Outstanding facilities are matched by outstanding leadership in a school which offers some unique features to parents in the UAE. The bilingual curriculum has swiftly established a very strong reputation for the Swiss School, evidenced by the excellent number of pupils the school has succeeded in attracting in its first two years. Boarding is already available. The school is a work in progress but the achievement to date is very impressive.
Point of difference – Two bilingual programmes
The Swiss International Scientific School (SISD) is now in its third year in the UAE, located in the Al Jadaf area of Dubai (see WSA area guide). Although a new school it has 960 pupils and has swiftly gained a reputation as an extremely well-run establishment offering two bilingual programmes – English/French or English/German and is the only English programme in Dubai teaching five lessons or French or German a week. Full or weekly boarding is also on offer here so this is clearly catering for a niche who are also looking for the IB programme from pre-kindergarten through to grade 12.
There are 60 different nationalities represented but the students are mainly Swiss, German and French. No nationality represents more than 20% and 5% are UAE nationals. The land is owned by Dubai Healthcare City and the school is housed in large modern stylish white block buildings. Some blocks have wide window panels while others have smaller rectangular but asymmetric panes.
Building in progress
Several blocks are still in progress such as the large auditorium, main canteen and two boarding houses. The site is right on the Creekside and the surrounding land is still sand so yet to be developed. Parking at present is either at the side of the road or on the sandy spaces available. Security was helpful when we arrived and ID was required before we could explore the campus.
As a new school there are not yet any established gardens or trees but these are being incorporated along with organic raised flower beds. The entrance to the primary section is an impressive surprise as an open plan spiral, sloping walkway is the focus.
Interview with Principal
Pillars resembling tree trunks rise from the green carpet with colourful seats reminding one of toadstools at the foot of trees in the forest. Skylight filters down from the opening oval above. We were warmly greeted by reception staff, Ursula Sommer, the head of admissions and Caterina Perlini, head of marketing. Our first interview was with Mr Luke Osborne who is head of the middle school section. Luke walked us through to the expanding secondary section where a large wide stairway seating area is central.
Luke Osborne’s Background
This is cleverly designed so that the larger middle steps can become seating for shows/assemblies performed in the ample arena below. We were then able to ask Luke further questions about his role and what makes SISD stand out. Luke began his teaching career at Gordonstoun in the north of Scotland as a language teacher. Experience at this boarding school led him to a job as housemaster at a school in Switzerland for the next six years. He was selected to be one of the first members of staff to come to Dubai and help build SISD from day one which was the 1st August 2015. He has been able to shape its development, select staff and he also writes the timetable which is unusual for a head teacher.
What’s unique about SISD?
SISD will have the capacity to host 30 boarding pupils but at present nine are housed in a villa style residence nearby. Luke is passionate about the bilingual programme or ‘English Plus’ programme, as they term it, where they adhere to the IB system throughout. There is an unashamed language focus here where for example German students will study both German language and literature to a high level. Luke believes IB is leapfrogging GCSEs with its online core external assessments at Grade 10 level along with a portfolio for the creative subjects.
‘Measured growth’ planned
We inquire where he sees the school headed and he explained that through ‘measured’ rather than ‘fast-paced’ growth he wants to consolidate the community spirit. Another focus will be a mother tongue programme for native speakers in whatever language is required. Progress has been such that they are close to capacity in a few areas and waiting lists are expected soon. Luke is proud of their accomplishments so far and feels that the school is ‘meeting their promises’ by ‘achieving what they offered’. Average IB standards are being exceeded here already and they will soon begin their community project in preparation for the students’ personal project unit in IB. Standout features include:
- Community spirit
- Mother tongue programme
- IB standards already ‘being exceeded’
We asked Luke to describe the school’s approach to the child and his phrase was ‘high quality relationships’. He believes that they work hard to engage with all parents and a natural triangle is formed by parents, staff and pupils.
