At a glance
The Story til Now
Sunmarke school, which opened in September 2016, is housed in a 3000 capacity purpose built facility Jumeirah Vilage Triangle, with very up to date facilities, experienced secondary staff from Regent and classes up to Year 13 from the get go.
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 44,900 AED to 72,900 AED - hardly cheap, but 22,000 AED lower than KHDA’s approved tuition fees. Whether the school could attract students if it charged 100,000 AED 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, 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 Regents International School, its other venture in the UAE. Regents has been rated Good for seven years in a row which clearly affected the school's ability to meet the KHDA inspection guidelines.
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.
What about Student Achievement?
The new school recorded good GCSE scores during its first year of operation, with 40% gaining A* to A grades, 70% A* to B and 90% A* to C.
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.
All in all a fairly successful launch.
For parents who are currently a part of Sunmark School, please fill in our Parent Survey here.
What do the Inspectors Say (2016/2017)
For their first inspection, Sunmarke School received a Good rating which is impressive for a school in its first year of inspections. Part of Sunmarke's strength is that the school operated in part as Regent International School, which has received a Good rating for the past seven years.
Overall, attainment and progress of students was almost equally split between Acceptable and Good with Mathematics in the Secondary and Post-16 rated as Very Good.
Arabic and Islamic Students has progress to make as attainment and progress is rated as either Weak or Acceptable. The report recommends that the school, " improve students’ progress in Arabic by using the very good practice of language teaching in the modern languages faculty; improve students’ progress in Islamic education by adopting the strong practices which are evident in other departments."
Teaching is a strength of the school. The report notes that "Teachers have strong subject knowledge, they are clear about students’ next steps in learning and understand how they learn best. Teachers in the Foundation stage make sure children learn through being active and independent."
Updated Review Visit - Sunmarke 28th May 2017
A new, community focused school conveniently located in a popular area of New Dubai, Sunmarke has excellent facilities and its design has been well thought through. The school has adopted the ‘positive education’ philosophy developed in the Geelong School in Australia which is evident through all aspects of school activity.
Sunmarke is a new English National Curriculum school located in the fast-developing Jumeirah Village Triangle area. The school is run and owned by the Fortes Group and on the same location there is a branch of Jumeirah International Nurseries also run by the same company.
As a parent if you should select these establishments you could in theory find care and schooling for children from the age of 45 days to 18 years! The approach to the school is still disrupted by some confusing roadworks but housing developments and apartment blocks close by are just about ready for occupation. A small but pretty park is directly opposite the main school.
The four storey white, grey and red modern blocks house this large school which has the capacity for 3,000 pupils. The layout of the blocks form a horse-shoe frame around a new astro-turf football pitch. As yet there is little vegetation around the site but garden spaces have been incorporated into small but attractive courtyards within the campus.
Security was required at the entrance and soon we were in the high-ceilinged light reception area. The architecture is simply stylish with cabinets for trophies, a variety of seating areas and vending machines for cold drinks and snacks. We were greeted first by our two year nine student guides, Imara and Ali.
These delightful young men politely and eloquently answered our inquiries about the school. We asked what they felt was special about Sunmarke and what made them proud to attend the school. Both boys support the school’s ethos of ‘positive education’, an aim and growth mindset adopted from the successful Geelong School in Australia. A ‘flourish flower’ is the symbol that represents the values that are followed here with the focus on boosting confidence, character and fairness.
Ali also mentioned the great choices available to them at Sunmarke particularly in the clubs and activities which you can swap around during each term. The boys considered for a while when asked how the school could improve and finally mentioned that they would like to feel trusted more. These students would like more freedom in the secondary section and access to more areas around the campus.
The staff/pupil relationships they described as ‘nice and even’ where they can have normal conversations such as bantering about rival football teams they support with teachers. Ali and Imara described the student culture as non-competitive. Students they felt were ‘nice to each other’ and ‘get along well’.
