The Swiss International Scientific School, Dubai (SISD) is located in a quiet location close to the remaining boat building yards at Al Jaddaf, a short distance from the Business Bay bridge. Currently the school stands entirely alone and makes a striking impression from all sides.
After a disappointing Acceptable rating in its first KHDA inspection, SISD has been rated Good for its second inspection in the 2018-19. 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...
The Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai is the first and only school to offer the Swiss curriculum for students in Senior school, and the International Baccalaureate continuum across the school. SISD is now also a candidate school for the IB Career-Related Programme (IBCP); a unique programme addressing the needs of students who wish to engage in career-related learning, designed for students aged 16-19.
However, what makes the school unique is its focus on the teaching of languages, and in particular, the bi-lingual programme offered throughout the school, where children study either French or German, in addition to English. There is also an option for non-English speaking children to join the school with the acquisition of English as the focus; these children receive an additional lesson weekly in either French or German, in addition to the standard Arabic programme.
Although all communication with parents is in English, they are encouraged to learn the additional language(s) that their children are studying. Arabic is part of the core curriculum of the school as per UAE Ministry of Education requirements, but SISD hopes to add a stronger Arabic component in the future.
The School Experience - What does the school actually feel like? Read our report here...
Currently students of approximately 60 different nationalities attend the school, the majority from European countries - the largest nationality group is French - followed by US and Canadian passport holders, Indian and Pakistani children. Like many schools in the UAE, SISD is a truly international environment. The school has approximately 1,200 students, the majority still in the Primary Years Programme. The Diploma Programme at SISD commenced in the current (2018-19) academic year and SISD is open from pre-KG to Grade 11. The first cohort of Grade 12 students will take their IBDP exams in May 2020.
Students are supported by 125 teachers (mainly British or French nationals), and 44 teaching assistants, with a teacher:student ratio of 1:9. This is very much on the low side, and should ensure plentiful individual attention and adaptation of the curriculum to meet students' needs. Some 66 students have been identified as Students of Determination.
Despite the reputation of Switzerland for efficiency, it has not all been smooth sailing for SISD. Somewhat to the surprise of many observers, SISD achieved an Acceptable rating on its first KHDA inspection in 2017-18. This is the minimum expectation for Dubai schools, but many felt that SISD would achieve the higher Good rating. Full details of the inspection can be found under What the Inspectors say here.
The impact of this outcome was clearly felt sorely by the Swiss husband and wife team, Beat and Ursula Sommer, who set up the school and had been passionately involved from its planning to launch and opening. Staff turnover was 26% in 2017, on the high side for the UAE, which averages 20-22% in international schools - also likely to have been a reaction to the inspection outcome. A new Head of School, Norbert Foerster, took over the leadership in September 2018, and has recently announced that two further key positions have been newly filled.
Noting that "The school’s core foundation was built on encouraging and mentoring students of the future; to become successful, global minded and enthusiastic lifelong learners", the appointment of new Heads of Primary and Secondary, aims to enable SISD "to continue to embody its values of diversity and togetherness".
Emmanuel Gauthier, who will be heading Primary in September 2019, joins SISD having taught Modern Foreign Languages for 17 years and being an active promoter of multilingualism. Mr Gauthier is currently the Deputy Head of the Prep School at Brighton College Abu Dhabi and has previously served as a Director of Studies and a Head of French. The Secondary School will be led by Elise Furr, who is currently Deputy Principal at Deira International School in Dubai and has previously served as an Assistant Principal (Academic) as well as Head of Department (Modern Languages).
In strengthening the Senior Management team with staff who have a strong background in Modern Languages, SISD seems determined to ensure that this key and core aspect of the school will have the strongest possible leadership. However, in appointing senior staff who will have been involved in the inspection processes at their current schools (Brighton College is rated Outstanding, and Deira International School is rated Very Good), Mr. Foester is ensuring that he also has an experienced team working with him, with a clear understanding of the inspection requirements.
What about the curriculum?
In 2018, SISD became an IB Continuum World School authorised to offer and teach the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) and IB Diploma Programme (DP).
The Primary School delivers the PYP (Primary Years Programme), which is based on six “Units of Enquiry” that explore content from six subject areas. The PYP progresses each child from where they are in their learning and measures their progress individually. The PYP balances the acquisition of knowledge, learning skills and capabilities for life beyond the classroom, and conceptual understanding. Children learn to translate concepts into action and thus develop the skills of self-management, research and thinking, as well as communication and social skills. Learning is cross-curricular, rather than purely subject-based.
Unlike the PYP, the Middle Years Programme, taught from Grades 6 to 10, is subject based, as is the IB DP. In MYP, the bilingual sections, Language & Literature, Sciences and/or Humanities are taught in French or German. Maths, Arts & Design, Physical & Health Education are taught in English. In the E+ section (English+ for non-English speakers), all subjects are taught in English, with additional French or German language acquisition.