Anti-bullying programme & homework
SISD follows the required anti-bullying policy expected here and this robust system of zero tolerance is supported by a handbook, an inclusion specialist and a child counselor. The homework expectations are that at year 6 pupils receive at least an hour increasing as required as pupils head to grades 11 and 12. A diary system is used to communicate between teachers and parents who can oversee progress. The students are also able to comment on this area through a pupil survey.
‘Cross curricular ventures, the spirit of IB’
Innovation at SISD is evident in its bilingual programmes but also in many cross curricular ventures which embrace the spirit of IB. The arts are a focus here and are embedded in the curriculum. Music and visual arts are taught as specialisms from grade 8. Creativity and design are not just taught as ‘coding’ in technical classes but will be practical and for example will include textiles, food technology and woodwork.
How SISD approaches assessment
There is an entrance exam to gain a place in secondary at SISD involving language assessments and the Durham University programme. Lower down the school there is more of an open assessment system. Luke believes they are ‘inclusive but selective to a degree’.
Scholarships are a work in progress but at present they have two full boarding scholarships and one pupil for academic excellence where 25% discount on fees is offered. Teaching staff are recruited by word of mouth, some being already from Dubai while others are language specialists from further afield. They have quite a cosmopolitan list of staff who are mainly younger than the global average. Teachers are well-qualified to at least degree level but many have Phd’s or masters and there is a healthy retention level of teaching staff.
- Recruited by word of mouth
- Mainly younger than global average
- Happy - or seem to be with a healthy retention rate
We were next able to speak to Nicole, a parent of three children at the school aged 8,11 and 13. Being from Quebec she was looking for the French environment and programme. She believes SISD to be the perfect school for the IB syllabus as there are ‘a lot of good facilities’. What has most impressed her so far is that all three of her children with their different expectations are ‘happy here and come home excited’.
They have loved the cross-curricular events and special days where for example the English teacher taught yoga and the Arabic teacher made smoothies! Nicole feels that the school’s biggest challenges are to maintain the sense of community and togetherness as the school grows. She thinks communication is key in making sure everyone is involved.
We asked for her thoughts on homework requirements and her response was ‘more than she thought but not over the top.’ Students, she feels, get a good grounding, are taught how and expected to be responsible’. We wanted to know if Nicole thought the school was good value for money as it is one of the most costly in Dubai. Her response was ‘yes as you get the quality that you pay for’ and she does not regret spending the money on this choice.
Parent’s told us they like:
- The quality of communication
- Happiness of children
- Value for money
Nicole spoke of how she feels her children are challenged and that she is pleased with the IB system. We inquired about the learning support on offer and she believes it works really well. TA assistance is available in class when required and there is support and help with homework after school.
Uniforms, traffic & parking
We moved on to practical issues so asked about school uniform. Zaks is the provider and Nicole thinks the quality is reasonable. There is no shop at school but the company does bring uniform to the site twice a year or deliver it to your door. SISD are pretty strict in their uniform policy but it is quite informal in style i.e polo shirt and shorts/skirt.
Nicole gave her opinion about the traffic and parking situation for parents and she praised the security team. The school issued a three to four page list of instructions because drop off and pickup times are usually busy. School buses are available for those who need this and parents seem to be happy with this service.
Trips, ECAs & Food
We moved on to discuss trips clubs and ECAs and Nicole believes all are well done with plenty of choices. A parent’s association is in place and is growing as the school enlarges and there are three parent’s evenings a year. The parents tend to be more in touch with each other when their children are in primary and form WhatsApp groups to communicate.
We asked about the school food on offer in the canteen as most pupils tend to use this service. Nicole was positive about how pro-active the management are and that they have brought an in-house chef on board.
How does SISD compare with schooling in a parent's home country?
Finally we asked whether she felt SISD to be as good as the education her children would receive in her home country. At first she spoke of how hard it was to compare but later said ‘yes, it’s better here’. In describing SISD to prospective parents she chose these phrases – ‘a great environment for learning’, ‘teachers are phenomenal’, ‘it must be a dream for teachers to work here as classes are small and they have all the tools they need to teach’. In the three years SISD has been established she is in awe of its success.
