, just as for any other school, there are criticisms and issues parents would like to see addressed. Our survey respondents had these somewhat more critical comments about the school:
“Fixated on sporting achievements. There's an over reliance on devices.” Oct 2019
“JESS is a very high achieving school- but there is the feeling that the school's priority belongs to those children who are exceptionally high achieving & gifted. This is also the case with sports, there seems to be a lack of variety & interest from the school in those children who want to participate purely because they enjoy the sport…” Oct 2019
“A lot of pressure is placed on athletic children by the PE Dept. to participate in school sport, with little consideration/understanding given to other priorities” Nov 2019
Shane O’Brien has been with JESS Arabian Ranches for nine years, eight of which were served at Head of Secondary. Now Director of the school, Mr O’Brien tells us that he “truly understands what this school means” and as such, he feels “a huge responsibility” to the entire school community.
So if Mr O’Brien understands what JESS is…can he explain it to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com and our readers?
“What is JESS? Something special. Something hard to measure. The cumulative effect of many intangible, positive elements. I’d say that the culture of nurture and aspiration forms the heartbeat of this school. [Mr O’Brien points outside] There’s a little bit of magic out there! We are always raising the game and we deliver on expectations. We are reflective. How can I emphasise how special this school is? Well, 25% of our last IB cohort had been with the school since FS1. Imagine that…in Dubai, where everyone is on the move! There’s no better place than here”.
Mr O’Brien describes his career in education as being a “natural progression”, and “just a really good fit”. What he enjoys the most about working in schools is that it is always about relationships, and JESS is all about relationships”.
We ask Mr O’Brien what it is that continues to drive the leader of such as reliably high achieving school. His response?
“The kids’ satisfaction is everything. To see them achieving and thriving, it makes me feel fantastic. That keeps my momentum going!”
When it comes to his teaching team, Mr O’Brien believes that they have a “collectively great attitude, they have rigour, attention to detail and they are all on board with our direction of travel”. Mr O’Brien describes another facet of JESS culture as “…we are always open to new ideas. Innovation and confidence are everywhere in this school. Our teachers are not afraid to change things, to be brave and take chances.
I can give you an example of that. In Years 7, 8 and 9 students we have built “innovation” into teaching time. It is 'off-curriculum'…but we have found the time for it. We really think it’s that important. The course is not assessed, it’s not judged…failing is fine, so long as students learn, get up and start again”.
Last words then from the Director of JESS Arabian Ranches? “The best thing about this school is the altruism of our kids, they all want to make a difference. It’s a dynamic school, where every last child has somewhere to hang their hat. JESS is about everyone finding their place”.
Leaving the School Director, we meet a broad cross section of students from both primary and secondary phases at JESS. Our panelists our witty, confident and polished speakers.
If there are particular highlights of being a JESS student, they are the extra curricular activities and the school trips! Students enjoy a broad selection of activities including astronomy, glee club, henna club and chamber choir. We also liked the sound of RAK Club, which sees students planning and carrying out “Random Acts of Kindness” throughout the community.
JESS students have travelled far and wide, on ski trips and to Nepal, Kenya, Madrid (for a football camp) and Loughborough in England for a netball camp. Local adventure activity excursions are a highlight. Students in Year 3 have an overnight camp at school which was also highly popular!
One change the students would like? “Our timetable is so badly planned [in secondary]. We would like more library time and more space for PE in our timetable”.
This sentiment regarding the timetable was echoed by parent respondents to the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com survey:
“There is also poor flexibility in subject choices due to timetable clashes. For example, my daughter in year 12 could not take PE as it clashed with Islamic studies”. Nov 2019
The year 12 and 13 students, nearing the end of their time at JESS, were particularly complimentary about the school.
One older student, reflecting on the support her teachers have given her had this to say.
"Honestly, they fall at my feet to help me. That is how well supported I am. We are given great support and great guidance”.
The older students felt that what the school does particularly well is helping students to believe that “we can really make substantial change in the world”. A good example of this was the initiative of a group of Year 12 students who, inspired to action by the problem of “period poverty” in developing countries, had formed an alliance with local institutions such as Emirates Airline and the Ritz Carlton hotel group, to use recycled textiles to create “period packs” for distribution to disadvantaged school girls in Kenya and Zimbabwe.
How would our students summarise JESS? “What you put in, you get out tenfold”.
Our panel meet an energetic team of JESS teachers, phase and subject leaders, from primary through to Sixth Form.
The team here know they have “the right formula…our pedagogy throughout is excellent”. There is a surety to how the teachers speak about the school, which we surmise must come with repeated academic success and regulator recognition so many times over. But as for School Director Mr O’Brien, there’s no complacency. In fact, we find a team that are energised and brimming with ideas to “streamline structures and improve on the standards we already have”.
The fact that relationships are key to the “magic of JESS” is echoed by every member of the team we meet. With so many members of staff having been with the school for many years, JESS has become central to their lives, and it shows.
“We have a true family dynamic here. Staff wellbeing isn’t some new initiative or idea. It’s fundamental. We take care of people, that’s it” said one.
As for students? “We are able to invest quality time in them. We have the time and the freedom to do that. All our decisions go back to the classroom and to student experience”.
The nine acre campus of JESS Arabian Ranches are filled with a series of low rise, sand coloured buildings and spacious outoor sports facilities. A new sports hall is due to open late 2020. The school is well maintained, yet has the comfortable, lived in air of an establishment that has lost that ‘new build’ feel.
We love the outdoor area for the youngest children in Foundation Stage, which is wonderfully peaceful and features wood chip flooring in some zones, purposefully placed to challenge the core stability and balance of children at play. Other features include climbing equipment, a ‘mud kitchen’ and a bikes and trikes area. Our tour guide tells us that groups of children travel by trike to the Junior School library as it is a reasonable distance from Foundation Stage classes – great fun! The space is covered by a large sun shade which gives the play area a very pleasant atmosphere.
In the Junior School, we meet one music class rehearsing for a forthcoming performance. Students (and teacher) gamely give our Reviewer an impromptu performance, very enjoyable indeed! Classrooms are not the largest we have seen, but most have some form of break out area attached allowing for group or quiet work. Some are a little dark, but on the whole they are pleasant and well equipped. The children we meet are unfailingly polite.
In the Secondary school, we see two teachers testing out VR headsets ahead of a session with students later in the day. Apparently the teachers are 'virtually' repairing parts of the International Space Station, although...if we are honest, it looks less like a repair and more like a slightly odd, slow motion dance routine! An engaging activity for students, however!
First floor classrooms are surrounded by exterior walkways, some of which have arch framed views of the expansive playing fields, where we see an athletics session in action.
Our readers often tell us of their anxiety around education in the UAE….does it live up to home? Am I doing the right thing for my child? Is this the right school for all my children, whatever their ability? The feeling we come away from JESS Arabian Ranches with is that this is a school where those fears can be put aside, where families can be at ease with their school choice. This confidence reverberates around the school…amongst the team, the leadership and most especially and importantly, the students.
Jumeirah English Speaking School Arabian Ranches 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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