Sunmarke School is a new education adventure for Fortes Education, the owners of Regent International School in the Greens. In Sunmarke's first KHDA inspection, which unusually took place in its opening year, the school received the rating of Good, an achievement for any new school. This was due to the Secondary school effectively have transferred from Regent International, which has now reverted to a Primary school.
The Story until Now
Sunmarke school, which opened in September 2016, is housed in a 3,000 capacity purpose-built facility in Jumeirah Village Triangle, with very up to date facilities, experienced secondary staff from Regent and classes up to Year 13 from the get go. The school offers the National Curriculum of England and Wales, following the Early Years Foundation Stage programme in FS1 and FS2, and the Cambridge International programme through to IGCSE and A Level. The school offers a range of BTEC subjects as an alternative to A Level, including Business Studies, Creative Digital Media Production, Information Technology, Hospitality, Travel and Tourism. The school also has a dedicated nursery on the premises, part of the Jumeirah International Nursery Schools which are also owned by Fortes.
Read our interview with Fortes Holding Director, Sanjay Mankani here
A claimed USP of the school is that despite top tier facilities, it has reined in the temptation to demand stratospheric fees. These range from AED 44,900 to AED 72,900 - hardly cheap, but AED 22,000 lower than KHDA’s approved tuition fees. Whether the school could attract students if it charged AED 100,000 per annum is of course an entirely different matter. At the moment, the supply and demand equilibrium very much balances in the favour of parents, and all schools have to be realistic when it comes to pricing.
Except for language specialists, almost all teachers at Sunmarke are from the UK and are trained in Positive Education (PosEd), which drives the ethos of the school. PosEd, as described on Sunmarke's website, "brings together the science of Positive Psychology with best teaching practices to enable individuals, schools and communities to flourish. PosEd drives a person to learn more effectively, and be more resilient, creative, productive, successful and healthy."
The owner of the school is Fortes Education, and many of Sunmarke's staff have been recruited from Regent International School, its other long-established school in the UAE. Regent has been rated Good for eight years in a row. A positive for parents, although it was surely less so for Sunmarke School, was as a condition of opening the Secondary school right through to Year 13, it did not get the benefit of the usual two year settling in and establishment period of a new school, but instead was inspected by the KHDA's inspection team within months of opening. In its first inspection, the school was rated Good (the minimum expected by the KHDA), and followed this with the same rating in 2017-18.
Read our Visit Review HERE!
Recruiting staff from an established UAE school clearly makes sense - staff are used to the UAE, settled in, and to some degree able to hit the ground running. Whilst Regent International had a somewhat higher staff turnover than average for several years, a turnover of 18% in 2017 at Sunmarke is along average lines for the UAE. However, there are evidently still some concerns around staffing issues which were very pointedly commented on in the latest KHDA inspection report. For more information, see the What the Inspectors say section below.
After two years, the school has just over 1,000 students, with the largest nationality group being UK passport holders who represent about 20% of the student body. In total, children from 70 different countries, of whom about half are non-native English speakers, attend the school. Roughly, 15% of children are in the Foundation Stage, 35% in Primary, and unusually, around 50% in Secondary school. A teacher:student ratio of 1:9 is very favourable and should ensure plentiful individual attention for students.
What about Facilities?
The facilities at Sunmarke School are in line with other tier 1 schools and include: large, well-resourced, IT-enabled Classrooms; 3 large well-resourced Library Media Centres for each phase of the school; dedicated Activity Rooms for co-curricular activities; large and inspiring ‘Discovery Centre’ for EYFS children; 9 world-class science labs with large resource banks for lab work; 4 state-of-the-art ICT Labs; 3 Fine Art Labs; Professional Studio for dance and movement; ‘Black Box’ Studio for drama, performances and public speaking; 600 seat Auditorium with professional lighting, recording and sound for the performing arts; FIFA-18 sized Football Pitch.
We have had fairly limited feedback from parents so far, but initial reaction is positive. Parents so far would almost universally recommend the school to other parents, and children look forward to going to school. Sunmarke is clearly doing a good job in terms of inclusion.
For parents who are currently a part of Sunmarke School, please help others by completing our Parent Survey here.
What about Student Achievement?
The new school recorded good IGCSE and scores during its first year of operation, with 40% gaining A* to A grades, 70% A* to B and 90% A* to C. In 2017-18, 53% achieved A* to A grades, 79% A* to B and 91% A* to C. Unfortunately, the school does not reveal the number of students who sat the exams, nor the overall pass rate. In 2017, Sunmarke also released its A Level results. Again, no details of student numbers or overall pass rates were provided, but 30% achieved A* to A grades, 51% of grades were A* to B and 80% A* to C. We assume that these are the percentage of exam entries that achieved these grades, and not students.
The school requires students to take mandatory core subjects for IGCSE including English Language and Literature, Mathematics and Statistics, Science - Biology, Chemistry and Physics, a Modern Foreign Language, a Humanities subject, Technology, and "one free-choice option". A Level subjects include Physics, Mathematics, Psychology, Biology, Further Maths, Government & Politics, Chemistry, History, Media Studies, English Literature, Geography, the Extended Project Qualification, Economics, Fine Art, French or Arabic. According to its website, Sunmarke will offer the IB Diploma and IB Career-related programmes from the 2019-20 academic year. The option of BTEC subjects would support the school in offering the IB Career-related Diploma.
