When we sit down to write our Which School Advisor School Experiences, we tend to find words and themes arise as we work through the (copious!) notes we leave a school with. For Safa Community School the word that is on repeat is “opportunity”. Having visited the school and met Principal Stephen Duckitt, Vice Principal and Head of Primary Leanne Fridd (one of our Inspiring Women in Education) and newly appointed Head of Secondary Michael Davies (plus parents, students and a group of key teachers), we find a community committed to giving all children the very best opportunities. Small wonder then that the school was awarded the “Best New School” award at the Schoolscompared.com Top School Awards, 2019.
On arrival at Safa Community School (SCS), we are given cheerful welcome by Stephen Duckitt, Principal. A South African who has previously worked in the UK (where he was often tasked with turning around challenging schools) Stephen has lively air and a warm personality. We spend much of our morning in his office, which has last glass windows looking out onto the shaded green play areas. As the morning goes on, we are impressed to see children of all ages stopping to wave at Mr Duckitt as they pass by. For many of these children Mr Duckitt has a personal story or anecdote to tell. This culture of personalised attention is another repeated theme of our day in the school. In fact, with student numbers now just shy of 2000 pupils, Mr Duckitt tells us that retaining the “family atmosphere and personal attention” is a key focus for him.
Mr Duckitt often arrives at school before 6 am. He tells us he still loves the “energy, unpredictability and innovation” that go hand in hand with his chosen career. “There’s always something to do that excites me enough to get me in to school that early! It’s also when there is the time for me to build relationships with people, like our maintenance teams and cleaning staff, that I may not get the chance to see during the school day. That’s really important to me”.
It would be an understatement to say the school principal has ambitions for Safa Community:
“[I want the school] to be the best all round school in Dubai, to give our kids the opportunities they need and to create more of those opportunities every single day”.
Teamwork is another important facet of life at SCS and Mr Duckitt invites his leadership colleagues, Ms Fridd and Mr Davies join him to share their feelings on the school.
The two share Mr Duckitt’s fizzing energy and unstinting enthusiasm for working in education.
If there’s one thing that our WhichSchoolAdvisor.com School Experience visits have taught us, it is that a cohesive and happy leadership team is key to the success of a school. We find that the leadership at SCS have cohesion and positivity in abundance. There is a distinct atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine friendship between the three and we enjoy our time speaking to them as a group. One of their shared goals is to capitalise on the benefits of being an “all through” school and we note with interest that Mr Davies (of the secondary phase) is very familiar with the initiatives in primary, and vice versa for Ms Fridd, the school's primary leader.
The “one school” approach is clearly paying dividends as Mr Davies tells us that 90% of the previous Year 6 cohort have joined the secondary school for Year 7. As with many UAE schools, the school is bottom heavy with significantly more students in primary than in secondary, but statistics such as this give the school great confidence for building numbers in secondary, year on year.
Want to know more about Safa Community School? Read our School Review HERE
We conclude our chat with the leadership team by asking them “where is SCS headed?” Mr Duckitt sees SCS continuing to strengthen its inclusivity, and ability to “nurture students of all abilities and passions”. He is especially proud of the use of the ASDAN Curriculum and qualifications for children with additional needs in the secondary phase, as well as the "excellent" GCSE results of last year.
For Ms Fridd, a new innovation designed to help younger children “find their passions” has been a distinct success. The length of the primary school day on Thursday has been made slightly longer, to accommodate some ‘off curriculum’ activities. Children can choose from a wide range of topics such as Animal Care, Arabic Dance, Rock Band or Computing and Robotics. Such choices not only help students to find the things they really love and want to pursue but “it’s exciting for teachers and means we can utilise everyone’s strengths” said Ms Fridd. For Ms Fridd, this early focus on personalised learning represented the future for primary at SCS, as does the school’s continual focus on “planning… we are always planning ahead! We’re not waiting for change to come to us”.
Looking at the secondary phase of the school, Head Mr Davies pointed to there being just one child studying for GCSE Dance as an example of what secondary school life at SCS is all about.
“Dance is her passion. In many schools low uptake can mean that taking a course is not possible, but that’s just not good enough for us. We worked incredibly hard to ensure that the timetable allowed for her to take this course”.
[Later, during our tour of the school, we see the same student thoroughly engaged in her one to one lesson!].
Mr Davies goes on to highlight the school’s commitment to “personalised pathways” by describing the “many combinations” available now that Key Stage 5 (Sixth Form) has opened. "By offering some virtual and online options and using a Saturday School option on the timetable, we will be able to offer our students 14 A Level options. This gives us such diversity…example: we are intending to offer Astronomy, Government and Politics and Sociology as well as the more typical courses. For BTEC, we offer Business Studies, Information Technology and Sport Level 3”.
Mr Davies also highlighted the school’s subject strengths in Mathematics, Sport (“…we field C and D teams, we have 150 children in every day before school for sport. I’d say we are relentless in finding new opportunities when it comes to sport”) and Performing Arts (“our kids are always on a stage!”).