Some families who have been educated in other curricula - notably the UK which offers the GCSE or IGCSE public examinations which take place at age 15/16 - have in the past been concerned at the lack of such measurement in the MYP programme. It is hoped that the introduction of the MYP-E on-line examination in English, Maths and Science (for which students are obliged to complete a two year programme across grades 9 and 10) will now offer reassurance to families that a rigorous programme is not only being taught but independently tested. In addition, SISD carries out twice yearly CAT IV and GL testing of all students to ensure that they are meeting targets, set personal progress plans and to contribute to reports.
As mentioned in our introduction, and the unique aspect of SISD, at the core of the curriculum, running in parallel to the IB programmes, is language development. In order to deliver fluency in more than one language SISD starts at Pre-KG with play-based learning. At this phase there is an English speaking teacher and a native French or German speaking assistant.
Starting from KG1 children receive one additional daily lesson of French or German as well as exposure to the new language in classroom activities. From KG2, a native German or French speaking teacher joins the native English speaking teacher sharing classroom time on a daily basis. Arabic lessons are introduced at this level on a weekly basis.
From Grade 1 onwards, the parents have a choice of either the bilingual English/French or English/German programme with immersive language learning, or the English+ programme, that teaches French or German as another language.
In the bilingual streams, the children are taught one week in English, one week in French or German, with all core subjects being taught in both languages. Native English, French or German speaking teachers plan collaboratively and ensure continuity and a rolling teaching process.
In the English+ stream, all core subjects are taught in English and one lesson of French or German as an additional language is added every day. In both in the bilingual and the English+ streams, Arabic is taught 6 lessons a week.
The school will accept children who are not already speaking the second language up to Grade 1. From Grade 2 onwards, a gradually increasing competence of French or German is a requirement for the acceptance in the bilingual stream.
For those needing additional language support English, French or German as an Additional Language is provided by an experienced team of EAL, FAL and GAL teachers, counsellors and inclusion specialists.
If families wish to add yet another language on top of English, French or German, and Arabic taught within the bilingual and English+ streams or give them additional exposure to the languages, there is the option to enroll children in after school language clubs in English, German, French, Arabic, Mandarin or Spanish. At Middle School level, additional French or German can be studied in lunch time language classes and there is also Spanish and Mandarin on offer as after school activities.
Facilities and Resources
SISD's buildings and facilities have been enlarged and expanded on significantly since the school's launch. A Sports Facility with an integrated multi-sports hall that can be divided into two full size courts, an indoor running track around the hall, aerobics and weight training rooms, an Olympic swimming pool, outdoor soccer fields and more running tracks, mean that all the essential facilities are now in place.
But this is not where the expansion ends. A new Middle/High school building has been completed which can accommodate 8-900 students allowing for a total whole school capacity of 2,000 - 2,200 students.
In addition, Scholarships of Excellence will be awarded to students in the Middle and High School and the opening of the Middle/High School building will also enable the number of classes in KG and Primary to expand to 7 per grade.
The final phase of development, completed in September 2017, is the Boarding House. SISD is the second school in Dubai (Repton Dubai being the other) that offers shared or single en-suite rooms with catering through the school kitchen situated in the Middle and High School building. Boarding is offered on a weekly or full time basis to include full pastoral care and a programme of activities to support students during their time after school.
On our visit, students we spoke to talked about how much they enjoyed the structure, design and facilities of the school, the different clubs and activities that are available, the opportunities that are provided by the House System and Student Council, the sports facilities and additional language options.
Their highest praise, though, was for their teachers whom they described as “amazing, helpful and supportive, really focussed on ensuring that students really understand what they are learning and that they enjoy the subjects they take”.
In common with all new schools in Dubai, SISD underwent its first KHDA inspection in its third year of operation - in February 2018. Somewhat to the surprise of WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, the first inspection result was an Acceptable rating, indicating that students' attainment and progress, together with a range of other indicators, are in line with Dubai Regulator's expectations.
This is the minimum rating expected to be achieved; many observers had expected SISD to achieve the higher initial rating of Good, indicating achievement beyond expectations.
To some extent the school seems to have been a victim of its own success. One of the main areas of concern noted by the inspectors, was the speed with which the school has grown and the delay in its leadership structure in growing in line with this development. In addition, it seems that the assessment processes within the school - a key area of focus for the KHDA team - are not aligned to the inspection team's requirements currently. SISD is not the only school in Dubai to have been caught out in this context.
Without doubt, there is much that is positive about the KHDA inspectors' findings and these are reflected in the areas identified as the strengths of the school:
However, there are clearly a number of key areas that require improvement. Students' attainment and progress were found to be generally Acceptable but the report notes that "[they are] highly variable across subjects and phases. Attainment in Arabic as a first language is weak. Mathematics in the Middle Years Programme (MYP) is good, due to stronger subject leadership and better teaching. Students' learning skills enable them to collaborate effectively and to carry out independent inquiry".
Closer examination of Attainment and Progress show that progress in Islamic Studies and Mathematics in MYP was found to be Good, and similarly progress in the main language of instruction (English, French or German) and Mathematics in PYP achieved the same rating, the KG achieved only one Good rating (again for the language of instruction). Only one measure of attainment was rated Good (this for Mathematics in the MYP) with all others rated Acceptable. Attainment in Arabic as a first language was rated Weak across both programmes. Inspectors noted that most student achievement was in line with curriculum expectations.
