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 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. On the day of our visit Year 3 children were enjoying a tennis skills lesson and there was ample space 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 predominately natural grass and used for free play, other than an area dominated by a curved, plastic covered structure and smaller grass covered structure of a similar shape. On the ground nearby there is a small pond and stream (fenced from the play areas) and a large set of solar panels. Not quite complete for our team to see on this visit, this area will eventually be The Aquila School’s hydroponic farm, where each child will have their own growing station. The school plans to embed 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. The entire project will be powered with solar energy. It is also planned that the children will care for small animals here, such as chickens and rabbits.
Back inside the main building, we enter via CCTV monitored, secure doors. On arrival, a security guard had issued our reviewer with a lanyard, which are colour coded for parents, visitors and contractors. We noted secure fencing around the perimeter of the school and a sensibly laid out parking zone with security offices at either end. Some of the Foundation Stage classrooms have their outdoor areas facing through to the car parking area, although they are separated by a fairly high, brightly coloured metal fence. At reception, our credentials were checked again and we signed in before being admitted to the school. This process gave us 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. On our visit parents were being welcomed to tour the school, both by English and Arabic speaking guides…
To the left of the main entrance is a café, the ‘Tuck Shop 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 Tuck Shop Café team, and lunch plus dessert is priced at a very reasonable 16 AED per day.
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). You can also see the music room, where children will have access to Apple Mac computers for music production activities. Near to the music room is a larger performance and rehearsals room.
At present, and given that this is a new and growing school all classes are housed on the ground floor, but it is envisaged that once the school is at capacity (which is a sizable 3000 children), the ground floor will be dedicated to the Foundation Stage. Each ground floor classroom has doors out onto an outside area (fenced) which the children can use for free play, project work, crafts and messy activities.
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 we see 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.
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 it's own small soft play area for letting off steam on those hotter days.
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 one will find classes named ‘Engineers’ and ‘Innovators’. A small point, perhaps, but we rather like to envisage children thinking of themselves with such aspirational labels.
In November 2018, there were 137 students enrolled at the school, and, with the eventual maximum capacity at 3000 across primary and secondary, the school clearly has significant growth (and the accompanying challenges and adaptation) ahead.
The current cohort of children come from 35 different countries. 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. In a full Foundation Stage classroom, there will be 1 Teacher and 2 Learning Support Assistants. In Years 1 and 2, there will be one Teacher plus one Learning Support Assistant in each class. Years 3 – 6 will have 1 shared Learning Support Assistant per year group.
Hiring teachers is serious business at The Aquila School, with Principal Wayne Howsen pointing out that in order to select the current teaching team, more than 400 teachers were interviewed. The management team have a 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’ Wayne 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 May 2020, the school's owners, ISP (International Schools Partnership) announced the appointment of a Head of Secondary for The Aquila School as it moves towards opening in September 2020.
Lee Fabia will join The Aquila School from a High School in the UK, where he has led significant improvements in attainment, curriculum enhancement and the well-being of children. According to the school, his role will be key to developing the Secondary School, ensuring that Aquila becomes one of the leading UK curriculum schools in Dubai.
Lee has over 12 years of experience, including seven years as a senior leader in two large Secondary schools. His past roles include Senior Assistant Head Teacher with a whole school responsibility for teaching, learning, assessment, curriculum design, continuous professional development and staff appraisal. He has also held the position of Director of English where he led a large team to achieve outstanding pupil outcomes in English Language and English Literature qualifications.
Commenting on his appointment, Lee said "I am thrilled to be Head of Secondary at The Aquila School and look forward to ensuring all children experience amazing learning opportunities to maximise their progress. I was drawn to the school because of its relentless focus on real learning for the future. Children at The Aquila School are impressive: they are independent, creative, caring, resilient, ambitious and their unique talents and interests are nurtured. I look forward to working alongside Wayne and Kylie to create an aspirational, inclusive and world-class learning community. Amazing learning will be at the heart of all that we do - teachers who know their subjects thoroughly and constantly strive to make the knowledge, skills, and understanding accessible, meaningful, enjoyable and challenging."
Individualised learning and inclusive practice is a consistent theme during our visit to The Aquila School. Nowhere better is this demonstrated than by visiting Hemam (which, we are told, means Determined in Arabic). Hemam is an independent, specialist learning support centre based in the main building of The Aquila School.
Currently comprising one office and two classrooms, the Hemam team offer support to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental delays. 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 important 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.
Hemam offers a multi-disciplinary approach, including Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Applied Behavioural Analysis. Its therapists are trained in the UK to international standards. Hemam services are an additional cost to The Aquila School fees.
The inclusion of a supportive and inclusive initiative such as Hemam appear to very much in sync with the ethos of the school, which is succinctly described by Principal Wayne Howsen as ‘amazing learning for each child as an individual’. ‘Amazing learning’ is something of a catchphrase at Aquila.
The school already offers a comprehensive set of free extra-curricular activities, including football, design (jewellery and clothes), netball, designers, fitness, art, cooking, eco activities, creative writing, games, tennis, volleyball and tennis. An external provider, IFA Sports, provides additional sports activities (paid), the main focus of which is football.
Children wear a smart beige and blue uniform which they and their parents appear to be happy with.
Aquila School start at 45,000 AED for FS1 and rising to 60,000 AED for Year 7 (the cost of latter years of secondary are as yet unpublished). This is a premium priced school, but facilities and services align to that (smaller class sizes, high quality resources and facilities).
There is a 5% sibling discount for second and subsequent children. There is also a cricket scholarship for talented young players; parents should contact the school for more information.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com very much enjoyed its first visit to Aquila. The school offers a beguiling mix of modern and unconventional, quirky, yet efficient designs and processes, led by a similarly striking senior leadership team. We are already looking forward to our visits in the future to see how well the school grows into its impressive, not forgetting award winning, school buildings.
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