RIS has that intimacy and feel that you do not get in all through schools, it feels smaller scale, more intimate. The school as a result has a warmth and a ‘village school’ feel that is unusual in the busy metropolis that is Dubai.
Signs of the partnership with its sister (secondary) school, Sunmarke, are evident in the fact that parents feel confident of a smooth transition to the next phase of education. Links between the two schools strike us as meaningful and consistent. As a member of the Fortes Education group, the school also has a link with Jumeirah International Nurseries, with one nursery on site at RIS, a convenient option for parents.
One of the things we found during our visit was that the term “positive education” was used widely – and not just by teachers. Even parents and students were using the term freely, the result of a curriculum and staff development partnership with the Geelong Grammar School in Australia that has clearly now become a fundamental part of everyday life at RIS.
When one tours this school, you will see that a multitude of nationalities form this vibrant community. Students from more than 70 countries attend this true ‘community’ school.
This is a 25 year old school, and that brings to the table a solidity in the way the school runs. It’s clear as you walk around that is not a school looking to find its feet, but one that has its own, readily definable culture. Equally, in Dubai it means on the edges things can look a little frayed and tired, but changes are afoot and a redevelopment programme is underway to improve and update the facilities.
The three storey, cream angular block buildings with large blue tinted windows are situated just off the busy First Al Khail Street. RIS is convenient for those living in Dubai Marina, The Greens and the developments within Emirates Living. The school is also close to the Sheikh Zayed Road, so is generally easy to access. Parents report the surrounding traffic (and parking) situation as ‘very busy, but well managed’. The location means that many children walk or cycle to school, something that really adds to the ‘village school’ impression that remains with us after visiting RIS.
During our tour we observed busy classrooms full of children engrossed in a variety of learning. Most rooms have large windows and a reasonable level of natural light (though some are better than others in this regard). Wall displays are meaningful and well-presented. There are shaded outdoor play areas with a range of play equipment including easels for art, water play troughs and climbing frames.
The library is well organised with books at child height and lots of comfortable chairs and cushions. There is a small swimming pool on the ground level and a large pool on the rooftop along with basketball courts which are all covered. We saw the large astroturf field in use and a spacious indoor multi-purpose sports hall.
The facilities within the school are certainly adequate but, we felt, beginning to feel a little tired and in need of some ‘tlc’ in places. To address this, the owner Fortes Education has recently instigated a programme of renewal and refurbishment, which was just getting underway at the time of our visit. These refurbishments will include improved sports and performing arts spaces as well as improving the outdoor areas. We will update our Review and Experience once the works are complete.
After passing through security, who checked our ID and issued a ‘visitor’ lanyard, we were welcomed by a friendly reception team and Marketing Officer, Sweta Nair.
Ms Nair introduces us to Mrs Gaynor Dale, the RIS Principal. Mrs Dale has been in education for 20 years – working in London, then Kenya before returning to the UK. Before moving to Dubai, Mrs Dale was Head of a primary school in Leeds in the north of England. As well as leading RIS, Mrs Dale is also a parent of with two children attending her school.
Mrs Dale is energetic and engaging and demonstrated great rapport with teachers, administration staff, parents and children alike. As our morning in the school progressed, we noticed just how many people praised Mrs Dale for being visible, open and supportive to everyone in the school community. The words Mrs Dale chooses to describe RIS clearly reflect her own attachment to the school.
“There’s a magic here, a really special vibe and atmosphere at this school. The feeling and energy is unusually positive, I believe. I think it comes from our commitment to wellbeing. We have happy teachers and a truly collegiate atmosphere”.
We continue our chat by asking Mrs Dale about her career in education. “Honestly” she said “it’s about making a difference. That’s it, for me, the knowledge that I am having an impact. I spent a long time as a class teacher, before moving into leadership and that is simply because I really do love to teach! We’ve worked had to establish the culture here and now we are moving up in the KHDA ratings too [the school achieved a creditable “Very Good” this year], there is a wonderful sense of reward and achievement for the whole team”.
Mrs Dale no longer has a classroom role, but does take an active role in monitoring the quality of teaching and learning across the school. She believes that at the core of the ethos of RIS is “that every child has the right to a fantastic education”. The school is non-selective and, Mrs Dale reinforces, “very inclusive”.
“We offer our positive education to every child. This school has a wide cross section of abilities and personalities. I welcome that: our inclusivity is really our biggest strength and something that I think makes us unique” said Mrs Dale.
So what makes a ‘positive’ education? It is primarily the focus on values, personal attributes and well-being, says Mrs Dale, adding that “positive education is a common language here. It’s embedded in everything that we do”. A quick look at Geelong Grammar School’s website tells us that the system encompasses strategies to help children;
“strengthen their relationships, build positive emotions, enhance personal resilience, promote mindfulness and encourage a healthy lifestyle”.
Mrs Dale feels that the “open-ended” curriculum at RIS is enhanced by being focussed not only on the core subjects but the Arts and cross curricular innovation too.
