Surrounded by a mid-height wall and painted in neutral shades with the odd dash of green, The Arbor School’s exterior gives away little that would prepare us for the exceptional facilities offered by the Eco curriculum, green thinking school. Having passed through security and parked (noting the bays held aside for car sharers or low emission vehicles…alas not ours, yet!) we enter a bright and welcoming reception area where our ID is checked and we are offered refreshments. Throughout our visit, the hospitality from the team is generous and thoughtful.
This first of many inviting spaces at The Arbor School kicks off our lasting impression of elegance in motion. Whilst the reception area is smart and functional, behind it lies a large glass walled room filled with plants, meandering wooden walkways, water features and comfortable seating for adults and students alike. The area is the ‘Reflection Garden’ and offers direct access to Principal Brett Girven’s office, connecting him to this focal area for the school throughout his working day (later he tells that during his first days at the school he was alarmed at seeing a young child lying unmoving on the floor outside his office, only to find that the child was meditating and working on his “crocodile breathing”).
We begin our time at The Arbor School by meeting with a group of parents. Our panel have children attending the school aged between six and 11 years old. Most of these families have been with the school since the doors opened in September 2018. Just one mother was new to the school, her daughter having joined three weeks before our visit.
Learn more about The Abor School by reading our SCHOOL REVIEW
All of our parent panel concurred that prior to enrolling their children the initial contact, tours and meetings with admissions and key academic staff members had been superb. “They all blew us away, I’ve never met such passionate educators and staff” said one father. For the new-to-Arbor mother, whose daughter had experienced difficulties including school related anxiety and eventual school refusal at her previous school, the joining experience had already fostered a great attachment to The Arbor School. Three weeks in, and her daughter was thriving. She told our reviewer that,
“Now we are here, I can finally see a future for my daughter. We moved to Dubai from Abu Dhabi, solely for this school. Unlike our previous school, the inclusion team is just superb, children with different needs are integrated in a spectacular fashion. Over the summer, the teachers from Arbor were in regular contact with us, constantly checking to see how she was and what was happening. I’ve lived here all my life and I can’t stress enough how much I think a school like this was needed in the UAE. What you see around you here is beautiful, but it’s not just a veneer, definitely not”.
Other parents had been attracted not just to the facilities or green thinking ethos, but to the leadership team’s complete commitment to the rigour of the British National Curriculum and how this more traditional curriculum was blended with a ‘project-based learning’ approach. One father commented that,
“The staff are so ambitious for the kids at this school. We moved away from an IB school as we had concerns over the quality of teaching in the core subjects. Within six months at Arbor, our children’s core learning had improved dramatically and their confidence was off the chart”.
Looking to the future for the school, the parents agreed that a significant challenge would be maintaining the ethos of the school and in growing pupil numbers ‘sustainably’ whilst maintaining quality in all areas. With newly arrived Principal Mr Girven in place (Mr Girven replaced Founding Principal Charles Grayhurst at the start of the 2019/20 academic year), they felt that the school would meet this challenge head on.
Parents felt Mr Girven had “stepped the school up another gear” and that his qualifications (in Zoology and Environmental Science) together with outstanding UAE school experience (as Deputy Head Teacher at Kings Al Barsha) had made him the ideal candidate for the role.
“He’s ambitious” said one parent “but still focused on wellbeing, I like that”.
Our firm impression was that despite his short tenure by the time of our visit, Mr Girven was well liked and trusted by the parent body.
Our discussion progressed to the sometimes sensitive issue of ‘value for money’. The majority of the parents we met agreed that, given the high quality education and outstanding facilities, the school represented good value - “especially with our Founders discount!”.
See the The Abor School REVIEW for more information on fees for The Arbor School
Looking at more practical issues, the parents liked the uniform and the longer school day (we were told that most children finish at 4pm, although there is an option to finish earlier at 2.50pm if required), which allowed for the (mostly optional) homework and curriculum complementing extra-curricular activities to take place during school hours. "I love it that when my kids come home, it’s only family time…no fights about homework!” said one of our panel.
Our first impression of Mr Girven was of a young Principal with focus, drive and energy. Clearly relishing his new role and excited for the future, Mr Girven (a New Zealand national with more than 10 years regional experience, both in Saudi Arabia and the UAE) answered all of our questions with a palpable sense of enjoyment of his new school.
“This is a school which is primed for success. There is a real consistency to the vision throughout, from leadership to the staff to the children and all our families. Plus, there’s great attention to detail in the implementation of everything we do. Obviously the facilities are out of this world, but the staff are truly outstanding too. It’s a school utopia!”
Mr Girven was keen to stress that the facilities and eco curriculum are embedded as enhancements to the academic life we would expect to see in any top tier school. “The founders of the school wanted the British curriculum to assure parents that whatever else we add to school life here, the academics are an absolute given. I describe our curriculum as knowledge rich with progressive methods, delivered by fantastic teachers. Then when it comes to the eco curriculum…well, the way I look at it is that we’re not creating radicals here, we are creating a new normal”.
During our tour of the school, we also meet Dr Sa’ad Al Omari, Chief Executive Office of Praxis Education, the owners of The Arbor School. Having completed a Doctorate in Paleoclimatology at the University of Cambridge, and with many other qualifications and accolades to his name, Dr Al Omari is clearly a highly respected source of inspiration to his team. He guides our WSA reviewer through an overview of the thinking behind the eco curriculum. Under Dr Al Omari’s leadership, this is a school that wants to be more than what we might currently think of as ‘green’. His intention is for The Arbor School graduates to use the concepts of Eco Literary, Sustainability and Environmental Justice in their future careers as naturally as they would their learning in Maths or English.
