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 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).
St. Mary's Catholic High School has been rated Good for the seventh year running in the 2018-19 KHDA inspection process. An abbreviated version of the inspection report can be found under the Inspection report tab. An update of this review will be completed once the full reports have been published.
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) 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 134 teachers from India, Portugal, Pakistan, Cameroon, the Philippines, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Zimbabwe support the students with a staff to student ratio of a very respectable 1:15.
Staff are clearly happy with their employment - staff turnover at approximately 5% is exceptionally low for the UAE, where the average is between 20-22%. They 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.”
The Principal’s message provides further focus on the aims and ethos of the school - "We, at St. Mary’s, aim to give the best education to every student in our care, preparing them for life beyond school, as global citizens. As you walk through the hallways you will notice enthusiastic students and get a feel of the vibrancy, strength and diversity of our wider school community. The St. Mary’s family is a ‘melting pot’ much like that of Dubai-a cosmopolitan and multi ethnic community where respect and tolerance thrive. St. Mary’s High School, is a ‘Learning community’ which encourages staff, students and parents to identify with the core values of Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, Achievement and Cooperation while being actively involved in all aspects of school life".
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 a nun continuing in the role of Directress. Senior leaders of the Secondary School and the Vice Principal, 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, pupils 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. A minority of students that responded to the KHDA pre-inspection survey feel that they do not have a wide choice of activities to choose from and that they do not have enough opportunities to practice their leadership skills.
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.
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.
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. 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 sixth year in a row in the 2017-18 inspection round. Inspections carried out over the past four 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.
Previous reports had raised some concerns around external assessment. The school's KHDA report in 2015/16 noted that whilst "students achieve well in most subjects and phases due to good teaching and assessment of learning", the 2016-17 report noted that "less than half of the students were entered for International Benchmark Tests (IBT) in 2015. Consequently, although all data shows attainment is above expectations, no conclusions can be drawn about the attainment of the whole cohort from such a small sample".
The school has apparently made significant changes to align long and short-term curricular planning with the requirements of international benchmark tests TIMMS and PISA, both in terms of content and skills development. The content changes are now in place and are having a beneficial impact. The development of skills, such as critical thinking and verbal reasoning, is more uneven.
Key strengths of the school as identified by the DSIB inspection team in November 2017 were summarised as:
Recommendations from the most recent report include the need to improve secondary students' progress in learning Arabic so that their attainment is at least good, extend opportunities for students' to improve their skills in using information technology in lessons across the curriculum and to increase the opportunities for students to innovate, work independently and think critically, especially in the primary phase.
In terms of student achievement, the inspection team noted that "the students make good or better progress in learning across all the key subjects, except for Arabic in the primary years. Students are generally motivated in their lessons. They demonstrate consistently good learning skills, but their ability to work independently could be nurtured earlier and lessons could include more opportunities for them to think critically". The majority of ratings are either Good or Very Good (with the Secondary school receiving almost entirely the latter rating). The ratings for Islamic Education and Arabic are not as strong.
Closer examination shows that there have been a small number of improved ratings for attainment and progress, including for Islamic Education for post-16 students (now rated Good, together with the other sections of the school), for progress in Arabic as a second language in the Primary section (now rated Good) and for attainment in Primary Science - now achieving the top Outstanding rating. Unfortunately, whilst these are all signs of positive improvement, the fall in attainment for Arabic as a first language to Acceptable, and in both attainment and progress in post-16 Maths, reflect that movement is not forwards in every subject.
Students' personal and social development and their innovation skills are a clear strength of the school. Inspectors found that "they are highly respectful of each other as they are of adults. Students are responsible in their behaviour and many carry out formal duties to help the school operate smoothly". In terms of social responsibility, "Student council members are encouraged to contribute to decision making in the school. In the Post-16 and secondary phases, they seek ways to support conservation beyond school. Students in the primary years are aware of environmental issues and take part in many activities, such as recycling".
However, it is clear that a culture of innovation is not yet embedded within the school. Inspectors commented that "a minority of students, mostly in later year groups, work innovatively. They think creatively for themselves, challenge each other and use computers for simulations. The Post-16 and some secondary phase students successfully initiate projects that benefit others in the wider community. Teachers are beginning to provide models of innovative practice".
In terms of the two intertwined key performance areas of Teaching and Assessment and the Curriculum, all ratings across the school are Good. Inspectors found that "most lessons are well planned and often take into consideration the needs of different groups of learners. The quality of teaching is improving in post-16. The assessment of learning is good across all phases. Assessment information is used effectively to plan many lessons". In terms of the curriculum, the inspection team determined that "the school's UK curriculum is of good quality overall, providing students with choices in learning and interesting activities. There is appropriate modification of the curriculum to enable students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to enjoy success".
The protection, care, guidance and support of students was also rated Good across the board. Inspectors found that "the school is a safe place for everyone to learn and grow. Measures are taken to promote the safety of students when they are online. All students are well supported in their learning and development, including those with SEND. Older students receive good guidance as they choose their post-secondary destinations".
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. aspects with the rating for the Effectiveness of leadership improving to Very Good, the same rating as the relationship with parents and the community.
The leadership and management of St. Mary's was also found to have many positive elements. "Almost all leaders demonstrate a strong capacity to innovate and improve. The leaders' processes for monitoring the quality of teaching and learning are thorough and regular. Leaders have detailed knowledge of the school's quality of provision and the academic outcomes for students". School leaders were also found to be "effective in engaging parents who are both well informed and involved in their children's education. Reports to parents include evaluations of knowledge and skills as well as the next steps in learning. There are effective links with charities and other organisations". Governance and the management, staffing, facilities and resources of the school were again rated Good.
The key recommendations from the inspection team in terms of improvement are to:
A significant number of both senior students (over 500) and parents (over 450) responded to the KHDA's pre-inspection survey. In both cases, almost all were positive in their opinions about the school, but a large minority disagreed that students have a wide range of extra-curricular activities from which to choose.
In the ongoing WhichSchoolAdvisor.com school survey, 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 75% were satisfied, whilst 25% were not. This was also reflected in whether parents had considered moving their child to another school, with 75% saying no, but 25% having considered this option. The same responses were made in respect of recommending St. Mary's, with 75% of respondents happy to do so, but 25% would not. If you are a parent at St. Mary's please share your opinion with us.
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. 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, but can rise up to over AED 8,322 for Year 1 (with the addition of books, lab use and an unspecified annual fee) and to AED 16,117 for Year 12 for those students doing AS Levels. This compares with KHDA stated fees of AED 6,116 and AED 13,138 in these year groups.
Note 1: 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.
Note 2: 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.
St. Mary's Catholic High 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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