“Innovation is the bread and butter of our culture. We make sure that everyone, staff and students alike, are free to take risks. Our school has a culture of trying new things and on careful reflection of these initiatives. We balance risk with rigour. I truly believe that taking some controlled risks is how we will get to be an ‘outstanding’ school and that is definitely where we intend to get to!”
The ambition for achieving the very highest rating from Dubai’s education regulators is something Mrs Dale refers to several times during our discussion. Currently achieving ‘Very Good’, Mrs Dale says the team have a plan to achieve an ‘Outstanding’ rating within the next two years. Mrs Dale describes the “path to outstanding” as via the continued “development and empowerment” of the school’s middle leaders as well as building on the “significant capacity to improve” within the Arabic and Islamic departments.
Overall Mrs Dale feels the learning environment at RIS is ‘progressive, purposeful and appropriate to the topic being studied’. There is an entrance assessment for Regent in the form of the CAT assessment test but younger pupils go through a ‘lighter touch’ assessment process.
We spoke to Alexandra, Ibrahim, Kate and Anya, all Year 6 students who had been with the school for between 2 and 8 years.
The children agreed that the system of positive education was their favourite aspect of life here. “We look at the bright side of life!” said Kate. Kate also mentioned that “Here, teachers really focus on you. They help you to find your strengths and overcome weaknesses”.
The children find their workload manageable, saying that they appreciated how teachers helped them to understand their own personal learning style and to set their individual goals and targets.
When asked about extra-curricular activities and school trips, the children broke in to a spontaneous round of applause! They particularly loved the performing arts clubs, the NIKON photo club, cooking club and sports squads and felt that they had a better range of ECA choices than their friends at other schools. At a recent camp in Ras al Khaimah, our panel of children had had the opportunity to dissect a squid, which had been a particularly memorable thrill!
Students have strong, relatively informal relationships with their teachers, who they say are always around to help sort out any problems. “Not that there is any bullying here” said Ibrahim “only sometimes, some children can be less than kind”. Though teachers are on hand, children are encouraged to work through friendship issues with minimal adult involvement.
Unlike the parents, students spoke positively about the uniform and food! They found the uniform comfortable and smart and they were delighted that they do not have to wear blazers, like some schools! The children feel that the food is good quality and healthy.
What changes would the children like to see here? More French and more PE! At present, the children told us that they were receiving two 45 minute PE lessons per week, which they felt was definitely not enough.
We met with a panel of three RIS parents, with children spanning between FS2 and year 4.
When asked why they chose this school, parents agreed that “this is just a NICE school!” Words our panel chose to describe RIS include ‘happy’, ‘special’, ‘warm’ and ‘the best decision we have ever made!’
There is a parent association, ‘Friends of Regent International School’ which our panel felt were ‘very active and listened to by the school”. The group organises events such as International Day, National Day, cinema trips, bake sales and parties for children.
One mother on our panel had previously had a difficult experience trying to find a place for her autistic child. Once she came to RIS, however, she found a place where “the teachers were not worried by his challenges”. She said that the change in her son since joining the school had been incredible, adding that she now had an increasingly independent and happy child who finally loves coming to school. The other parents agreed that their children had learnt to appreciate diversity thanks to the inclusive nature of the school.
Further positives from the parents included the mid-range fees, which represent good value for money, the ‘very approachable’ leadership team and the linked nursery, which is appreciated for the ease of transition to school as well as the convenience factor. Communication between home and school was very good, and parents particularly liked the online payment portal for things like trips and extra-curricular activities.
Parents agreed that school trips and extra-curricular activities were thoughtfully planned to enhance the curriculum. Trips are reasonably priced.
Buses to and from school are available, however none of our panel made use of them at present. All our parents felt that the school’s homework policy was “reasonable”. “It’s really just reinforcement work” said one Mum “and doesn’t take longer than twenty minutes, which I think is fine”.
There is room for improvement, however! Parents expressed irritation at the lack of a Sibling Club for families with children in different phases at the school (school finishes at 12.45pm for younger children and 2.45pm for older children). Given the traffic and busy local roads, this was a particular issue of concern. One parent had not enrolled her children in any extra-curricular activities at all for this reason. This is something that parents would definitely like to see addressed.
Finally, we met with Mrs Emma Freese, the School Counsellor, whose role Mrs Dale described as “vital” to the positive education ethos of the school. Mrs Freese has received Positive Education training from Geelong Grammar School and is also a qualified ‘Mental Health First Aider’.
Mrs Freese told our team that the most important aspect of a successful positive education system is the quality of relationships between staff and children. The wellbeing of each individual is of paramount importance. At RIS, this is supported by a “Well-being Wednesday” initiative and regular health focussed workshops for parents, students and staff.
RIS is a forward thinking school with an experienced and passionate leader who is determined to continually raise standards. At present, the school facilities are somewhat out of sync with the curriculum and dynamic plans for the school, but steps are being taken to address this. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for Regent International School.
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