We asked if they had seen or experienced any bullying in the school and both boys agreed that they had never seen any. Sunmarke pupils have the opportunity to have their say via the Student Council and in Imara and Ali’s opinion they are listened to, have access to the leadership team and that their ideas are taken very seriously. An example of this is that students requested the school day to be shortened from a 3.45 finish to a 3.10 and that management have set this in motion.
The catering company Sodexo provide hot and cold food for the school community although many children bring their own packed lunches. Our student representatives feel the food on offer to be of a good standard. Ali and Imara looked very neat in their shirts, ties and purple blazers so we asked were they happy with the choice and design of clothing. Both agreed that it was smart and comfortable.
When discussing the quality of teaching at Sunmarke the boys are generally happy but want to be stretched and feel they could be challenged more. There are school trips on offer and a recent team building outing to kite beach was mentioned. Another favourite was the bronze Duke of Edinburgh wadi camp in Ras Al Khaimah.
We asked for stories that captured their experience here and the values of the school. International day was important for them. The boys feel that the many cultures represented here mix very well and that this special day with great international stalls represents this aspect. Ali added that visiting other classmates’ homes was another example where they experienced other cultures.
Our student representatives spoke about extra curricular activities on offer and highlighted the variety of sports they could choose from. There are some up and coming sports teams here but the boys would like more choice of sporting challenges. However, they are proud of the existing teams and the sense of sportsmanship. They have developed their own ‘cheer of support’ to other schools with which they compete.
Imara and Ali believe that Sunmarke is using technology effectively and is up to date. The school runs the Sadaqoh project which means charity in Arabic. This involves collecting essential day to day commodities such as cooking oil which is collected and donated to labour sites across Dubai.
Finally, we asked how the boys would describe Sunmarke to prospective students. They spoke of the feeling of togetherness and community; how much choice is available to them and the fact that everyone helps each other.
Imara and Ali then took us on a guided tour of this spacious campus. All open areas and corridors are expansive and light and wall displays are fresh and relevant to the topics. We were shown the ‘Character Strengths’ wheel which has a spinning arrow in the centre. Positive human values such as ‘hope’, ‘creativity’ and ‘humility’ are within the spokes of the wheel, the idea being to randomly focus on a value each day, all part of the positive education ethos.
Classrooms are newly furnished with all the appropriate equipment and furniture along with colourful displays. We observed that although numbers of children within each group were small there was a sense of focus and purpose. Areas for relaxation are either within the small garden areas in various courtyards or shaded benches dotted around the campus, either on ground level or on the rooftop. The sports hall is huge and beautifully set up and during our tour a trampolining training session for all the sports teachers was taking place. We were led through two dining areas/cafes for primary level children which looked inviting and quite popular. Specialist subject classrooms are all spacious with new state of the art equipment. We saw a media room, a series of IT suites, design technology, music and science labs which all stood out. An amazing half indoor/outdoor swimming pool is available to all.
Lower school and upper school libraries are large, beginning to fill up with books and contain cool but cosy high backed seating areas. A well-being room intrigued us and on entering we observed fairy-lit ceilings, cushions, bean bags, plants and exercise mats, a place for retreat and contemplation which includes a worry wall for people to share their anxious thoughts as hand-written notes.
The architectural design of the site has included several clever uses of the rooftops. Shades have been put up above climbing frames for younger children along with basketball courts and tennis courts soon to be ready. Back at base we were shown the main entrance area where all pupils meet at the start of the day. There is also a wide staircase along with a wall covered in encouraging quotes chosen by the children. Another wall shows the historical timeline with images illustrating the development of Dubai.
We were able to interview four parents next – Marielle, Niroshini, Tavga and Amanda have between them eight children between the ages of six to sixteen years old and hail from a wide nationality base. We inquired why they had chosen Sunmarke and were told how location had been one deciding factor. It is thought that the journey to school is safe in the JVT area.
