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.
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 School Experience - What does the school actually feel like? Read our report here...
The majority of students are still in the Primary Years Programme, with approximately 200 students in grades 6-10 of the Middle Years Programme. The Diploma Programme at SISD will begin in the next (2018-19) academic year.
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.
What the inspectors say
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.
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.
Currently students of approximately 60 different nationalities attend the school, the majority from European countries, followed by US and Canadian passport holders, Indian and Pakistani children. Like many schools in the UAE, SISD is a truly international environment.
Head of School Beat Sommer, who has over 30 years’ experience in education, can count on a highly qualified and experienced team: Head of Middle School Luke Osborne, with a Master’s Degree in Education, has extensive experience in IB teaching and a background in boarding, Head of Primary Sabah Rashid, with a Master in Education from UCLA, has worked in the UAE for 13 years and is a qualified IB educator and Dr. Christine Jacob, Head of Languages and herself a proficient trilinguist, coordinates the language support, which is an essential component of a successful bilingual programme.
Student numbers have doubled since the opening. Families have been attracted, according to Beat, by the Swiss reputation for quality, reliability, and for “walking the talk”. Growth has also been driven by an "open approach towards the IB programmes, one that matches a 21st Century teaching and learning environment".
It is the school's strong, for the UAE unique, bi-lingual programme that is the major draw of the school however. SISD is a truly international multi-lingual environment. Although all communication with parents is in English, parents are encouraged to learn the additional language(s) that their children are studying. Beat hopes that the language options will continue to grow with the possibility of the school piloting the IB Middle Years and Diploma programmes in German, a goal he is working directly with the IBO to achieve. The school also plans on adding a stronger Arabic component at some point as well.
Recruitment of suitable staff as having been the most challenging issue to date for the school - as it has been for all schools in the UAE competing for internationally minded, and qualified teachers. SISD says it has faced the problem more acutely than many of its peers however, a corollary of its focus on languages. "European staff are the most suited from the language perspective, but also more difficult to attract to Dubai," Beat told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com
SISD and languages
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.
Running in parallel to language development the SISD delivers the IB Primary Years Programme and the Middle Year Programme.
Unlike the PYP, the Middle Years Programme is subject based. In 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, all subjects are taught in English, with additional French or German language acquisition.
The Primary School delivers the PYP (Primary Years Programme), which is based on six “Units of Enquiry” that explore content from the six subject areas. The Head of Primary, Sabah, who has taught the PYP curriculum in the UAE for 13 years but is a US educated and trained teacher, believes that the strength of the programme lies in the fact that students are actively engaged in their own learning. 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.
SISD intends to offer the Swiss bilingual Baccalaureate from Grade 9 from the 2018/19 academic year onwards, a programme mainly targeting Swiss students.
Some families who have been educated in other curricula - notably the UK which offers the GCSE or IGCSE public examination which take place at age 15/16 -have in the past been concerned at the lack of such measurement in the MYP programme. However, 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.
The hope is 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.
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”.
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 60,000, rising to AED 110,000 in Grade 9 and 10.
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