According to parents, the school offers:
- ‘A great environment for learning’
- Great teaching - ‘teachers are phenomenal’
- Attention: ‘Classes are small’
Maelou Whittmann, a lovely grade 9 student was available to give her opinion of her school. She has been at SISD for two years and believes it to be special as the classes are small and staff are aware of the students and do their best to help each individual. We inquired if there was any room for improvement and she mentioned ‘Manage BAC’ which is the system SISD use to manage the IB syllabus. She thinks it is good as an organizational tool but could be better.
Maelou described the staff/pupil relationships as ‘friendly’, that ‘teachers know you personally but that some are quite strict’. Student culture she feels is a happy balance between being competitive and collaborative. When asking about bullying Maelou said she hadn’t seen any signs. A student council is forming and pupils elect members along with four houses for sporting and academic competition.
She explained that leadership here take students seriously. For example when she asked for an exchange opportunity via Boundaries Without Borders this has led to a forthcoming visit to Cambodia. We inquired about school food on offer and she thinks it is pretty expensive – about 35 dhs a meal and that things could improve.
Uniform & Workload
Maelou approves of the uniform explaining it’s both comfortable and informal. She likes the teacher’s dress style as well. She is happy with the workload and used the phrase ‘teachers push you to do the best you can. They make you think and analyse’.
We wanted to hear a story or description of a special event which captures the values of the school. Maelou chose the UAE National Day festival held in the sports building. She enjoyed the fact that the whole school was celebrating together, were running around and happy.
Trips, Clubs & Activities
She spoke of the trips, clubs and activities on offer as being ‘numerous…with many choices’. Maelou voiced that the use of IT is appropriate in design classes and for coding etc but feels that the mobile phone policy is ‘a bit strict’ although students may bring in their own devices to school.
Their contribution to the local community has been collecting and gifting toiletries to workers around the school site. Finally we asked how she would describe the school to a prospective student and she used the phrase ‘the management are very aware of students, staff, the building and environment. Sustainability is always a focus’.
- Management & teachers' ‘understanding’
- Friendliness of staff
- Excellent opportunities
The school campus is very spacious so we were glad to have an experienced and sprightly guide in Ursula Sommer, the head of admissions. It was intriguing to discover that what looked like green blocks of abstract art around the reception area was in fact live moss, a unique idea of the school’s founder. We saw a small but convenient café for parents and a base where the parents relationship officer is available. Parents may just pop in at any time to discuss any issues.
The whole school is fresh, light, has wide corridors wooden floors and natural classroom furniture. Aesthetically this is a very attractive school. Buildings are beautifully designed with four storeys of classrooms around wide open communal spaces. All classroom equipment is brand new and state of the art, some not even unpacked yet!
Observing a lesson
In secondary we saw lessons in progress and there was a buzz of enthusiasm. We observed a maths lesson, an art class and a busy sports session.
The primary section has already developed classrooms displaying a range of neat and colourful pupil work along with cozy corners for reading and sharing. The outdoor play equipment is attractive, varied, shaded and age appropriate. Climbing, balancing and exploring are all encouraged and there are pedal bikes which navigate a little road system set out to teach driving sense and etiquette at a young age.
The garden areas as yet are quite under-developed but shrubs and young trees have been planted and there are seats round and about for the cooler months.
Two wonderful covered swimming pools are available for both primary and secondary students who all learn to swim so quickly here in the UAE.
Outstanding sports hall spaces were in use as we explored. We also spotted two fabulous gyms.
An indoor running track is cleverly set above and circling the sports hall. A large real grass sports field is to the side of the school along with tennis and paddle courts.
This community is aiming to be environmentally friendly so we saw re-cycling bins and state of the art water stations. These devices allow you to re-fill your own bottle, drink from a fountain and it will register how many disposable bottles have been saved at every use.
The libraries & canteen
The library for secondary pupils is temporary as specialist facilities are under construction but many books are available and well informed staff at hand. At primary level the libraries are more established with wonderful displays and very engaged librarians.