In contrast with the academic measures, SISD students were rated highly in relation to their personal and social development and innovations skills. These were rated Very Good (only one step away from the top rating of Outstanding) for Personal Development and Social Responsibility and innovation skills, and Good for students' understanding of Understanding of Islamic values and awareness of Emirati and world cultures. The inspection team commented that "Students across the phases demonstrate positive attitudes to school and have strong relationships with peers and staff. They understand their own cultures, the cultures of their multinational peers, and the culture of Dubai. Action and service are embedded in the international Baccalaureate (IB) programmes, and students at all levels positively contribute within the school and wider community."
At the heart of the concerns related to Attainment and Progress lie, somewhat inevitably, Teaching and Assessment. Again, inspectors emphasised the need for improvement, noting that "Teaching is variable across subjects and phases... Use of assessment data to identify students’ starting points, set rigorous learning objectives and track progress is underdeveloped. There is no consistent whole-school system of assessment." The latter is a specific area of focus across the UAE, in line with requirements for all schools to participate in bench-marking of student achievement using international tools and assessments.
However, it is important not to over-emphasise the inspectors' comments in this context. They also note that "In the best lessons, especially in the primary years programme (PYP), teachers engage students in independent learning, with appropriate levels of challenge and support, and effective use of open-ended questioning." In addition, "Across the school, teachers enable students to be confident and independent learners." It seems to be the variability of teaching quality and assessment processes that have been the main concern for the inspection team.
The design of the curriculum and its implementation were found to be Good by the inspectors. They noted that "The PYP and MYP allow students to acquire a balance of knowledge, skills and understanding through transdisciplinary and subject area learning. Units of inquiry often include reference to the UAE context." However, the appropriate balance between integration and development of fundamental literacy, numeracy and scientific skills was not always apparent. In addition, inspectors was found that adaptation of the curriculum to meet the individual needs of all groups of students was not adequate. Lesson plans were often found to include strategies to meet the needs of most students, but this was not consistent across the phases.
As would be expected, SISD did perform well in terms of the welfare of its students and staff. Health and safety, including arrangements for child protection /safeguarding were rated Very Good, and similarly, care and support were rated Very Good in KG and PYP and Good in MYP. In addition, the provision and outcomes for Students of Determination, those with SEND or Gifted and Talented requirements, were rated Good. "Governors are committed to inclusion. The Inclusion Champion leads the department with skill and expertise. School leaders overall have an aspirational vision for an inclusive ethos.." However, inspectors found that the practical implications of these ambitions are not consistently taken into account.
In terms of leadership and management, ratings were varied. The relationship between the school, parents and the community, and the Management, Staffing, resources and facilities of the school were rated Very Good, whilst Governance was rated Good. Inspectors commented that the school has formed strong relationships with parents. Communication with parents on their children’s achievement is regular and systematic, and generally highly effective. Reporting to parents who have children with SEND is particularly strong.
In addition, Governors are frequently present in school and regularly seek feedback from parents. They meet regularly with senior leaders to hold them accountable, and annual review visits by an experienced educational governor informs improvement planning. The school was found to be very efficiently managed on a day-to-day basis. Teachers and learning assistants are well qualified and receive continuous professional development to improve their skills. Inspectors noted that "The specialist facilities in the school are inspiring and welcoming, and are very conducive to learning."
The effectiveness of the leadership of SISD and school self-evaluation, through which improvement plans are determined, were found to be Acceptable. "Leaders at all levels are committed to the school’s vision as a multilingual IB school, and to the national priorities, but interpretation of the vision is inconsistent within policies and practices."
Interestingly, feedback from 330 parents who completed the KHDA's survey prior to the inspection was extremely positive, with 96% saying that they were very satisfied with the quality of education their children are receiving at SISD, feeling their children are happy, safe and learning well.
The recommendations made by the Inspection team are focused on four key areas. SISD should:
There is no doubt that there are some challenges ahead for SISD in terms of putting in place the measures identified by the KHDA Inspection team. However, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com would expect the Governors and Leadership of the school to go about this process with the typical thoroughness and efficiency for which the Swiss are renowned. Much as they succeeded in designing and building their school without permitting anything to get in the way, so we would see their road to improvement. We are still convinced that the model offered by the Swiss School is one that is worth preserving and growing. We will be interested to see what progress has been made when the second inspection takes place in 2018-19.
There is no doubt that the Swiss School is ambitious, for itself and its students. The move into boarding is an interesting one, given that this has not been particularly popular in the UAE to-date. However, there is an air of real determination, focus and very Swiss reliability at the school.
We look forward to seeing the next stage in the school’s development.
Fees - are at the premium end - inevitable in an IB curriculum school and all the more so, given the range of language skills required from staff. Pre-KG starts at AED 62,484 rising to AED 114,554 in Grades 9 and 10. Grade 11 fees at AED 124,968, places the school as among the most expensive in Dubai.
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