Anyone who has been in the UAE for some time will know of someone who has been educated at St. Mary's. Practically an institution, St Mary's, based in Oud Metha in Dubai, is home to just over 1,900 students, girls and boys, aged from 5 to 19. Unusually, the school does not offer a KG/Foundation stage, with children joining the school from a range of nurseries within the local area directly into Year 1 (the year in which they turn 6 years of age).
The story so far...
St. Mary's Catholic High School is one of the oldest educational institutions in the Emirates. It was founded in 1968, in a single classroom, with 30 students and a handful of teachers. The land on which St. Mary’s Catholic High School stands was granted to the school by the then Dubai Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
The school is said to be something of an anomaly in following the UK curriculum, but including broadly Catholic Religious Studies for Christian students and Islamic Studies and Social Studies respectively or Muslim and non- Christian students (who are the minority). In general, international schools in the UAE are not permitted to teach religious studies to non-Muslim students.
Also somewhat unusually, the school does not offer a KG/Foundation stage, with children joining the school from a range of nurseries within the local area directly into Year 1 (the year in which they turn 6 years of age when they are legally obliged to attend school in the UAE) where they pursue their education through to Year 13.
The largest group of students at St. Mary's come from India - some 97% - followed by those from the Philippines, other Asian countries and Pakistan. In total students from 35 nationalities can be found at St. Mary's. A very few Western expatriate students can be found at the school, but clearly are very much in a minority. Parents of the latter group view the school as something of a hidden gem - good results and very low cost (for a UK curriculum-based school), albeit one where facilities cannot be compared to mid-to premium priced schools and where choices of study are considerably more limited.
Classes vary between year groups, but on average there are four classes each in Years 1 and 2, five classes in Year 3, six classes from Years 4-11 and four classes each in Years 12 and 13. Class sizes average around 30 with this also being the maximum.
Some 153 teachers from India, Portugal, Pakistan, Cameroon, the Philippines, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Zimbabwe support the students with a teacher to student ratio of a respectable 1:15. There are also a small number of teaching assistants (7 in 2019-20) and two school counsellors.
Staff have historically been happy with their employment - staff turnover at approximately 5% annually on average is exceptionally low for the UAE, where the average is between 20-22%. However, a turnover of 16% in 2019 suggests that the economic situation also impacted teachers at the school.
Teachers are also well-qualified. Junior school teachers must hold a Bachelor's Degree in their respective subject together with a recognised teaching qualification. Senior school staff are expected to have a Master's Degree together with a teaching qualification or appropriate experience. The current Principal was promoted from within, having served at the school since 2008. A low teacher turnover rate is generally viewed as a positive in terms of stability, but may also risk the slower introduction of new practices and a lack of new teacher experience. Support for students with SEND is provided, although parents largely cover the cost of Learning Support staff.
St. Mary's School's Mission is“We serve with compassion to develop a deep sense of integrity, mutual respect and tolerance within the Marian family so that the uniqueness of each person is celebrated, allowing them to holistically develop as successful learners and responsible citizens.”
Whilst the school's Mission statement may focus on the development of individual qualities and a holistic approach to students, the school's Vision statement is very much focused on the development of the school and its students in the short-medium term:
“Within the next 5 years we envision ourselves as a school community that consistently strives to develop highly independent learners who confidently showcase innovation through meaningful reflection and purposeful collaboration. We aim to achieve this by ensuring every teacher inspires students through effective questioning and feedback to reach their highest potential in a culturally diverse society.”
Until 2013, the school was exclusively led by nuns. Sister Beatrice G. Mariotti, a young, modern and charismatic Comboni Sister took over the reign as headmistress in 2001, until 2005 when Sister Annemarie Quigg took charge. During her tenure the school saw a lot of modernization as well as confronting (sic) the challenges of the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. The Patrician Brothers took over the responsibility in September 2013 with Sister Archana Kanakunnel continuing to this day in the role of Directress.