Two parents mentioned how they had grown up through the Regent school so this was the natural choice to follow on. In fact, one mentioned that this was her ninth year as a parent in these Fortes run schools. Another moved her son specifically for year 10 to take the GCSE courses on offer. What most impresses these parents about Sunmarke is the community feel, the mix of nationalities and the mix of teachers. They believe that their kids love the school, feel listened to and learn the meaning of equality. One mum spoke of how from the beginning (FS1) she felt any issues were picked up and dealt with at once. Community work was also praised at Sunmarke. They described the culture and environment as great. Sporting facilities were also praised.
Our parents believe communication to be the school’s greatest challenge at present but think it is getting better each term. We asked for our parents’ thoughts on homework and heard it is never too much and is appropriate for each age group. It was voiced that students were taught from Year 7 to become independent and there is no longer a need to check work for older children.
The scheme of ‘afternoon intervention’ was praised as a way for pupils to receive any extra teaching, catch up with missed work or learn important exam skills. We discussed value for money when considering fees and our group agreed it was expensive as are many schools here in Dubai. It was described as ‘worth it’ if your child is ‘taught well and prepared for university in the future’.
There is a uniform shop on the school site provided by a local tailoring company. Our parents like the colour, style and although they consider the prices to be a bit high the children look smart and take pride in their appearance. Quality they believe to be generally good with a few choice of fabric issues due to washing. The school is pretty strict on their uniform policy so shirts must be tucked in and blazers worn at all times.
We inquired about the parking situation at drop off and pick up times and our parents feel the system needs improvement. There is more parking available which needs to be opened up and a flow system should be run better by security staff. Four people supervise drivers outside and the principal is always around to meet and greet parents. A well-run bus service with assistance is on offer for those who need it but ‘it’s not cheap’.
Our parents are happy with the local school trips but they are at an additional cost and overseas trips they consider to be expensive. Several clubs and ECAs are run at Sunmarke. Some run by teaching staff are free while others are paid for run by outside organizations. Our parents feel that the lunchtime slot is too short for some clubs and they would like to see more team sports on offer. Our group are happy with the band run by the music department and the new trampolining club soon to be on offer. They are also pleased to see the development of football, rugby, basketball, D of E and coding. Free singing lessons are also offered by the school.
There is a parent association group called F o S so parents can offer help during school events. Teachers and the school communicate with parents via a daily diary which the children keep or emails and phone calls. Sunmarke parents are invited to attend three parent evenings a year, one each term which they believe are well-organised.
Our group feel that staff really know their children individually and they are allowed plenty of time to discuss progress. The school itself has arranged several coffee mornings to enable parents to get together but the school is still new. Parents are still getting to know the school and each other. There are also special Wednesday morning events where topics are covered such as first aid or mindfulness.
The food on offer at Sunmarke our parents agreed is reasonably priced with a voucher payment scheme. Our parents feel that their children are challenged but believe that there’s room for improvement at the higher levels. It was expressed that teachers bring out the best in the students. We asked for comments on the learning support on offer at Sunmarke and one mother spoke of when arriving in 2016 her child had a poor command of English. Now the student she believes ‘speaks like a native’! Another parent spoke of how a spelling issue for her child was dealt with quickly and in such a fun way. It was also mentioned how confidence is taught well and has been commented on by outsiders.
We inquired if our team believes that education here is better than in their home country and all agreed that it was better. When travelling back for holidays their children here have a good knowledge of everything and relatives have been impressed by the results of their schooling in Dubai.
Our parents have been impressed by the school productions so far of The Wizard of Oz and The School of Rock. They would describe the school to prospective parents as full of ‘happy, learning children who go to school with a smile’. They believe their kids receive individual care and that counselors are on hand at primary and secondary level. It is considered that primary mix with secondary pupils well and help each other out, for example older children reading to younger pupils.
