The Aquila School opened in September 2018. Located in the new neighbourhood of Wadi Al Safa, an area of Dubailand that runs between the Al Ain road and The Centro/Villa communities, the school is surrounded by numerous high rise, apartment complexes. Once construction is complete Aquila will be a school right in the heart of a densely populated community.
The Aquila School (TAS), owned by International Schools Partnership (ISP), an international education provider with over 45 schools in 12 countries educating over 50,000 students, opened in September 2018. The school is located on a purpose-built site opposite Dubai Silicon Oasis at Wadi Al Safa, an area set at the centre of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road, the Al Ain Road and the Emirates Road junctions. ISP also owns UK curriculum Aspen Heights British School and Reach British School in Abu Dhabi, as well as US curriculum Nibras International School in Dubai.
The word ‘Aquila’ comes from a constellation on the celestial equator. Its name is Latin for 'eagle' and represents the bird that carried Zeus/Jupiter's thunderbolts in Greco-Roman mythology - hence the incorporation of a bird in the school's logo.
The Aquila School is ISP's first new-build-from-scratch project. It is considered to be the flagship school of the company.
Find out more about these strikingly attractive buildings and the school's facilities by reading our Experience Visit report here!
Having initially opened with just under 70 students, numbers had grown to just under 160 by early 2019 and have continued to expand to just over 850 students in March 2022. The overall capacity of the school, which is designed as an all-through environment for students aged 3 to 18 years, is 1,300. Initially offering education from foundation stage (FS) 1 to year 6, TAS is growing one year group each a year, with year 7 having opened in September 2019, year 8 in September 2020 and Year 9 in September 2021, year 10 will open in August 2022.
In late 2021, the school announced that it had received approval from Pearson/Edexcel to deliver IGCSE and A level studies and examinations from September 2022 and that it was in consultation with the KHDA to obtain approval to open Year 12 admissions for September 2022
The current cohort of children come from 45 different countries. The highest proportion of students are defined by the KHDA as Arabs, made up mainly of Egyptians and Jordanians. Students come also from India, the UK and Pakistan. The school's nationalities represent a blended mix of 43% Arab, 31% western and. 22% Asian passport holders.
Throughout the school, the maximum class size will be 24. The school has a clear hiring policy in order to maintain child:adult ratios - when an open class reaches 18 students, a new teacher is hired and a further classroom opened. The aim is to ensure a teacher:student ratio of not more than 1: 12 in the Foundation Stage and Year 1, 1:18 in Years 2 to 6, and 1:24 in the Secondary phase. The school currently has a slightly higher proportion of male to female students at 57:42.
At the time of the KHDA inspection in March 2022, the teacher:student ratio across the school was 1:13.
In a full Foundation Stage classroom, there is one Teacher and two Learning Support Assistants. In Years 1 and 2, there is one Teacher plus one Learning Support Assistant in each class. Years 3 – 6 have one shared Learning Support Assistant per year group. Whilst students come from a range of nationalities, almost all teachers are from the UK or are native English speakers - all class teachers have UK experience and qualifications.
Overall, at the present time, TAS has 65 Teachers and 32 Learning support staff. The school believes that a good mix of experience represents the real focus of the school which is teaching based on the individual needs of each child. Mid-level staff are employed to support teachers and give guidance, whilst the senior team sets priorities and strategy MOE subjects’ teachers come from various Arab countries with several years of experience and KHDA qualifications.
One of the most impressive features of the school is the background of the Principal and key staff. Wayne Howsen, his Head of Primary, Kylie Cleworth, and three further staff members had all worked together for the previous seven years at one of Abu Dhabi's leading - and ADEK Outstanding-rated - schools.
Hiring teachers is serious business at The Aquila School, with Principal Mr. Howsen, pointing out that in order to select the launch teaching team, more than 400 teachers were interviewed. The management team has very clear criteria for their teachers, many of whom will have taught at ‘challenging’ schools in their previous roles ‘because if you can teach brilliantly in a really difficult school’, Howsen remarked, ‘you can teach brilliantly anywhere. We want teachers who are willing to be independent and creative, who can give our children amazing experiences but are also ready to be held accountable for making sure every child fulfils their potential as an individual. Here ‘progress is King’ and we need teachers who are really driven to make that happen.’