Today, the school leadership is led by Paul Asir Jospeph, as Principal, formerly Vice Principal from 2008. Senior leaders of the Secondary School, together with the majority of the staff, are lay persons.
What about the curriculum?
St. Mary's follows the National curriculum for England and Wales from Year 1, offering IGCSE and GCSE in Year 11 and A Levels in Year 13. The school itself recognises that there is a bias towards Science subjects. Students sit the London Examination Board papers.
The medium of instruction is English. Arabic is studied as a compulsory subject from Year 1 – Year 10 according to the syllabus of the Ministry of Education. According to the pupil’s religion, he/she will study Qur’an or Bible. GCSE Examinations are available in these subjects.
The Junior School curriculum includes the following core subjects - Arabic, English, Geography, History, Maths, Science, Computing, UAE Social Studies and Moral Education, PHSE, Religious Studies, Art and Design, Music and Sports. In Year 3, French is added as an additional language.
In the Senior School, students start preparing for the General Certificate of Secondary Education with a choice of 16 options in English Language/Literature, Economics, Maths, Arabic A and B, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Psychology, Accounting, Business Studies, Religious Studies, French, History, Art and Design, ICT, Geography, with Social Studies and Citizenship (to AS). Generally, students choose 8 subjects which gives a fairly broad range of possible studies, but not as broad as you would find in (more expensive) schools elsewhere in Dubai. 9 A Level subjects are offered including Biology, Accounting, Economics, Business, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, English Literature and Psychology. Students choose a minimum of 3 subjects for A Level study.
Students sit external I/GCSE examinations at the end of Year 11. At the end of Year 12, students complete the one year Advanced Subsidiary Level (AS) course and sit the examination for the chosen subjects. Some return for Year 13 to take continue with their studies to A2 - Advanced (A) level qualifications - a requirement for university entry in the UK. Changes in structure of A Level examinations being implemented in the UK may lead to more students completing the full two year Sixth Form period.
In common with a number of English National Curriculum schools that are predominantly attended and taught by Indians, the narrow focus on subjects that are likely to lead to the sought-after " traditional Professions" (Medicine, Accountancy, Commerce) and replicate the subjects offered in the Commerce or Science streams of Indian curriculum schools, tends to be the norm. However, KHDA Inspectors also note that curriculum choices are limited for students in the post-16 phase.
Unlike most UK curriculum schools, Extra Curricula Activities are limited to a narrow range of more traditional activities - Drama, Quiz, Music, Sports, Science Club, Elocution/Debates, Environment, School Website journalism, Art/Craft, Cookery & Needlework and Paper Quilting. For sports, three main sports are followed: Basketball, Football and Volleyball. The ECA programme is also used as a means for older students to gain practical “work-related” experience. Students are given the opportunity to give something back to the school community during their AS Level year by taking part in the Community Service Programme.
The scheme allows the students to develop their skills and discover new interests through giving a service in one of the following areas of school life: assistance to the special Educator in one to one tutoring of a child who needs assistance; assistance in running the Extra Curricular Activities after school, either coaching in a sport, sharing their musical talent, or running a club; assistance to the Admin. Staff of the school; assistance in preparing the children for the annual concert, or helping with sounds and lights or backstage or supervising the junior children during these events, and assistance to the Librarians or acting as Classroom Assistants.
The school offers Career Guidance as a UCAS registered centre, and, unusually for a UK curriculum school, also offers SAT preparation in partnership with the Princeton Review and is registered with the US College Board. Leaders and teachers have developed links with local schools, universities, environmental groups and festival organisers. As a result, students benefit from opportunities to participate in entrepreneurship, environmental and literature events and activities.
What about the facilities?
Facilities at the school are sufficient, but not on a par with Dubai's newest and shiniest institutions. Each of the rooms in the school has interactive white boards and projectors, the school has large fields and playing grounds including a "high quality football pitch and basketball court". There's a well spaced library, equipped with a range of references and resources for research and studies and a multipurpose hall as a venue for different school events. The school's cafeteria offers "healthy and hot foods" for staff and students.