Children are well versed in the ‘positive education’ ethos and are taught ‘don’t say I can’t, say not yet’. Parents feel International and National Days have been the highlights of school so far. There is a celebration of every nationality and religion and children are taught to value and respect one another. They consider their children to be happy kids and that the school provides quality.
We were next able to interview Mr Keith Miller, the Executive Principal also in his first year at the school. We inquired about his own educational journey, specialism and vision for the development of Sunmarke. He began his adult life as a product designer so chose a bit later in life to go to university. He started as a DT teacher focusing on graphical design and described how he felt ‘called’ to teaching as a vocation.
He was able to combine his interests as a rugby coach and outdoor pursuits through helping with Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. His love of working in education he described as being part of a journey and opening doors. This is his sixth year in Dubai as a head teacher. He referenced once again the ‘positive education’ ethos and the fact that he was soon to visit the Geelong school in Australia where it originated. He is convinced by the genuine commitment to lifelong learning, sense of balance and importance placed on self-esteem. Sunmarke has 720 pupils at this time but there is capacity for 3,000 although Keith feels around 2,500 would be about right.
Pupil/teacher ratio at present is 1:7.5 and class sizes vary from 4 to 5 in older groups to 18 in younger classes. Sunmarke received a KHDA rating of Good this term a pretty impressive result for a school in its first year of existence. Keith feels as an establishment they have ‘strong baselines’ and there is a positive response from students and the parental body. He believes students and staff have risen to the occasion. He described the school’s biggest challenges as growth and the high expectations for maintaining their values. Keith would describe the approach to the child as ‘holistic’ as is ‘symbolised by the flourish flower emblem’. Sunmarke have a clear anti-bullying policy which he described as ‘restorative justice’. If there’s any sign of bullying it is dealt with very quickly and there is a school counselor on hand to deal with this process. There will only be ten pupils graduating this year but they will be heading to university in the UK, USA or other. The school’s approach to homework is project based in primary to develop independent learning. Keith feels the ‘hard yards are needed’ and ‘work is monitored rigorously by teaching staff’.
Keith describes the acceptance policy as more or less ‘open’ as he feels it is not right to offer a place if there is a significant special need that they cannot serve. He spoke of how the school is ‘engineered to be inclusive however’. At present there are no scholarships on offer at Sunmarke. When recruiting staff Keith advertises in the TES and staff are predominantly from the UK. This year most of the new teachers employed were already working here in Dubai with an experienced profile. All staff are fully qualified and it is possible to complete QTS here. BSO and KHDA inspections have already taken place. INSET is available for staff on a weekly basis and there is a budget set aside for this purpose.
There is leadership training offered and Sunmarke act as a venue for other schools to visit for training sessions. Keith believes the arts are a fundamental part of the school curriculum describing them as the ‘heart and soul’ of the school. A large auditorium is used for performances and art, music, dance and film editing are taught along with a student run radio station. Next year the school will be introducing peripatetic in-house music tuition. Keith believes that as a new school all departments are doing well but he’s particularly proud that 70% of the children represent the school in sporting teams or activities. As yet there are no GCSE results to judge individual success.
Finally Keith added that this school offers a ‘holistic education’ which they are ‘serious’ about and that the student voice is strong.
It is almost impossible to miss the site of Sunmarke School which opened its doors from FS1 to Year 13 in September 2016. Located close to the intersection of the Al Khail Road and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Highway, it is ideally placed to serve a large number of communities inland from Dubai Marina. The school is a very large 3-sided building painted in bright yellows and reds and stretches upwards over 3 floors. A sizeable outdoor, synthetic grass playing field is at the heart of the building.
Unusually for a new school, Sunmarke has been able to offer all year groups from Foundation to Sixth Form in its first year. This is a direct result of the transfer of the Secondary school from Regent International School (under the same ownership) which has now reverted to a Primary only campus in the Greens area (a 10 minute drive away). In order to be able to open the Secondary School at Sunmarke, the owners had to agree to a full KHDA inspection within the first year of operation (instead of the usual third year). This is extremely unusual and demanding for a school that is inevitably still in a settling-in phase. The inspections usually require 3 years of tracking by the school of its students; only 60% of the data (from former Regent students) will be available.
