The Swiss International Scientific School Dubai (SISD) lies in a somewhat unusual location for a school – on the banks of the Dubai Creek in Dubai Healthcare City, Al Jaddaf. Whilst there is little in the way of a local ‘neighbourhood’ for the school at the present time, this location affords spectacular water or Dubai skyline views for many of the classrooms and student spaces. The school is served by the Al Khail Road and is easily accessed from Nad Al Sheba, Jumeirah, Business Bay, DIFC, Downtown, Festival City and more. In fact, despite not within a residential community (as many Dubai schools now are) we imagine that SISD is an efficient “en-route to work” drop off for many working parents.
This highly impressive and expansive campus is one of only two of boarding schools in the UAE at present. We went along for our second Experience visit to see how this bilingual, IB school has transitioned from being a ‘new’ school, to an established player on the UAE education scene.
Our first impression of SISD is a sense of friendly calm and watertight organisation. Our arrival has clearly been anticipated by the security guards on the gate, who greet us by name and direct our reviewer to just the right spot to park. Inside, we are required to complete the visitor register on an ipad, and have our photograph taken to accompany our registration. We commend such attention to detail; nothing is more important than the safety and security of children in schools and at SISD this is clearly a top priority.
We are greeted by Caterina Perlini, from the marketing team at SISD. Ms Perlini offers our Reviewer a coffee in the very comfortable (and clearly well liked, judging by the number of parents sat chatting over coffee!) Parents Café, before we move into the main school buildings for the order of the day. Inside, we are seated in a board room that wouldn’t be out of place in a top tier investment bank – think acres of glass, bright white furniture and chrome accent décor, top quality AV equipment and something we find to be unusual in many schools, a decent visitor wifi connection! In these very comfortable surroundings, we begin a series of meetings to explore the feel and ethos of this school.
We meet four SISD parents with children attending the school between ages 7 and 18. Exploring their feelings on the school, we hear a consistent message…summarised by two parents as “this school doesn’t do things just for optics – what you see is what you get” and “it may look grand, but it’s more than that, the atmosphere and pastoral care are superb”. We felt that as an ultra-premium fee school this message must be key to parent satisfaction and we were glad to hear it expressed in a number of different ways and in reference to children of different ages.
When it came to value for money, one parent said that “of course, this is a super expensive school, we all know that. But the value you get for your investment is just incredible”. This feeling concurred with the results of our PARENT SURVEY, from which 67% of respondents “totally agreed” with the statement “I think the fees I pay represent good value for money given the quality of the school offering”. Positive news indeed.
The parents had a diverse range of reasons for choosing the school. First, and most importantly for the panel is the “inclusivity” of the school community. “There is a real sense of connection here. There’s absolutely no cliques, everyone is made welcome right from the start” said one SISD Mum.
Of course, the bilingual, IB curriculum was a significant factor for selecting this school. For all of the families we meet, there is a language and cultural connection. For example, we meet one Swiss family and one French/English speaking Canadian family. Parents praised the high quality language tuition… “you should hear the French teachers… they speak the most beautiful French!”. Languages aside, the parent panel also liked the IB curriculum and the project based learning it requires, which had helped their children to become “more thoughtful and more independent”. Homework is at “just the right level” and wasn’t seen as a burden by the parents.
The parents were keen to praise all the teachers, who “go so far beyond what you might expect of them”. The quality of the teachers was a significant factor for our PARENT SURVEY respondents too, with 47% citing “qualifications of staff” as a top priority in their school selection. Parents gave examples of “above and beyond the call” teaching as staff giving 3 hours of extra tuition on Saturdays, for those children who may need extra support.
Communication between home and school was described as “a true communication” with the teachers and management both available and accessible to parents. That said, the parents would love there to be a school app, as a central hub for all communication and messages.
SISD parents felt that the school was entering an exciting new time, with two new phase Heads (Elise Furr in Secondary and Emmanuel Gauthier in Primary, who we meet later during our visit) primed to bring about updates and changes throughout the school.
If there was one significant change the parents would like at their school, it was for the team to create more opportunities for “student voice and student leadership”.
Next in our busy day at SISD, we meet with Norbert Foerster, Head of School and Luke Osborne, Deputy Head of School.
Both Mr Foerster and Mr Osborne have significant experience of schools in Switzerland, with Mr Foerster having previously been Head of the Institut International de Lancy in Geneva and President of the Swiss Federation of Private Schools. Mr Osborne, a Cambridge University trained teacher, has previously worked as a House Master in a Swiss Boarding School.
We asked Mr Foerster and Mr Osborne “what comes next” for this school, currently rated “Good” by the KHDA.
“We will continue to align our curriculum with the KHDA inspection framework and develop the curriculum and programme. There have been some challenges in aligning bilingualism with the local inspection framework, but we continue to adapt and we are very happy with the progress we have made. For the future, we want to develop more pathways into industry, in particular with the hospitality industry, which aligns so well with the economies of both Switzerland and Dubai” said Mr Foerster.