Read our visit experience here.
The school also has facilities to support students with additional physical needs including ramps and accessible washrooms.
What about academic results?
In 1998, 20 years after the foundation of the school, 144 students sat for their GCE ‘O’ Levels and 108 for their ‘A’ Levels. As a result of the high academic standards set, the Dubai Municipality honoured St. Mary’s with the ‘Best School’ award, and London University selected it to set the standard for the GCE examination grades. 88% of students go on to university according to St. Mary's, with 73% of students securing admissions in "good universities in 14 different countries and 14.7% of students securing admissions within the UAE".
The school is rated highly by past and present students. It is run pretty much like most Catholic schools around the world - strict, 'known' to produce good results. The latter is largely anecdotal - the school's web site has been improved in terms of design, but information is still missing.
Although St. Mary's now includes a range of data related to international benchmark tests - including PISA and TIMMS, where students attain results well ahead of the Dubai and international averages, it does not provide a detailed breakdown of GCSE/IGCSE or A Level results.
However, data provided by the school for 2018 examinations to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com for GCSE/IGCSE results show that of the 155 students who sat English Language, 70% achieved A*-B grades, whilst 86% of students achieved A*-C grades. For the same students who sat Mathematics, 75% achieved A*-B and 88% A*-C. For Physics and Chemistry, results showed that 92% and 89% respectively achieved A*-B grades, whilst 98% and 94% respectively achieved A*-C. Biology results were slightly lower at 68% and 85% respectively.
Interestingly, 121 students sat Bible and achieved 85% A*-C, whilst the 15 students who sat Islamic B all achieved an A*-C grade. Certainly the Maths, English and Science grades are of a high level.
Unfortunately, the school does not provide overall results across 5 subjects to enable a real comparison with the UK averages. However, in 2019, 35 students achieved a minimum of 5 Grade 9 or 8 GCSE passes (equivalent to A*-A) - a strong achievement.
Similarly, for A Level results, it is difficult to draw comparisons, and student numbers were considerably lower - the highest being 57 students who sat Maths and Chemistry, with the lowest exam entry being 18 for Accounting. However, we can see that for Maths, 58% of students achieved A*-B and 79% A*-C, whilst for Chemistry, 43% achieved A*-B and 69% obtained A*-C grades. The 34 students who sat Biology also fared well, with 44% achieving A*-B and 65% being awarded A*-C. The highest performers were those 23 students who took Business Studies, with 44% achieving A*-B and 61% receiving A*-C grades.
Also in 2019, eleven students achieved highest marks in the UAE and in many cases the world, in a range of Pearson GCSE subjects and for A Level Biology.
It is clear from these results why St. Mary's feels that Science is a particular strength of the school. However, it is interesting to note too, that the only non-Science/Maths subject offered at A Level was Psychology, with English Literature being offered only to AS Level.
What the inspectors say
St. Mary's was rated Good by the KHDA inspectors for the eighth year in a row in the 2019-20 inspection round. Inspections carried out over the past six academic years have acknowledged good or better progress in the majority of subjects. Other strengths acknowledged included students’ personal and social development, and the school’s leadership.
St Mary's is, without doubt, yet another school whose overall KHDA rating simply fails to tell the whole story - and the reason why we always advise parents to read the full inspection report in detail.
Key strengths of the school as identified by the DSIB inspection team in November 2019 were summarised as:
Whilst Student Achievement is rated largely Good in the Primary section, with only Arabic as both a first and second language attainment being rated Acceptable, all other ratings are at least Good. Progress in English and Science is rated Very Good, as is Attainment in Science.
In the Secondary school, the picture is even more positive, with both attainment and progress in English, Maths and Science being rated Very Good. Arabic is less of a strength, with the second language ratings both Acceptable, as is attainment in Arabic as a first language. Islamic Education is rated Good across the school. Post-16 is not rated as highly as Secondary, with ratings for English, Maths and Science all Good.