In return for their commitment to the school, teachers can expect to receive high quality training and development - crucial for career growth - with approximately 2% of the school budget going to this purpose annually. With staff turnover of 10% - well below the UAE average of 22-24%, and this figure also including new hires as the school expands - it seems that teachers at TAS are more than happy with their employer.
With the anticipated growth of the Secondary section, in May 2021, the school's owners, ISP announced the appointment of a Head of Secondary for The Aquila School.
Benjamin Atkins joined the school in September 2021. A Fellow of the UK’s Chartered College of Teaching, Benjamin arrived with an array of educational experiences, most recently from another popular school in Dubai. As part of his role, Benjamin, brings extensive knowledge of the UK and IB curricula. He is responsible for further developing the Secondary School, ensuring even more success for the students who attend the school.
As a further sign of clear commitment to the quality of education that will be delivered at The Aquila School, and perhaps as a result of his experience in Abu Dhabi, where the ADEK inspection process takes place in the first year of a school opening (rather than, in Dubai, after a 'bedding in' period of three years), Mr. Howsen arranged for The Aquila School to be visited by inspectors from British Schools Overseas in early 2019.
BSO inspections take place on behalf of the UK Department of Education and are based on the same inspection process and structure as implemented within schools in England. As such, the inspection attests to the quality of a British school overseas in direct comparison with state schools in the UK.
This was an exceptionally bold decision, based on our experience of new schools, which usually need significant time to settle and to become fully operational. But even more impressive than the decision to organise an inspection in the first year, was the inspection outcome - The Aquila School came away from it with an Outstanding rating!
In May 2022, the KHDA published the first DSIB inspection report for The Aquila School. The school achieved a Good rating, the highest rating that new schools have thus far achieved on their first inspection.
Further details of the inspection can be found here.
The Aquila school’s mission is to ensure every child loves coming to school and makes as much progress as possible. Indeed, the school commits to much more. Its promise says: We are dedicated to delivering Amazing Learning, to ensure your child makes as much progress as possible. To do this, we are committed to:
- Placing children at the heart of everything we do
- Empowering children to make decisions about their own learning
- Providing an amazing curriculum in English and Arabic
- Employing the very best British trained and qualified teachers
- Ensuring every child makes as much progress as possible
The Aquila School offers the British Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum in FS and the English National Curriculum for years 1 to 9. It will eventually be a through school, and in recognition of its international student body, will offer iGCSE at Year 11, and BTEC with either the International Baccalaureate Career Related Programme, International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or A Levels for Years 12 and 13.
TAS is the latest school to choose to consider adopting BTEC/IB curricula for its Sixth Form students - following other highly regarded - and Outstanding-rated - Dubai schools such as Jumeirah English Speaking School and Repton. BTEC is still relatively rare in the UAE, but according to TAS "underpins the ethos of the school reflecting children having choices in their learning." As well as implementing the curriculum for England, assessments are based on national standards from the UK.
However, with the announcement by the UK Government in July 2022 of the discontinuation of the BTEC qualification, in all but a very small number of subjects, in favour of T Levels, it remains to be seen whether the International BTEC which will continue to be offered in the UAE will remain a popular option.
The school also confirmed that it intends to offer the IB Diploma Programme, having now received already received approval to offer A Levels.
The curriculum followed in Foundation Stage is based on the UK’s EYFS guidance, adapted to have a global dimension and more relevance to students living in the UAE. From FS1, students have the opportunity to take part in weekly PE, swimming and music lessons with specialist teachers. Both native and non-native Arabic speakers take part in Arabic lessons throughout the week.
Core subjects in the Primary School include the National Curriculum for England and Wales subjects (English, maths, history, geography, computing, science, art and design technology, PE, swimming, music) , Arabic and Islamic Studies, together with addition of Moral Education and Social Studies (from Year 2), and Spanish (from Year 3 to 6).
