A focus on academics wrapped in a great deal of warmth is evident throughout all areas of Pristine. Two words that feature strongly in any discussion with staff, parents and pupils are ‘joy’ and ‘compassion’. The school is focused on making sure that the community is right up to date with technological developments. There is a very strong sense of collegiality amongst the all-female team.
Pristine School was founded on the 16th of September 1992 by Mrs Shahida Salam so this year the school is proudly celebrating its 25th anniversary. From five pupils in a villa in 1992 to 1,519 pupils today this affordable, international school has gone from strength to strength.
Pristine follows the English National curriculum and now occupies about 100,000 sq ft in its Al Nahda 2 campus in Dubai (see our Al Nahda area guide). Surrounded by a secure wall and frame of trees Pristine is housed in a series of adjoining cream, three-storey blocks. We wanted to visit to mark their success at achieving 25 years as a centre for education here, meet the founder and leadership team.
Bottom line facts:
We were welcomed by security and shown at once through the main entrance to the reception area. Warm greetings from the Head’s PA, Ms Merlin Fernandes were followed by a similarly warm welcome from the enthusiastic head teacher, Ms Shagufa Kidwai and her team. It is always a pleasure to begin our school visits with an opportunity to interview current pupils who then give us a guided tour of the campus.
Hadeeqa is in year 13 and is the Head Girl. Janelle and Aimen are two year 12 students and are deputy head girl and boy respectively along with Taha who is a year 12 council member. Their energy, respect and passion for the school was obvious at once as we discussed their experiences and views. These students have spent between eight and 12 years at the school so have had plenty of involvement here and have progressed to be young adults.
We asked what was special to them about Pristine and the first loud and clear response was ‘community’. They spoke of how being a small school worked in its favour. The sense of warmth and support has resulted in a great deal of security and opportunity to grow along with the school. They feel as school council members that they are part of the school leadership, are respected and that their opinions have influence.
It was said that ‘as an establishment, it’s always improving’. Everyone ‘gets a chance’ and how student volunteers are encouraged to come up with fresh ideas. For example public speaking opportunities and open events have had a great effect. TED talks along with UN debates are a focus for many students at Pristine.
We moved on to staff/student relationships and these were summed up as ‘amazing’. Our students spoke of the staff as very friendly and approachable with one even mentioning ‘being able to WhatsApp a teacher at 10pm one evening to get some help on a maths problem’.
What pupils feel about the school most:
The teachers they feel have high expectations of them and they help a lot, bringing out the best in the individual. We wanted to know about student culture here and it was reported as a balance between supportive collaboration and healthy competition. Schools in the emirate have clear anti-bullying policies expected by the KHDA and at Pristine the Student Council acts quickly to respond on the very rare occasions bullying occurs.
Our four representatives are part of the larger team of Student Council members who are selected by both pupils and staff. We moved on to practical issues in and around the school so began with inquiries around the food on offer to this community. The students were happy with both the variety and price, for example salads are only around 7 AED.
Students describe their school uniforms as ‘attractive, comfortable and a nice colour’. At senior school students wear a blue shirt/blouse and long grey skirt or trousers. As senior school leaders they have requested to have jackets when representing Pristine and soon will have them custom made. For PE lessons loose tracksuit pants and colourful polo shirts are worn depending on which house a student is in.
We spoke of academics next and spoke about the workload at Pristine. Our students feel very challenged but say they are encouraged to be well-rounded by teachers who they feel are always there for them. The alumni network was also mentioned as a great example as pupils follow their progress after Pristine. The alumni, in fact, have also engaged in thanking their ex-teachers by sending videos of appreciation.
Teaching is very different at Pristine say its students who feel that staff adapt to meet their needs. They described this to us as ‘tailor made teaching’. Innovation is built into lessons, along with IT. Extra curricular activities are an important part of school life in the form of six different clubs - including media, community and literature. Plays and performances are a big focus at Pristine involving a host of students.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is the much anticipated play to be performed this year.