To lead such an ambitious development and to ensure that the school “hits the ground running”, Fortes Education has employed Keith Miller, a former Principal with GEMS Education in the UAE and with 27 years of Senior experience in the UK. Mr. Miller is responsible for all of the Education activities across the Fortes Group, which also includes the Jumeirah International Nursery schools and Regent International and splits his time across the entities. With 725 students at Sunmarke School, this has certainly been a successful opening. Approximately 300 children have joined the new Primary school, with over 400 students transferring from Regent or joining the new Secondary school. Again, unusually for Dubai, this school is not bottom heavy (with a larger number of primary than secondary students) which tends to be the norm. At an overall capacity of 3,300, Sunmarke will eventually be a very large school indeed.
Mr. Miller tells WSA that he chose to join Fortes Education because of the smaller nature of the group and the opportunity to work hand in hand with the owners, who are ambitious and may well expand their network in the future. He has been involved in hand-picking all of the staff who are now in place. Although responsible for the oversight of the school, Mr. Miller’s main focus is on the strategic development of Fortes Education.
This includes ensuring that the focus on a unique curriculum area at the school the “Education for Human Values” programme which has been in place at Regent for several years is maintained. The school has been working with Geelong Grammar School in Australia to develop their Positive Education (Pos-Ed) programme and mindfulness across the school community. The programme is designed to enable students to have an in-depth understanding of their own character, stresses that may affect them and how to address such issues. Sunmarke School offers a Mindfulness room, outdoor spaces for exercise aimed at de-stressing and Counselling support. The aim is to strike a balance between Academic excellence, Positive Education and Personal Development. Parents are also encouraged to strike a balance in their lives with Wellness Wednesday enabling parents to participate in Yoga, First aid and other activities.
Another key area of development for Mr. Miller is the curriculum. STEM subjects (Science, Technology, English and Maths) are at the core of the curriculum, but the aim is to offer a much broader educational experience. Currently offering the UK curriculum throughout the school, Sunmarke has already applied to the International Baccalaureate organisation as a Candidate School to offer the IB Diploma programme. This will be offered in addition to A Levels. But plans for alternative qualifications do not stop there. In addition to the academically demanding IBDP, Sunmarke will also aim to complement this with the IB Courses programme, which requires a lower number of subjects.
To complement the A Level programme, the school is also investigating BTEC pathways at level 2 and 3. These are generally more vocational fields of study. The school has already appointed staff with IB experience in order to ensure that they are able to move towards these goals. And in order to ensure that the Community, Action and Service elements of the IB programmes are in place, a similar programme has already been implemented within the school providing peer mentoring between Secondary and Primary students as well as peer to peer programmes in Secondary school.
Another area of focus at Sunmarke is measurement and assessment of students right from the initial application process and throughout their time at the school. A range of tools is utilised including CAT IV and GL testing, but additionally the school recognises that many students are bi-lingual and that they need to assess verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills and the intellectual potential of students. Once a student has joined the school, data is captured 6 times per year and analysed. If a student is not making expected progress, the curriculum is the first point of review and not necessarily the student’s performance. This approach is also fundamental to Sunmarke’s aim to offer support to students of all abilities – including those who are academically more able and also those with additional learning needs. The school is able to support Wave 3 SEN provision and is always willing to consider a student provided that there is capacity within the school.
We were shown around Sunmarke by two Senior students – Abigail (who moved from Regent and is in her 4th year with Fortes group schools) and Avinash, who joined Regent in FS1 prior to its move to the Greens. Both were really impressed with their new school. Year 10-13 students were each provided with a plan of the building prior to moving into it in order to be able to orientate themselves and they found this to be very effective.