The curriculum in Years 7 and 8 includes English, maths, history, geography, computing, Sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), art, design and technology, Spanish, PE, swimming, music), moral education, Arabic, Islamic and Social Studies.
Whilst the core of the curriculum is set, teachers are empowered to group areas of learning together to create topics which are of interest and of relevance to children in their class. The school emphasises and values cross-curricular learning, so that children make links between different subjects. Teachers are encouraged and empowered to teach students what they need to learn ‘right now’, therefore promoting creativity, independent learning and resilience. Each class has a varied and engaging curriculum that is tailor-made to their current learning needs.
TAS works hard to ensure that every lesson is directly relevant to students’ needs. The curriculum encompasses a range of events and strategies such as 'mantle of the expert', enquiry-based learning, themed weeks such as enterprise week, global week, celebrating differences, safety, Amazing Aquila week and love of reading events. These themed weeks bring the whole school community together with a focus on the school’s key aim of providing ‘amazing learning’.
Students are encouraged to be inquisitive and creative, and to make their own learning choices - in FS, this forms a significant part of the school day. Enquiry-based learning is at the forefront of teaching strategies used to implement the curriculum. The curriculum encourages students to direct their own learning through collaborative group problem solving. This enables them to apply skills and knowledge in a meaningful context. It also facilitates the development of critical thinking and communication skills.
The Aquila way is very successful in fostering in students a sense of self-motivation, the ability to apply intellectual, physical and creative effort, and a real interest in their work. It also involves having fun.
Class groups are given inspiring names at The Aquila School, all of which reflect the ‘STEAM enhanced British Curriculum (STEAM being an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) around which the school develops all learning. So, rather than a typical ‘Class A and Class B’, at The Aquila School classes are, for example, named ‘Engineers’ and ‘Innovators’. A small point, perhaps, but we rather like to envisage children thinking of themselves with such aspirational labels.
The school embeds sustainability into many aspects of the curriculum, with the children growing their own food and eventually using their own produce to prepare seasonal dishes in the Food Technology room (image below). Aquila children also have the chance to learn to care for animals such as rabbits and birds.
In addition to learning in classrooms, the school usually offers a broad range of optional after-school activities which run by the staff, but chosen by the children. Covid 19 restrictions that there have been inevitable alterations in this context.
Last year, based on student choice, there was a whole range of 46 CAS activities available – cultural, educational and creative. These included drama, debating, programing, basketball, tennis, making eco bird feeders, gardening, Quran, Arabic calligraphy, cookery, baking, glee, creative writing and art, to name but a few. External CAS activities vary according to what ]families would like. These activities, coupled with an extensive range of external visits, including residential stays, and regular visitors, are designed to enhance the broad and interesting curriculum.
A benefit of ISP ownership is that The Aquila School is able to provide pupils with a series of international opportunities such as an International buddy exchange programme and chess competition. Students are not yet offered international trips, but can expect these options in Years 12 and 13.
Arguably, one of the benefits of education in Abu Dhabi, at least from a parental perspective, has been the policy by the Ministry of Education and by ADEK, not to permit schools to assess students before offering a place. Admissions are generally on a wait-list basis and once a place is offered, schools are then required to put in place the necessary support if students have additional learning needs or are Gifted and Talented.
The Inclusive Education Policy launched by the KHDA four years ago, also aims to support a process whereby parents are enabled to identify schools and receive support for their children, whatever their educational need.
At The Aquila School, individualised learning and inclusive practice is a consistent theme of the school. Nowhere better is this demonstrated than by visiting Hemam (which means Determined in Arabic).
Hemam is an independent, specialist learning support centre based in the main building of The Aquila School. The school actively tries to be as inclusive as possible, providing 1-1 therapy for children with very complex needs. These students then integrate into class as and when appropriate.
The Hemam team offers support to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental delays integrating a multi-disciplinary approach, including Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Applied Behavioural Analysis. Hemam services are an additional cost to The Aquila School fees.
This integrated approach has a number of benefits for children and families; the children are able to gently and gradually integrate with mainstream classes, they learn social skills and become familiar with the school environment and, so importantly for families of children with additional needs, the support and therapy that is needed can be delivered during normal school hours, freeing parents and children from filling their down time with multiple specialists in multiple locations.