PE is encouraged in the form of school teams and house competitions. The school is connected to the community by taking part in Dubai Care activities such as joining in walks for causes and charities. A pupil from the school came third in the Young Philanthropist Challenge. There is an environmental club and connections with a special needs centre. A timely environmental club encourages the re-cycling of plastic paper and cans. A UNESCO club is to be launched soon along with the MIT University entrepreneurial ideas scheme.
The Dragon’s Den challenge has been a successful innovative idea which encourages creative business ideas. All older pupils are permitted to bring mobile phones to school when necessary but they must be submitted to the school office in the morning. Personal iPads and laptops are permitted.
The teaching approach:
We asked next for any event that captured their experience and the values at Pristine. Academic success primarily sprung to mind. In describing the school to prospective pupils they used the phrases ‘a really good environment’, ‘accepted with open arms’, where ‘hard work is always acknowledged’, and ‘academics are taken very seriously’. We were also told that 'you are encouraged to challenge yourself’, ‘we are a tight knit community of friends and teachers’, ‘there is a great acceptance of diversity’, ‘the 42 nationalities here work in harmony’...
Our knowledgeable, eager and articulate sixth formers showed us first around the foundation section, a hive of activity. Wonderful use has been made of outdoor pathways and shaded play areas. We noticed an inventive and attractive maths play walk way, a mud pie making station and a cute creative play ‘art corner’. Transparent Perspex easels for expressive painting are available along with a large sandpit and a play lemonade making table.
Climbing equipment and a slide are also on site for the more adventurous. Classrooms are pretty, colourful with exciting wall displays and large interactive screens for group work.
Along one corridor we saw a ‘talk corridor’ set up using a sea theme (although themes change regularly). The area contains objects to encourage inquiry and stories. The lessons we walked into were all very much hands on with small groups of children engaged in a variety of activities. Practical, tactile and creative tasks are in strong evidence and the children seemed excited and focused.
At primary level the uniform is a simple striped blue and white uniform for girls and shirt and shorts for boys. The small well-organised library for primary is important to the school as reading is considered a vital foundation to all education in the future. We saw well-equipped IT suites, spacious art rooms, music rooms and several science labs set up for practicals.
We were shown several chillout corners set out for meditation or creative discussions. Majlis cushions, bean bags or desks were available as required and student decorated walls. A dedicated synergy computer lab was occupied by a group of keenly focused students working together on what they described as ‘a secret project’. A senior library was in full use as were outdoor sports courtyards and a swimming pool. The auditorium is used for regular year group assemblies along with plays and performances.
Back in reception we saw cabinets with cups and tropies, prize giving photos and details of alumni. Everywhere we explored gave the impression of a happy, productive and exuberant community. Pupils we passed regularly said ‘hello’ with a smile before scooting off to the next lesson.
Our next appointment was with four parents who are all part of the parent’s council. Arminch has children of six and ten years, Angela one of 12 years, Sunita of six years and Prakash of 15 and 17 years so a good representation of the school.
The group told us they had chosen Pristine for various reasons. KHDA ratings which have been good now for the last few years were mentioned. The fact that GCSEs are offered, word of mouth and church community were other grounds. What has most impressed our parents is the academic educational level achieved by tge school. A factor for deciding to opt for Pristine for a couple of our parents was how impressive the senior students appeared when they visited. They appear "mature and responsible".
The school’s biggest challenge was thought to be keeping the price affordable as the cost of living rises in the UAE. More space for sport would also be an advantage for parents. When asked about the value for money for Pristine our parents all responded with ‘absolutely’, ‘100% for the level pupils receive’.
When moving on to more practical matters uniform was the first topic. Our parents feel the quality is excellent and are happy that the school sells and organizes this with a shop on site. The uniform policy is quite strict which is a rule they all approve of. School food on offer they believe to be of good value and well-prepared but generally their children prefer to bring their own snacks.
The parking and traffic situation at drop off and pick up was our next area of discussion and our group are confident that the security staff manage this safely. A good fairly priced bus service was mentioned for those who require this. Both local and international trips are on offer and our parents believe they are of good quality and they are kept informed at all times. Overseas trips so far have been to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Turkey and the USA.