Students' Personal and Social development and their innovation skills are largely rated Very Good or Outstanding (with only one Good rating). The other key performance standards of Teaching and Assessment, and the Curriculum are largely rated Good - areas that must continue to be a focus of the school since improvement in Students' Achievement are directly impacted by the quality of these two fundamentals of education.
Health and safety, including arrangements for child protection/safeguarding all improved their rating to Very Good, whilst Care and Support retained their Good rating.
The final key performance standard of Leadership and Management largely retained its ratings from previous years, with most measures rated Good, though the relationship between the school, parents and the community is rated Very Good.
No doubt the leadership will have been concerned to see the inspection team's comments on their effectiveness: "Leaders understand the external examination requirements and are developing their capacities to promote higher-order learning skills. While they have identified appropriate school priorities, they are not sufficiently proactive. This is limiting their strategic ability to drive forward school improvements, including raising students' achievement, particularly at post-16".
Addressing the same issues, the inspection team also noted that "Although governors receive regular information on student achievement this has not led to a strategy for ensuring that leaders are improving students' attainment and progress."
The key recommendations from the inspection team in terms of improvement are to:
If you would like to read the full inspection report - and we strongly recommend that you do so in order to understand the reasons behind the ratings - you will find it here.
The KHDA Inspection team commented that "Leaders encourage effective and productive partnerships with parents and the wider community. Parents value teachers’ knowledge of their children’s individual strengths with helpful advice on supporting home learning. Parents appreciate the detailed progress reports and targets for their children. School leaders’ openness, approachability and responsiveness ensure prompt attention to parental concerns. Parents are active contributors to students’ community service, in areas such as, the ‘Simply Bottles’ recycling, and sports coaching for people of determination."
Some 427 parents responded to the KHDA's pre-inspection survey. 97% said that they were satisfied with the quality of education being provided by St. Mary's. They believed that teachers listen to them, act upon their views and that their children are happy and safe in school. A few parents indicated that they would like more opportunity to meet with teachers. A similar number believe that there should be less homework and more extra-curricular activities.
963 students (surely a record!) responded to the KHDA's Well-being Survey. Most students indicated that they were happy and optimistic about life but only a minority considered that they were able to persevere with things if they went wrong. Most students have a strong connection with the school, positive relationships with staff and are encouraged to become involved in school life. Almost all felt that there was an adult in the school whom they could go to if they had any worries.
In the ongoing WhichSchoolAdvisor.com school survey, for which we have received a limited number of responses, a remarkable 100% of parents agree that the fees they pay represent good value. There was more variation in respect of satisfaction with the academic performance of the school; some 67% were satisfied, whilst 17% were not. This was also reflected in whether parents had considered moving their child to another school, with 67% saying no, but 33% having considered this option. The same responses were made in respect of recommending St. Mary's, with 67% of respondents happy to do so, but 16% would not.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at St. Mary's please share your experience with other potential members of your community by completing our Survey.
There is no question that there is much positive work going on at St. Mary's and that most families associated with the school rate it highly, even if the Regulator sees need for improvement.
We would like to see St. Mary's provide more detailed information about its examination results - not least to allow us to confirm that the school really is delivering high levels of academic attainment at an affordable fee level. One thing we would like to give a thumbs up to is St Mary's much improved web site. Given the fantastic history of the school, and the many good things it has to promote about the school online, it is great to finally see.
It is evident that demand remains high and this will continue to be one of the most sought after schools among families seeking a purposeful, reliable and traditional environment for their children.
Fees for the school are relatively highly affordable, starting at AED 8,456 for Year 1 and rising to AED 16,389 for Years 12 and 13.
Note: St. Mary's has been oversubscribed for a number of years, especially in lower grades, and it is therefore a challenge to get into. St. Mary’s is one of the few UK curriculum schools to offer Admission by competitive entry through an extensive application process involving initial selection for exams in English and Maths, followed by interview.
Although the school officially offers places from years 1 to 10, only selected year groups are open for the application process – these are years 1, 3 and 4. For years 5-10, admission is based solely on availability of places due to leavers.
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