The Heman team provides three different levels of support:
Level 1: normal learning support provided by the inclusion team with no extra charges;
Level 2: 1:1 support teacher hired by the family for excessive learning needs. The Support teacher works closely with the school inclusion team. The market rate for a Support teacher is approximately AED 8,000 per month which is paid directly by the family;
Level 3: The Hemam centre will provide ABA therapy support for autistic children. The ABA therapist will work closely with the school inclusion team in parallel with Hemam management to ensure both therapy and academic plans are delivered. Fees for therapy sessions are paid to Hemam and are approximately AED 16,000 per month.
The inclusion of a supportive and inclusive initiative such as Hemam appears to be very much in sync with the ethos of the school.
With 75 students of Determination registered with the school at the time of the 2022 KHDA inspection, the DSIB inspectors found that "Procedures for the identification of students of determination and those who are gifted and talented are appropriate." However, the overall rating for the Provision and Outcomes for Students of Determination was Acceptable.
Whilst the inspectors acknowledged that governors and leaders communicated an inclusive ethos that is reflected in the diversity of abilities and starting points of the students, there were areas of specific improvement that are required. These included the need to improve the quality of individual education plans so that teachers can meet students’ needs more effectively, and can measure students’ progress more accurately, and to ensure that teachers monitor students’ progress carefully and inform the inclusion team of any support which they may require.
The Aquila School is housed in strikingly attractive buildings which have been locally recognised for their design. The school had been open for barely a week before it won its first award - The Best Design Education Project of the Year at the Design Middle East awards 2018. We can see why it won: The exterior is dominated by a curved steel structure over the main entrance, while the remaining buildings are sleek in design and coherently and neatly linked together.
Aquila has a dedicated building for performances and sport, with a large, sound-proofed auditorium (with stage, seating, sound proofed walls and modern sound and lighting equipment) on the ground floor. Above this sits the primary school sports hall and, one more flight up on the second floor, the secondary sports hall. The facilities are sufficiently spacious for three games to take place at once.
Immediately outside of the sports block are the swimming pools, one a smaller 90cm training pool for younger children and novice swimmers and one a large 25m pool for competitive swimming. Both are heated and chilled as the season dictates. Further on, there is a playing field offering a full size football/rugby pitch and a multi sports court for basketball, netball and tennis.
The remaining outdoor space is predominantly used for free play, other than an area designated for the schools own Hydroponics farm, where all Aquila children have the opportunity to grow their own fruits and vegetables at school.
Back inside the main building, entry is via CCTV monitored, secure doors. On arrival, a security guard had issues visitors with a lanyard, which are colour coded for parents, visitors and contractors. There is secure fencing around the perimeter of the school and a sensibly laid out parking zone for parents to safely pick and drop their children with security offices at either end.
At reception, visitors' credentials are checked again and they sign in before being admitted to the school. This process gave visitors time to admire the modern reception area, where triple height windows create an airy and bright space, dominated by a rather grand wood and glass sweeping stair case.
The very modern and business-like welcome is given colour, character and some serious squawks by The Aquila School’s own parrot, the first of many planned animal inhabitants of the school. His presence certainly adds an air of fun as both children and their parents enter the school. The overall feeling is efficient and welcoming, visually and literally. Parents are welcomed to tour the school, both by English and Arabic speaking guides…
To the left of the main entrance is a café, the ‘Parrot Café’ which is open both to parents and members of the wider community. A menu of healthy, varied school lunches are prepared in house by the Parrot Café team, which can be purchased throughout the year.
Behind and above the administration area sit the classrooms, specialist learning rooms (notably a Design Technology room equipped with a 3D printer, the Food Technology room, a well-stocked and open plan library, dance and drama studios and a Guided Reading room). The music room can also be seen, where children have access to Apple Mac computers for music production activities. Near to the music room is a larger performance and rehearsals room.