Parents believe the provision of clubs and extra curricular is extensive. As parent council members they feel part of the community. They would like to do even more for the school.
We wanted to know how the school and teachers keep in touch with parents. We learned that there are report cards every semester, followed by a parent’s evening. Parents, however, can book an appointment for discussion at any time. We inquired about their thoughts on their children’s homework and discovered that they enjoy this learning process too, learning about coding for example.
A homework planner is used to record tasks which can sometimes be very challenging. Learning support is on offer at Pristine for those who require that bit extra. Our parents described the school as ‘very supportive’ and ‘successful in learning support’.
We wanted to know if our group considered education here at Pristine to be as good as that on offer in their home country. Three thought it better while the parent from Iran believes it to be ‘almost the same’. They praised the emphasis on reading as a lifetime habit.
Finally we asked our group to describe Pristine to prospective parents. The comments we received were enormously positive: ‘A home away from home’, ‘your children never want to miss a day’, ‘teaching is from the heart’, ‘lots of facilities’, ‘there is no copy and paste here only original work’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘well balanced in nationalities and cultures and this builds respect’, and, finally, 'children feel very involved’.
Moving on from the enthusiastic parents we met with the founder, head teacher and other school leaders.
Mrs Salam, the founder of Pristine began the school in a three bedroom villa in the Al Garhoud area. Her five pupils soon grew to 35 and then to 75 so she kept taking adjoining villas as the school expanded.
She believes teaching comes from the heart and that the focus should be on learning not teaching. She has a huge respect for diversity and said that ‘one good teacher is enough for a lifetime’ although she herself met her inspirational teacher later on in her education. In our discussion we were pleased to have Mrs Shagufa Kidwai, Tasneen, the senior school leader, Salma, the head of early years and Zeenat, the head of middle years.
We inquired why Mrs Salam had decided to move into education from her medical training and her response was: ‘education is the best thing you can give to the world, with an aim to bring peace and harmony’. She spoke of her passion for education and how she felt she knew instinctively what each child needed. Asking Mrs Kidwai her story revealed that she too has a science background and moved from teaching in the Seychelles to teach at Pristine in 2005.
We asked these school leaders what makes Pristine unique and received these quotes: ‘the school produces life long learners in the students, teachers and parents’, ‘we produce global citizens who are passionate individuals’, ‘the community is committed to the school motto of ‘onwards and upwards’, ‘the happiness here energises and gives strength’, ‘there is passion from the senior team’.
We asked where the school was headed and the innovation seems to be in technological advance. The Synergy lab, 3D printers and robotics are a focus. It was mentioned that they aimed to prepare kids for the future and give them a sense of owning the future. The curriculum is regularly reviewed to help create reflective thinkers everywhere who are asking ‘what next’.
These leaders think that Pristine’s greatest accomplishments are their strong academic results. They feel their all-female team prepares their students to be sound, well-equipped, compassionate and ready to be global citizens. They believe that Pristine has all the ‘core values’ and ‘inspires positivity’.
Staff retention at Pristine is very good with many teachers staying more than 10 years.
Retention was accredited to the element of collegiality and the sharing of ideas and practices. Teacher training is held regularly with a strong emphasis on collaboration, and learning.
We wanted a key phrase to describe Pristine and received these phrases: ‘a holistic, happy school’, with a clear, sharp vision’.
We inquired if there was one department or programme that stood out and all are praised although it was said: ‘foundation is our gem’. The Arts is also a big part of the curriculum with plays, performances and a band. The school proudly explained how they achieved a standing ovation at their Lit Fest Fringe performance.
To apply for a place at Pristine there is an interview and entrance exam but if the school has space there is an open acceptance policy. There are waiting lists at foundation level and in a few other years.
Scholarships are discretionary.
When students leave Pristine they go all over the world to study or sometimes remain in the UAE. It’s popular to go to the USA, Canada, UK or other European destinations. We asked what our team would want prospective families to know about the school. Mrs Salam replied by saying that the school's fundamental aim is that each child reaches her potential.
"We invite prospective parents to walk in any day, and see for themselves..."
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