Safa British School is set on a site just off the Meydan Road close to several other schools. Whilst this can present challenges in terms of traffic and parking, the school has been able to take over a large vacant lot of land adjacent to it, with further access to roadside parking. Our visit started at 8am, and access to both the parking and the school was well organised.
The school itself is a traditionally designed T shaped building over two floors that occupies a plot with rather more space than would be expected when seen from outside. Hidden behind the walls, a large outdoor sports area, two swimming pools, a separate play and learning area for younger students and a large FS play ground with climbing equipment ensures that there is plenty of outdoor time and space for all ages.
We were greeted by the Principal, Zara Harrington. It is immediately obvious why Ms. Harrington has been appointed by the school’s owners, who are very directly invested in both this and sister school, Safa Community.
Described by one parent as "an arrival like a thunderbolt", Ms. Harrington, previously a member of the leadership team at Outstanding-rated GEMS Wellington International School, has made a significant difference to parents, staff and children. Her creative approach and can-do attitude are clearly appreciated by all concerned. When asked why she chose to come Safa British, Ms. Harrington cited the strong staff and community relationships, the small family feel of the school and the blank canvas that she feels the school presented.
A range of initiatives have been implemented since Ms. Harrington’s arrival aimed at ensuring excellent academic progress, but also a broad focus on the whole child. This has included the addition of a Well-being framework which includes Mindfulness as part of the curriculum. A greater focus on Art and Drama (with a specialist member of staff for the latter) has also been introduced and added to the curriculum to ensure that students are able to develop their creative and presentation skills.
Older students are being given greater responsibility with the introduction of a Junior Leadership team made up of year 5 and 6 students. Among other responsibilities, they are involved in anti-bullying and well-being activities where they support younger children. Older students clearly take pride in these responsibilities.
We were shown around the school by Ms. Louise McGeever, responsible for Curriculum Leadership, together with two representatives of the student body. The children were informative, confident and clearly very happy.
Ms. McGeever has been at Safa British School for 5 years, and again mentions the strong sense of community and partnership with parents as a prime motivator for remaining at the school. The school now has three classes in FS1, six classes each in FS2, Year 1 and Year 2, 5 classes in each of years 3 and 4, and 3 classes each in years 5 and 6. Children come from a wide range of nationalities, and although the majority of teachers are from the UK, there is again a range of nationalities involved in supporting them. With just over 750 children, Safa British School is small by comparison with many Dubai schools and one of a limited number of Primary only schools.
As would be expected in a Primary school, classrooms and corridors are busy, bright and covered in evidence of work produced by students. Within classrooms, walls (and windows) are not just spaces for hanging displays – they are used as “working walls”, recording activities as part of the topic-based approach to learning. Of course, there are the usual interactive white boards, and children do use technology, but there is a very strong focus on the “basics”, with children in the younger years focused on more traditional reading and writing and a formal introduction to IT coming later. An imaginatively set up library is designed to encourage a love of reading.
In an effort to make children aware of the challenges of sustainability, every classroom has recycling bins and the school has set up a recycling hub where older students recycle plastic and also make pencils from recycled newspaper. Safa British aims to be the first school in Dubai to no longer need to purchase pencils.
With a wide range of nationalities and a significant proportion of students who are non-native English speakers, there is a strong link between the EAL (English Additional Language) team and the school’s team for Students of Determination – SEND. Safa British aims to be an inclusive school in as broad a context as possible. The school offers Arabic to both native and non-native speakers with Arabic A (for natives) split into two levels. The Arabic team is involved in the staff training and professional development provided for the entire teaching team, ensuring that their teaching methodologies are aligned with that of the rest of the academic team – something that is by no means necessarily the norm in Dubai and often a reason for the relatively poor standards in many schools. Parents were particularly positive about the Arabic and Islamic staff who were deemed to be “amazing”.
The teachers that we met were also clearly engaged and positive about the school. They too commented on the community feel and the positive relationships with parents, noting that there is a high level of trust between parents and staff. This is now also emulated between teachers and the leadership of the school with an obvious appreciation of the investment and concern for both staff well-being and professional development. Teachers are very involved in the school – beyond their own expertise and classrooms – decorating common areas, taking advantage of learning from each other and the wide range of expertise that exists across the team, and enjoying the very friendly and familiar relationships with children across the school. Staff felt that they are achieving excellent academic results because of the focus on the wellbeing of each child and that the children very much appreciate this focus.
Our final meeting was with four parents. Claire has a child in Year 1 and an older child who was at Safa British until September this year. Amanda has a year 2 child, Ihab and May have children in Years 5 and 1. They summarised their reasons for choosing Safa British School as the family-orientated, community feel of the school, where each child is treated as an individual with staff focusing on their individual strengths. They and their children appreciate the multi-cultural environment with exposure to different nationalities and the celebration of different cultures.
The size of the school, with its small family feel, the fact that “everyone knows everyone” and that staff know every child in the school by name, were key factors that had kept these families at Safa British, even when leadership concerns might have persuaded them to reconsider. Parents commented on the arrival of Ms. Harrington as Principal, saying that her openness and detailed approach had made “a massive difference”. The management is pro-active and very responsive to any issues or concerns raised. They have also seen the difference in the staff at the school who are much happier since the change of leadership.
Other factors that they appreciate about the school are its “normalcy” – Safa British may not have “all the bells and whistles”, but all the resources that are needed are available and the school feels more like the type of school that children would attend locally in the UK. Parents appreciate the focus on the basics in terms of reading and writing, but also the opportunities that older children have to experience aspects of secondary teaching (notably dissection in year 6 Science). The parents summed up the fundamental aspect of Safa British School for them – “the children love being here”.
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