Mr Osborne went on to say that the boarding facility is now well established and continues to grow. “Dubai as a city has the ambition to be a hub for education” he said “this school...being diverse, international, bilingual and a boarding school too, well we can really facilitate that”.
Elise Furr has recently joined SISD from Deira International School in Dubai Festival City. We asked Ms Furr to describe her impressions of the school. She told us “of course, the bilingualism is key, but that is not all we are about…there is a distinct focus on kindness in relationships and on encouraging real entrepreneurialism. Our children are confident and we have great partnerships with parents too”. When it comes to language support, the school operates a “push in and pull out” [of classes] support system, depending on the student’s individual needs.
Ms Furr said that she felt that the school has “quiet strengths” – especially in the “amazing breadth" of the curriculum. “We have a whole department just focused on extra-curricular activities”, Miss Furr enthused. “Their role is to provide the administration support, quality assurance and careful monitoring and child safeguarding in all our extra-curricular activities”. Ms Furr was also keen to highlight the importance of sports at SISD, telling our Reviewer that in many sports the school is now fielding A, B and C teams to give all children a chance at competitive play.
In Primary, Emmanuel Gauthier (previously of Brighton College, Abu Dhabi) has been leading the school since September. Clearly very proud to be a part of SISD, Mr Gauthier told our team that this school “doesn’t ever feel like a business, I find that so refreshing”. He praised the school owners and leadership for being visible and supportive. His role as he sees it is to “reinforce the many strengths and address any weaknesses”. Already he sees that the school has found a “model that really works” implemented by teachers who are “next level teachers”.
To round off our meetings with the teaching team, we last meet with Head of Early Years, Amina Eldifrawi and her Deputy, Sone Duplessis. The two Early Years specialists tell us of their pride at running a Reggio and Montessori inspired department in an “amazing” environment. “It’s really very special in Early Years here” said Ms Eldifrawi, “we have personalised learning right from the start, in these huge classrooms with fantastic indoor and outdoor spaces…we are very fortunate!”. For the future, the Early Years department intend to “perfect the bilingual model and be even more daring with the curriculum”.
To hear more about teaching life at SISD, click here to meet Ashley Fitzgibbons, WSA Future School Leader.
We meet a group of Grade 7-13 students all of whom had been with the school for 3-4 years.
The students were clear on what makes their school stand out… “the facilities and the opportunities we get”. A very mature outlook!
The students spoke positively about their teachers, saying that the teachers “genuinely care”, “really want you to succeed” and look after new students “so well, it really helps instant friendships to form”.
The demands of the IB Diploma were clearly weighing on the older students, who did say that their workload was heavy. The older students said that the extra-curricular programme was good, but that often they didn’t have time to take part in these complementary activities as they study “late into the night”. Some of the students mentioned that they would like to see school resources “used more efficiently” adding that “I’ve never had chance to go on that climbing wall!”
Students like their uniform, especially that they are allowed to wear their (less formal and more comfortable) PE kits most of the time. Food could be better, with all the students agreeing that the previous food provider had provided a tastier option.
What other improvements would the students like at their school? Our panel mentioned some “unnecessarily strict rules”, for example not being allowed to carry backpacks, creating some challenging logistics getting the right resources and books to the right classes. Although students felt the sports were good, the “spirit is missing here for some sports, we need more supporters!”
Lastly, one student had a mild rebuke for parents… “When we are organising events, the PFA sometimes come in and take over… We want them to stay back and let us do it!”
There are schools in Dubai with premium facilities in Dubai and then there is SISD. This striking, beautifully designed campus offers everything one would expect from a premium, high end school and much more. All the boxes are ticked, from the incredible sports facilities, swimming pools, a huge climbing wall right through to music, ICT and performance spaces.
The Boarding Houses at SISD have the air of an upscale modern hotel. Separate boys and girls houses are located near to the sports fields (a third block houses many of the teachers) and are comfortably equipped with everything a child could need. The dorm rooms are mostly shared by two children.
Throughout the school, the architecture and design is thoughtful and calming (we especially love the wall of coloured pencils, seen in many of the SISD promotional photographs and we understand why!). That said, what really impressed our Reviewer was the square metres given over to simply “open space”. There is no stinting on space to just “be” at SISD. In secondary, a gigantic, broad staircase acts as a hub between the classrooms. We saw older students relaxing, chatting and studying whilst sat on the stairs. Compensating for the surfeit of indoor space is a sustainable building design. SISD is the first building in the MENA region to be built to Swiss Sustainable Building standards.
The inviting spaces at SISD create an atmosphere of relaxed and modern grandeur. In fact, if we had to pick one phrase to describe SISD, “modern grandeur” would certainly be it.
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