At present, the school operates on all three floors of the building, with Foundation Stage and Key Stage One on the ground floor, progressing up the year groups to reach secondary on the second floor. Each ground floor classroom has doors out onto an outside area (fenced) which the foundation children can use for free play, project work, crafts and messy activities. Primary and secondary pupils also have access to all of the facilities throughout the school, including a specialist computer suite and learning hub.
In every zone of the school, classrooms are bright and have ample natural light. The slightly unconventional floor plans have allowed teachers to create cosy corners for reading and group activities such as Circle Time. Each Foundation Stage classroom has its own adjacent washroom and is well stocked with books, toys and resources. In the Foundation Stage outdoor areas, there is good quality, challenging play equipment, such as mini climbing walls, sandpits and wooden water play tables. For ease, and for the children’s safety and security, the Foundation Stage has its own entrance and reception area. Throughout the school, and including Foundation Stage, each classroom is equipped with an interactive screen.
Find out and see more of the facilities at The Aquila School by reading our Experience Visit report here.
Also on the ground floor are two smaller play areas, one of which houses climbing equipment and an unusual (and obviously popular!) stone chess table. The other, smaller, has construction and inventive play items for the younger children. The Foundation Stage also has its own small indoor soft play and continuous provision area for letting off steam their regular free-flow time on those hotter days.
Overall there is no doubt that The Aquila School makes an impressive sight, with its unusual lay-out, hidden corners and curves, colourful backdrop and excellent resources.
As far as we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com recollect, this is the first school review we have published, where an external inspection has taken place prior to that of the accredited UAE inspection team - in Dubai's case, the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau on behalf of the KHDA.
The purpose of the British Schools Overseas inspection is to provide information to parents, teachers, senior managers and the school’s management on the overall effectiveness of the school, the standard of education it provides and its compatibility with independent schools in the United Kingdom.
As we alluded to earlier, The Aquila School clearly made a significant impact on the BSO inspection team. Their summary of their findings is impressive to say the least - especially in a school that was only six months old when the inspection visit took place.
"The Aquila school is already an outstanding school which is delivering its mission, ‘to ensure every child loves coming to school and makes as much progress as possible’. Parents are highly supportive of the school and value the opportunities it provides for their children. Leadership is outstanding: quirky, sometimes eccentric but always highly effective. There is a real sense of community and an idiosyncratic approach to life: whilst focussing on real learning and what children need ‘right now’, there is frequent laughter that often fills the corridors, classrooms and playgrounds. There is high quality teaching which focusses on supporting ‘amazing learning’ for all pupils. The personal development of the pupils is excellent."
In summarising their inspection, the inspectors noted that "there are many strengths", including:
The following areas were identified for development:
The report is a comprehensive one and we have not gone into full detail here. However, if you would like to read the report - and we would strongly advise you to do so - you will find it here.
One comment made by the inspection team - and which perhaps hinted as to how the KHDA inspectors might view The Aquila School when they make their first formal inspection in 2021-22 - was: "Baseline data suggests a low academic starting point for many of the pupils: progress data already suggests they are learning fast. Midyear data analysis shows that in EYFS progress is outstanding overall and in years 1 to 6 progress overall is very good, by reference to the local government regulator’s framework." Interestingly, the DSIB inspection team did not arrive at similar views and ratings.
The first KHDA inspection, carried out by the DSIB inspection team in March 2022 (a year later than originally planned due to the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic), rated The Aquila School Good overall. Given the very high praise heaped upon the school by the BSO team, this might come as something of a surprise.
However, there are a number of key points to bear in mind. TAS was a much smaller and younger school when the inspection by the BSO team took place in 2019, and the inspection process carried out in Dubai by the DSIB team has a very clear set of performance standards which are specific to the UAE education sector and to the UAE National Agenda. To-date, the highest rating awarded to any UAE school on first inspection is Good - but within that overall rating, schools have been awarded both Very Good and Outstanding ratings for specific key performance measures. In some ways, TAS disappoints in that it has not achieved as many of these higher ratings as we might have expected.
In terms of Student Achievement, TAS achieved Good ratings across every subject (both those taught in English and Arabic), with one exception - an Acceptable rating for Arabic as a first language attainment in both Primary and Secondary section. We would point out, that for any school to be rated as highly in Arabic taught subjects as in English taught subjects is a rare one! Too often Arabic and Islamic Studies lag behind English, maths and Science.