Abigail and Avinash both mentioned how much they enjoyed studying in such a technology rich environment, but also how the new facilities enabled them to be involved in Performing Arts and offered an opportunity to move away from the traditional Maths, English and Science to more innovative subjects. Student numbers in the Sixth form currently are small, but the school has enable students to study a wide range of subjects and Abigail and Avinash feel that the Senior Staff listen to students and take their comments on board.
There are minor dislikes – they would like to see the Sixth Form students allowed greater independence (through being able to exit the school campus to buy food locally) and more study time outside school (study leave for exams). Their highest praise was for the teaching staff who both described as “unbelievable”. Teachers are great; neither student could find any fault with any of the faculty and found them motivating, determined to ensure students participate and are really supportive, enabling excellent relationships to develop. Both Abigail and Avinash remarked on how their teachers tailored the workload to the students and were passionate about their subjects. The teaching was described as caring, but also determined and, if necessary, tough in terms of ensuring that standards of work were met.
As we toured the school, both students pointed at the range of facilities. The school incorporates a Jumeirah International Nursery school on the ground floor which is separated from the rest of the building. Primary School is also located on the Ground floor currently. Classrooms are light, bright and spacious as would be expected in a new building. Large corridors allow for break-out areas and colourful displays of student work.
The more exciting, high-tech facilities are located on the first and second floors which are occupied by the Secondary school. These include Radio, TV and MAC studios, specialist Art and Music rooms, a Music Technology Centre, Drama and a Black Box Theatre. A very large Auditorium is close to completion. In addition to the Creative Art facilities, there are of course, Science Labs, Food Technology, Resistant Material and Textile rooms. Sports facilities have also not be overlooked with a double height Sports Hall with viewing gallery. There is also a very impressive Swimming pool facility. On-site catering facilities are provided for all age groups and Sixth form students have their own Common room with refreshments available and also plentiful individual study spaces.
Given that the school is only at approximately 25% of its capacity, it does inevitably feel a little empty in places. It will be interesting to see whether the common facilities – and particularly the sports facilities – will be sufficient as the school grows. The school does benefit from the option to use a park located opposite the school for other outdoor activities. Currently, there are over 20 different sports teams in the school and a total of over 40 Extra-curricular activities.
A Parent Advisory Council is being established that will participate in inspections of the school – carrying out student voice interviews and drop in sessions – and will also aim to identify priorities for parents. The Parent Teacher Association is growing and building contacts with parents across the school in order to engage them in school and community events.
In meeting with parents, we received mixed comments. Whilst no-one doubted the dedication and ability of the teaching staff and the progress their children were making –teaching staff were described as very open, approachable, willing to take feedback and keen to reach out to parents - parents felt that some organisational aspects were lacking. They acknowledged that the school had surveyed parents and made changes to Primary timings as a result, but felt that improvements could be made in relation to communication of the school calendar and the re-registration process which was felt to be far too early in the school year. Parents felt that the balance of older more experienced staff to younger staff was perhaps a little heavily weighted towards the latter, but acknowledged that their children seem to be making good progress and were well supported. They were happy that many of the former Regent staff had chosen to move to Sunmarke to maintain the stability. This was particularly noted among the PE staff and the very high safety standards at the school were also praised.
There is no doubt that Sunmarke School has much to offer. The fact that it has grown from an existing school with many of the staff, resources and students already established means that it has been able to knit key elements of the school together. Inevitably there will be minor issues as the school builds a new identity and community. We are impressed by the commitment of the school to an open policy towards students of all abilities and the development of the curriculum to provide a far wider range of Sixth Form options than has been seen to date in Dubai. It will be interesting to see how the KHDA feels about the new school within its Inspection framework, given the very short timescales involved to prepare for the first inspection. We would encourage interested parents to visit this school which already has a lot to offer and ambitions to offer still more.
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