Guiding us through a tour of the school, Mr Girven is keen to begin with the bio domes, of which there are six; three large in size and three smaller. The three smaller domes are used for a rotation of activities throughout the year, for example, on the day of our visit one was given over to use by the Foundation Stage children for growing, planting and just generally having some good fun digging in the soil!
Learn more about The Abor School by reading our SCHOOL REVIEW
The larger domes are where the ‘spectacular’ of The Arbor School really begins. The first, Mr Girven tells us, is themed around “untouched nature”; the second, “the relationship between nature and man” and the third is a “maker space” where students can take the inspiration from the former two bio domes and create, experiment and innovate with state of the art resources, such as a bank of 3D printers.
Entering the first of the bio domes, we immediately notice the incredible cool, fresh, clean air followed by the stunning array of plants and trees. This includes, full height and in the centre of the dome, a remarkably life like man made tree trunk. The space is at least two stories high and, of course, is blessed with wonderful natural light. Plants have been chosen with care, for their looks or special interest – we are especially taken by one which closes rapidly on being touched! The children can use this space for a host of busy learning activities (we see a 'Bug Hotel' under construction), but there is also space to simply sit and read, surrounded by nature and listening to the sounds of water from the small pond.
The final bio dome (the ‘maker space’) has an upper level, from which we can see a view of the sports field and well-equipped play areas. In the distance, we can see housing and construction work which will eventually become a busy community (the completed Al Furjan community) on the doorstep of the school. Mr Girven hopes that, once the community is completed, many children will take the zero emission option of cycling to school!
After the bio domes, we enter the school via the Foundation Stage department. The younger children have a dedicated outdoor play area as well as large classrooms and wide corridors for indoor activities. There is also a dedicated multi-purpose room which can be used for play when the weather is too hot or for small assemblies and performances. As might be expected, the outdoor spaces throughout the school are a particular strength.
Taking in the rest of the school, we note well spacious classrooms, wide corridors and a sense of lightness and brightness throughout. The architects have included numerous ‘break out’ spaces where children can study outside of the classroom. On the day of our visit, the library had just received a large new stock of books, which were about to hit the shelves.
We enjoyed a few moments in the dimly lit ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ a small, theatrical feeling space filled with antiques, curiosities and inspiring images. Mr Girven tells us that the Cabinet of Curiosities is a place of inspiration and creativity. Inspiration continues with an Artist and Scientist in Residence programme, designed to push learning well beyond the expectations of the curriculum.
Mr Girven tells us that his immediate priority for the school facilities are readying and refining the full suite of secondary resources, in preparation for the first cohort to progress through to year 13 (the school is currently open to Year 7).
We meet a happy and chatty group of students, representing Years 4, 6 and 7. They tell us that their most memorable moments in their “beautiful” school happen in the bio domes – no surprises there! During our tour we did not see the school’s pet animals, but the children tells us happily of tending to the rabbits in the bio dome, a favourite activity. Our student panel also spoke highly of the extra-curricular activities and sense of competitiveness created by the house system.
Students love the eco-friendly ethos of the school and relaying what they have learnt to friends and family. One tells us her family are now on a mission to eliminate all single use plastic from their home as a result of her influence!
The children say their teachers are “funny, kind and nice” but can be “over-protective”. This over protectiveness is a common theme in their comments, especially for the older children who seem keen for more freedom! When we delve deeper into this issue, we find that the main complaint is the lack of access cards to certain areas of the school, causing issues passing from lesson to lesson and accessing the canteen. The children feel differently to the length of the school day to our parent panel, with a number complaining that it is “too long” and that they feel tired at home. They also tell us they would like a vending machine for snacks, though some express concern about how ‘green’ an idea this is. These concerns aside, the children are clearly proud of their “very special” school.
Our final meeting of the day is with a group of Department Heads. We meet Mr Haj, Head of Arabic and Islamic, Ms Simpson, Phase 1 leader, Ms Jones, Phase 2 leader, Ms Holland, FS1 Leader and Ms Adams, FS2 Leader.
All these school leaders agreed that the school had quickly lost the feel of being a new school, especially given the large number of celebrations and special events. Mr Haj’s department had been given prominence in a number of ways including an Arabic cultural event that had been a real success.
The teachers felt the school had an ‘innovative’ approach to professional development. Trainers have been brought from as far afield as the United States to create bespoke professional development sessions for the school. The teachers felt the school invested in them and supported their aspirations.
The team agreed that the school was an exciting place to work with incredible resources. They recommended it for the combination of British Curriculum with project-based learning and the emphasis of on the environmental curriculum. This they agreed would create an exceptional school experience for the children.
This last point leads us to our one significant note of caution with regards to The Arbor School. This a new and ambitious school where the teachers will be expected to make significant achievements in the standard curriculum, familiarise themselves with (and, of course, deliver to the same exacting standards) the Eco curriculum whilst simultaneously using project based learning (a style of working which may be unfamiliar to those trained in the British Curriculum). Put simply, this is a school which asks a lot of its teachers…
The teachers we met were an impressive team who appeared to be relishing the challenge, but this will undoubtedly be an additional factor for the leadership team to manage as the school grows. As Principal Mr Girven said “the teachers here are organised and clever planners”. They certainly need to be!
At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, we often talk about schools needing a clear vision, and at The Arbor School the vision of a well-rounded, British education enhanced by Eco Literary, Sustainability and Environmental Justice is clear and embraced by all the stakeholders we meet.
A successful first year has primed the school for the next phase in operation under a vibrant new Principal. We watch with interest to see how life at The Arbor School unfolds.
The Arbor 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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