Both Teaching and Assessment and the Curriculum, the two key performance standards that have the greatest impact on Student Achievement were also rated Good across the board. Students' Understanding of Islamic values and awareness of Emirati and world cultures, together with their Social responsibility and innovation skills were also rated Good. So too, was the Care and Support provided to students and the majority of ratings related to Leadership and Management.
Where TAS did perform above the minimum overall rating that the KHDA wishes all schools to achieve (that of Good), was with respect to Students' personal development, Health and safety including arrangements for child protection and safeguarding, and for the Management, staffing, facilities and resources - these three key performance standards were all rated Very Good.
The DSIB inspection team found the strengths of The Aquila School to be:
In terms of areas of improvement, the inspection team recommended that TAS:
If you would like to read the full DSIB inspection report - and we strongly recommend that you do so in order to understand the reasons behind the ratings and the detailed recommendations for improvement - you will find it here.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com has a received a limited number of responses to our School Survey for The Aquila School. But with an overall rating of 4.0 of 5, clearly our respondents are fairly happy. 88% were satisfied with the level of academic achievement at TAS, with only 11% feeling that additional external tuition was required. Parents also felt that the school is inclusive, and the majority were either fully (74%) or partially (13%) satisfied with the level of feedback they receive and with the school's disciplinary policy and implementation. If parents are largely satisfied, so it seems, are their children - over 95% were said to enjoy going to school.
If there is a niggle, it would seem to be the perennial one of school fees, with 67% saying that they represent good value for money, but with 21% of the remaining parents partially agreeing with this statement and 12% disagreeing. We wonder whether this is the main reason why 'only' 83% of parents would recommend the school to others, and the firm response of the remaining 17% that they would not.
The level of satisfaction with The Aquila School has changed quite considerably over the past twelve months - we really would like to hear from more parents to ensure a truly representative view.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at The Aquila School, please share your opinions and experience with other potential members of your community by completing our survey here.
The KHDA did not carry out their usual pre-inspection survey with parents for any of the schools inspected for the first time in 2022. The inspectors did note in the report for TAS that "Parents have many opportunities to contribute to the direction of the school. They welcome the regular surveys. They feel that their opinions are listened to and taken into account. Parents of all groups of students value the range of ways in which they learn about their children’s development."
We asked The Aquila School what they felt made them different from other schools in the UAE and this was their response:
'The community feeling and the individual focus are really an attraction for families. Most of our new families are coming based on referrals and positive feedback from current families.'
We are impressed by the fact that staff are very focused on developing the whole child. Before a child starts at the school, a meeting is held with parents to explain how the child’s personal development can be promoted and encouraged, so parents can focus on any areas before the child starts school. Once at the school, all are encouraged to be independent, and this helps their personal and social development.
We also take our hats off to the management of The Aquila School for having set up, opened and implemented everything they promised - as attested to by a highly qualified independent inspection team - to ensure that all the children studying at TAS really would be given the opportunity to experience Amazing Learning.
Now we would like to see the school move forward with the recommendations from the DSIB, so that parents can feel a similar sense of satisfaction and trust that The Aquila School is moving forward in those areas where the inspectors felt improvement was required and is really on track to deliver its promises as new students join and current students progress through the Secondary school and onto Sixth Form.
The Aquila School KHDA approved fees start at AED 45,000 for FS1 and rise to AED 60,000 for Year 8. Approved fees for Years 9 and 10 are AED 66,000 rising to AED 72,000 for Years 12 and 13.
However, the school is offering a 15% discount scheme which brings the fees to AED 38,250 for FS1, rising to AED 56,100 for Year 10 and 11 and AED 61,200 for Years 12 and 13 (assuming that the 15% discount is retained). These fees apply to non-Corporate families only. Full details can be found on the school website.
There is a 5% sibling discount for second and subsequent children.
This is a premium priced school, but facilities and services align to that (smaller class sizes, high quality resources and facilities).
The Aquila School is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
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