Despite being a not-for-profit and under the patronage of the Aga Khan, this very impressive pre-school is for all faiths and is wholly secular in its approach.
Operating mostly in developing countries across Asia and Africa, AKES chose to open a nursery in Dubai to be a training hub and centre of excellence in the region.
Staff from the Dubai centre travel to developing countries to share their skills and expertise (we met one teacher about to head off to an Aga Khan nursery in Tajikistan), and often staff from other countries will visit the Dubai branch for training and educational experiences.
Aga Khan Education Services is a secular organisation, and aims to help people of all faiths, genders and nationalities. This is reflected in the AKELC, which is also entirely secular and attended by children of many different faiths.
The AKELC is housed in a truly stunning building connected to the Ismaili Cultural Centre in the Oud Metha area of Dubai. This is a convenient location for local residents, and many walk to the nursery from the surrounding apartment buildings. We felt that it would also be a good location for parents working in nearby Healthcare City.
Our team were wowed by the architecture as soon as we entered. Traditional Arabic design features such as domed roof tops, archways and beautiful windows can be found throughout. Corridors are light and wide (large enough to be used for small group activities), windows are large (with thoughtfully lowered window sills so that children can always see out) and classrooms incredibly spacious, allowing the whole centre an air of calm, despite being busy on the morning of our visit.
We were given a warm welcome by Kelli Allen, Head of Nursery and Preschool and Irnesa Hodzic, HR and Operations Manager. Security procedures were followed: our ID was checked and we were asked to sign in and wear a visitor badge. We had parked on the street in a nearby paid parking bay, but the team were quick to point out that there was plentiful free parking for parents and visitors in the car park beneath the building.
Before our tour, we spent a few minutes chatting to Jumana and Rozina, two AKELC Mums who have 3 and 4 year old children attending the centre. Jumana’s son had experienced some separation anxiety in his first weeks at nursery, but she had been incredibly impressed with how gently the team had handled this and how much he had now progressed in a short space of time. Even on his days off he now wanted to come to nursery! Rozina talked about parent–teacher communication, saying how much she liked the regular newsletters, end of term reports and parent and teacher meetings. Both felt that the centre offered a lot to the community, and had a real “family” feel to it. Both Mums also appreciated that the nursery provided a healthy, balanced menu, which their children enjoyed. Food is included in the regular fees.
We also met Nadia, a parent volunteer (one of around 20 community volunteers, all of whom are vetted and given training before working with the children) who run the centre’s library. The AKELC library is a well stocked lending library, with children of all ages encouraged to borrow library books each week. All children, even the very youngest, visit the library for around 30 minutes per day. Nadia was also incredibly positive about the AKELC and was delighted to be able to give her time to help.
Kelli then took us on a tour of the facility. We were taken again impressed by the size of the classrooms and by the variety of activities on offer in each. We saw children who had created a hospital and were ‘helping’ a very understanding teacher (!), using cars for a maths activity, learning to spell their own names in English and in Arabic and lots of creative activities in each room.
Kelli told us that classrooms can accommodate up to 24 children, but during the day the children are kept in two groups of 12, ensuring that staff:child ratios are kept very low. All of the classrooms have access to the outdoors – a real bonus on a beautiful morning such as when we visited. We love seeing children able to have a ‘free flow’ of both indoor and outdoor activities. Outdoor areas are equipped with age appropriate climbing equipment, trikes and bikes. Inside, there is also an enormous gym to ensure children get plenty of exercise even in the hottest months.
The AKELC is an EYFS setting, and teachers use an “emergent’ style of planning – topics are chosen based upon the interests of the children and are followed for as long as the children are engaged and learning. For example, construction work in the local area meant that many children were passing a building site on the way to nursery, and were coming to class chattering excitedly about what they had seen. Teachers were planning to look at “Construction” for a forthcoming theme of work.
This style of learning and educating is something of a passion for Kelli. Now in her third year with the AKELC, Kelli’s career has spanned 5 different countries as a teacher, trainer, consultant and manager. In fact, it was on a Training and Quality Assurance visit that Kelli came across the AKELC – she was so impressed by the centre, the staff and the ethos that she quickly joined the team. Kelli had only praise for her teaching staff, all of whom have a degree in Education or Early Childhood or a degree plus a vocational certificate. Kelli was keen to point out that the centre had several accolades, notably an exemplary rating from the well regarded National Day Nurseries Association in the UK.
Each classroom has one qualified English speaking teacher, a qualified Arabic speaking teacher (all lessons and classes are truly bilingual) plus a number of Teaching and Classroom assistants to ensure that ratios are kept very low (as follows):
Extra-curricular activities including soccer, dance and music are offered during the afternoon sessions. The centre is open from 7.00am to 5.00pm. There are three terms plus, Spring, Summer and Winter camps.
The centre operates a ‘100%’ inclusive admissions policy and is adapted for wheelchair access.
We later spent a few minutes with Fazilat, a teacher who had been with the AKELC for 5 years. Impressively, Fazilat had was the National Day Nurseries Association – Runner Up – Practitioner of the Year in 2017, beating nominees from across the UK and internationally. She told us that she felt valued and supported by the management team, and that her own professional development was important to them. She described the centre as a “hidden gem’ and an ‘ever evolving project’.
Overall, we felt that the AKELC was a setting worth shouting about. This is a beautiful nursery that is focused on implementing a truly child led and holistic programme, with superb, committed and qualified staff and impressively low fees (8-5pm, 5 days per week is priced at 12,690 AED per term).
We recommend that local parents take a look.
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