We heard how children at this level have a daily reading period and are regularly read aloud to. Finally on the top floor we visited the Skylight canteen which is very well run with an easy card system for children to order their food. Parents with their children at home select their chosen menu for the week and we were informed the intention was to serve similar healthy food to that which parents serve at home. We noted:
- Outstanding facilities, but a work in progress
- Daily reading period
- Excellent canteen
On our visit the children were clearly enjoying their lunch and happily tucking in. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the canteen's plaudits are its just desserts.
Flashback, Swiss International Scientific School, First Review, October 2015
There is something slightly bizarre about seeing a mural of the Swiss mountains on the outside wall at roof level on the school, but this serves only to reinforce the uniqueness of the building and surroundings. Across the road from the school is the extension to Dubai Creek and it is planned eventually to offer water sports from this spot.
If Switzerland is known for its efficiency and punctuality, this is more than reflected in the completion and opening of the school which occurred on time in 2015, as planned. A second phase of building has been opening during Q4 2016 including a purpose-built gymnasium, hall and full size pool. Outdoor space includes a grassed football pitch and plenty of open areas. From 2016/17 SISD also offers an Olympic sized 50m swimming pool, basketball/volleyball/handball courts, tennis and paddle courts, a full sized football/rugby pitch, an indoor and an outdoor running track, a climbing wall, a gymnasium, dance studios and a gym.
SISD will eventually have the capacity for 2442 children, including 350 boarders from 2018, but presently is home to almost 640 pupils (up around 300 from last year) within its phased opening to Grade 9. The school continues to enrol new students "almost every day", and its current numbers are a mere 35 off its stated target of 675 - the kind of narrow miss most new schools in the UAE would envy. Some of this growth has clearly come from newly offered grades 7, 8 and 9. SISD launched the IB Middle Years Programme this academic year.
If this year proved something of a milestone for SISD, next year promises to be an even bigger one for the school. Not only will Grade 10 open in September 2017, but so too will its Boarding School.
The school is open to boys and girls and classrooms are mixed. Students currently come from 57 different nationalities (up 7 on last year) with the dominant ones being French, Swiss, German, British, Canadian and American.
On entering the school, the first impression is one of space and light.
The stunning entry features a three storey oval atrium which is reached by a double height curving bridge to the first floor. To the right of the entry is the “pencil wall” with 3m high coloured pencils bringing some striking decoration to the muted white and grey walls and floors. Other splashes of colour are added by the green and grey pouffe seating and carpets and the natural moss wall behind the reception area, which is kept moist by the humidity in the building. The building has been designed to be environmentally efficient and this can be seen in the drinking water fountains, where children are encouraged to refill their bottles, with an electronic tally being kept to show the bottles saved.
From the main reception area, the KG classrooms are organised in small groups, with pre-KG to the left, KG1 set behind the Reception area and the KG2 classes located to the right. All of the classroom groups are set around an open air quadrangle, each with suitable play equipment and fully shaded for the younger children. There is also an indoor soft play area for use in warmer weather. Classrooms are light and bright, with soft seating areas, appropriate size light wood tables and chairs, plentiful play and study resources and cubbies for shoes and bags in the corridor. There are 8 pre-KG classrooms (each 90m2 in size) of which two are currently in use. Class sizes are between 12 and 16 with a maximum at capacity of 22. Each class has a teacher and a teaching assistant.
Not only is SISD an IB curriculum school, but the main focus of the school will be on the provision of a bi-lingual curriculum to children from KG onwards. Pre-KG children receive one informal lesson per day in either French or German (depending on which language stream has been chosen). In KG1 and KG2, the 3 classes in each grade are split into language groups of French/English, German/English or English/ELL with a formal language lesson per day and a native-speaking teaching assistant per class.
The school operates a curriculum based around weekly language blocks – where children are taught in English for week one and then in the second language of choice for week 2. All lessons aside from Art, Music (and other specialist lessons) and Physical Education are taught as part of the bi-lingual programme. This requires close coordination between the teaching staff, since the programme is a progressive one, with each week’s lessons building on the previous one. English is the main language of the school, and for non-native English speakers, there is additional English Language Learner support which forms the second language stream. KG children are also offered Arabic as an after-school activity. In fact, the school also offers a number of language clubs as after-school activities to boost students’ language skills. These are provided free of charge.