When it comes to government ratings, the leadership team are resolute that they are not simply chasing an “outstanding” rating, despite being proud of their current standing as a “Very Good” school. “We are highly non selective” said Mr Duckitt “and we believe that this is what good education should be. We’re not worried about what other schools are doing. We just keep on moving forward in our own way”.
Before we leave Mr Duckitt to meet more of his team, he tells us with pride that not one new member of staff has left the school in the previous three years. Quite some achievement in an expatriate location, where teacher turnover is a concern for many schools. When asked why he thought that was, he responded “good quality professional development, pathways for career progression. Where we can, we give them time off for family events and everyone has a duvet morning for their birthday! Our teachers work hard, but we respect their downtime. I think we have created a school where teachers can thrive”.
Want to know more about Safa Community School? Read our School Review HERE
We meet a group of subject and phase leaders, from PE, English, Year 6 and Foundation Stage. All agreed that the quality of professional development at SCS was very good and that they felt they had real ownership of their careers.
“This is a place people want to stay” said one teacher “it’s a social place to work and staff feel cared for”.
Looking at their own subject areas, the PE team were pleased to say that they offer 250 sessions of Sports ECAs per week. Quite some number! In Foundation Stage, the team were proud of the diversity of activities on offer, including animal care, metalwork and woodwork for even the very youngest students. For the Year 6 and English leaders, the benefits of a whole school approach were many. “We have a progressive curriculum, and no subjects stands in isolation. Reading is given great importance right across the curriculum” said one teacher.
Later in our morning at Safa Community School we meet a group of parents. Our panel have children spanning the full age range of the school.
One Mum had “followed” the school from its very first iteration as Safa British School (SBS is a sister school to SCS, itself soon to move to a new purpose built campus in Jumeirah). She felt that SCS had retained the “family and community school feeling” that had first attracted her to the Safa brand.
Many of the parents tell us that the best thing about the school was the way in which the teachers and leader “listen”. “The Pastoral team are excellent and the Heads are always accessible” said one Mum.
Parents of children in the Foundation Stage liked “sensible” policy changes that had come about as a result of the school listening to the concerns of parents. “Now, FS children wear their PE Kits full time – it’s just more comfortable and practical for little ones. They’ve also introduced part time, flexible attendance options for FS1, which makes so much sense” said one of our panel. As another Mum commented “they are always tweaking things to get it right”.
On the often sensitive topic of school fees, one parent did feel that the school was “too expensive”. After a robust discussion among our panel, the others agreed that, although expensive, the school represented good value for money in the context of the overall UAE education market place.
Overall, it was the sense of a truly strong community, centred on families that the parents liked best about their school. As one parent said “our kids feel listened to and recognised as individuals. For me, that just means so much”.
To read more about the school’s facilities visit our SCHOOL REVIEW. During our whistlestop tour of the school we note two things (top notch facilities aside), 1) that all of the school spaces have been designed with flexibility in mind and 2) that the team are keen to highlight the inclusive practice on show in every phase of the school. A good example of this is a secondary cookery session where we see typically able children working with children with additional needs. There’s no differentiating or special treatment, just an air of enjoyment, learning and teamwork. As promised, we also saw lots of ‘kids up on stage’, in particular a GCSE Drama group rehearsal, which was very good!
We meet a large panel of students, of all abilities, ranging in age from 10 to 17.
One young man (a Sixth Form student, who recently joined the school on a full academic scholarship), told us that the immediate difference he had noticed at from his previous school was that at SCS “failure is a taboo word”. Resilience and a ‘never give up’ attitude were at the core of the ethos of the school, he felt.
The primary students praised the variety of options available to them. They recognised that learning is “personalised just to them” (as one thoughtful young lady told us). As a group, they say they are enjoying Animal Care Club, cookery and the Formula 1 club in particular.
Both the older and younger groups of children find the staff “very easy to talk to”. The older students said that the staff treat them with respect and “talk to us like adults”, which they very much appreciated.
What changes would the students like to see at the school? In secondary, the students would like to have more practical life lessons, for example budgeting and finance and making and repairing objects in Design Technology. Across the year groups, the students agreed that they would like “more interesting” Arabic language lessons and that the current style of Arabic lessons was “too slow”.
Lastly, the students were very happy about their school’s strong links to the local community. They all liked an initiative named “Two for Tuesday” where students were encouraged to bring extra food items on Tuesday, which are shared with labourers working nearby. The student panel also praised the Safa family of schools for their work supporting Syrian refugee children in the UAE. Read more about the Syrian families at Safa, HERE.
Safa Community School is a school genuinely focussed on that vital concept in the school's name…“community”. It is a truly happy place to work and study and, mostly importantly, somewhere where students of all abilities can thrive and achieve their potential.
Safa Community School 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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