Although initially stating that A Levels would be replaced by the IB programmes, it seems that Sunmarke is likely to be the first Dual-curriculum A Level and IB school in the UAE.
For their first inspection, Sunmarke School received a Good rating which was impressive for a school in its first year of inspections - empirically it does not seem possible to rate more highly than this on first inspection, even if the KHDA tells us it is possible. Its second inspection, which took place in February 2018, also received a Good rating. The school was also inspected by British Schools Overseas in May 2017 and was rated Good.
The KHDA inspection team identified the strengths of Sunmarke as:
The KHDA report shows that Sunmarke is broadly rated Good or Very Good across most English-based core subjects (English, Maths and Science) with improvements particularly in the Foundation and Primary sections. This compares with a year prior when attainment and progress of students was almost equally split between Acceptable and Good. In fact, 17 of the 28 measures have improved compared with the previous inspection.
However, where the school is definitely finding it harder to deliver is in relation to Arabic and Islamic Education. Students' attainment and progress is rated as either Weak or Acceptable. Both Arabic as a first and second language are largely rated Weak - something that will not go down well with the inspection team, given the emphasis on these subjects. Only one improvement was achieved - from Weak to Acceptable - for progress in Islamic Education in the Secondary school section.
Inspectors commented that "students’ progress is accelerating in English, mathematics and science across almost all phases. Consistent improvements in students' outcomes in Islamic education and Arabic have not been secured".
On the other hand, students' personal and social development and their innovation skills are becoming a strength of the school. Inspectors noted that "students, in all phases demonstrate very -good personal and social development. They have a clear understanding and appreciation of the heritage and the culture that influence their everyday lives in the UAE. They are innovatively involved in the life of the school and demonstrate a secure commitment to the local and wider communities, and to environmental causes". Personal development was rated Outstanding in the Foundation stage and Very Good across the other sections. All four sections of the school improved their rating to Very Good for the Understanding of Islamic values and awareness of Emirati and world cultures, as did the Foundation and Primary sections for their Social responsibility and innovation skills.
Teaching and assessment are also improving, now rated Very Good in Foundation and Good across the other sections. The report notes that "teaching in other phases is well-developed and, along with students' strong learning skills, results in good or better progress in most curriculum areas. Assessment systems are detailed and produce mainly accurate data on students. In the best lessons, teachers use assessment information effectively to adjust planning and teaching so that learning is successful".
However, it is the curriculum, its implementation and adaptation to meet the needs of individual students which has shown most improvement. Inspectors commented that "the Foundation Stage curriculum is very strong, creating rich learning opportunities through play and supporting children’s exploration. In the other phases, the curriculum is broad and balanced developing seamlessly from phase to phase. The school offers an extensive range of extra-curricular activities and electives". These key performance areas have improved to Very Good across the school.
The protection, care, guidance and support of students has also improved to Very Good across the school. The inspection team found that "the school prioritises students’ health and safeguarding very well. A wide range of effective and rigorous safeguarding policies and procedures are in place. There are robust arrangements for site security, understood and applied by all staff. Students’ courteous and responsible behaviour enables everyone to feel secure and well-protected". Ratings for the provision and outcome for students with SEND requirements were also Very Good, with the school described as "highly inclusive".
In the final key performance area of Leadership and Management, Sunmarke was rated Good for the effectiveness of leadership and for their self-evaluation and improvement planning. However, some concerning comments in relation to staff morale should ring warning bells. The inspectors stated that "relationships across the school are professional, although the morale of some teachers is not high". The KHDA rarely, in our experience, includes such comments in its inspection reports.
The school was also rated highly at Very Good in respect of its relationships with parents and the community, and for the management, staffing, facilities and resources. The report notes that the school "is staffed with well-qualified and talented teachers who have very good knowledge of their subjects and how to teach them... The premises and specialist facilities provide a very good learning environment".
However, the rating for Governance fell to Acceptable, apparently driven by the inspection team's concerns that the governors "rely heavily on student achievement data provided by leaders to give an overview of the school. Stakeholders are consulted, but governors have not given the views of some teachers’ sufficient importance by investigating and acting upon them".
The KHDA found that the majority of teachers (76 of the 110 employed by the school) who returned the pre-inspection survey made negative comments, and recommended specifically that the governors should "ensure teachers have sufficient time to embed new teaching initiatives into their day-today practice. Governors should address the wide range of concerns raised by some teaching staff." This suggests that staff are being placed under considerable pressure - it will be interesting to see if staff turnover is affected. No school wants to have to replace substantial numbers of staff each year - it is disruptive and can lead to instability.
Overall, the KHDA inspection team recommends the following actions that Sunmarke should implement:
Sunmarke is clearly a school with high ambitions which is making strong progress in many areas. Based on many of the key performance measures, it is a school that is already performing at a Very Good level. Students and parents seem satisfied with the quality of education being provided - in fact 95% of the 182 parents who responded to the KHDA survey "express[ed] positive views and satisfaction with the effectiveness of the school. They think their children learn well most of the time because of effective teaching, and that staff know the strengths and weaknesses of the students well".
It is to be hoped that in its ambition and drive for improvement, the governors and management do not overlook the other key component if they are to be successful... the teachers.
Fees: are on the premium end for a UK curriculum school, starting at AED 44,900 in Foundation Stage 1 to AED 72,900 in Year 13.
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