SISD’s English with foreign languages programme gives core lessons in English with 5 lessons/week of French or German as well as 6 lessons/week of Arabic. This gives students the opportunity to gain a strong proficiency in 3 languages.
Grades 1 to 6 are housed on the first floor of the building with classrooms based around the exterior of the building. All are light, bright and well equipped with white boards and specialist Art, Music, ICT and Science facilities are on the second floor of the building. A central courtyard area on the first floor overlooks the KG play areas below and offers shaded, outdoor multi-courts. From grade 1, in addition to the bi-lingual programme, students all receive 6 lessons per week of Arabic (A or B) and Islamic or Social Studies. From grade 4, there is an option to take a further Modern Foreign language. Currently, there are 2 classes each in grades 1, 2, 4 and 6 and 1 each in grades 3 and 5 and because of the language split actual numbers being taught are in much smaller groups.
Once the Secondary School is fully operational, SISD will add the Diploma programme. Students will be given the option of whether they follow a full bi-lingual programme with Language and Literature taught in both languages, or whether they follow the English language programme with the second language as a Modern Foreign Language option. This is unique in Dubai.
SISD is in many ways three separate schools in one and the focus on language means English Language Learner support as well as After School activities are included within the school fees. These are inevitably on the high side, given the additional specialist staff required to meet the language requirements of the school. The school is also strongly committed to supporting children with additional learning needs, provided that they are able to access the curriculum and can be adequately supported by staff and there is no additional fee for this support.
The school has attracted a diverse range of families with 39 nationalities, and over 50 signed up so far for 2016/17. The majority of children are French, German or Swiss with the French stream ratio approximately 3:1 compared with German stream students. SISD certainly seems to have a very clear view of its identity and direction and children seem settled, happy and productive in a very attractive and thoughtful environment.
SISD says it has an inclusive policy, "and aims to support the needs of all of its registered students". It currently has one Special Needs teacher who works with all types of learning abilities. It says its aim is to adapt and modify its curriculum to ensure students with learning disabilities are supported and are inclusive in mainstream classrooms. With regard to gifted and talented students its aim is to support higher achieving student needs by using the same modifications and adaptions to curriculum.
Swiss International Scientific School Dubai works closely with external services to support students that need Occupational Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy and implement recommendations from external learning centers in the classroom.
The school currently employs 39 teachers with 57 teaching staff in total. That gives the school a teacher to student ratio of 1:7. The school told us it has a "rich mix of staff," adding that is is "important to employ recently-qualified teachers because they have cutting edge knowledge gained from up-to-date professional study. That said, more experienced colleagues are quick to absorb this expertise and provide excellent mentors."
Teachers are recruited from around the world, "as long as they are native speakers". English speaking teachers come from UK, Australia, USA, Canada, Ireland and S. Africa. French teachers from France and Switzerland. German teachers from Germany and Switzerland and Arabic teachers from Iraq, Syria and Egypt. More teachers have been recruited for the school's second year, from a slightly wider geographical range. Teaching staff will come from Switzerland, UK, US, France, Germany, Austria, Australia, Canada and Ireland.
School drop-off time starts at 8 am. For Early Years students (Pre-KG, KG1 and KG2), lessons start at 8.30 am and run until 2 pm. Early Years children have the option to remain at school until 3.30pm for after-school activities and a hot lunch option is served in class to keep children going until this time. Primary school hours are from 8.20 am until 3.35 pm with after-school activities until 4.45 pm. The school operates a number of buses to popular residential areas of Dubai.
SISD's list of after school activities is impressive, many of these are free, however activities provided by external providers each have a fee.
Tuition fees we have noted are premium, ranging from 65,000 to 110,000 AED. This is, however, an ambitious school, and there is no doubt those fees are going into creating something rather unique. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com will be keeping close tabs on SISD to see how the innovative plans unfold.
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