The Cambridge High School (its name is not reflective of its all through status) is a highly successful school with close to 1,780 students of 45 different nationalities and a waiting list of which other schools would be proud.
The story so far...
The Cambridge High School was one of the first schools opened by GEMS in Abu Dhabi. Located in the School Zone at Mohammed bin Zayed City, the school is over thirty years old and there is no doubt that, from an architectural standpoint, it certainly does not compare with many of the new GEMS schools or indeed several of the other private schools located in the same area. But that is where the comparisons stop.
This is a highly successful school with 1,780 students of 45 different nationalities. The largest contingent of students come from India (34%), Pakistan (22%), the UAE (6%), and Egypt (7%) together with other Arab nations, European countries, South Africa and Australia.
The school is said to have a long waiting list – in the past the school has advised that over 800 students were waiting to join it - although currently no details of numbers are available. Whatever the external appearance of the school, this is clearly of little relevance to the families queuing up to have their children admitted.
Some 104 teachers (and a further 25 teaching assistants) come from around 30 countries internationally; many have been with the school for as long as 18 years. In 2017-18, staff turnover reached 20% - average for international schools in the UAE, but on the high side for a school that has a large Indian staff; happily this figure had reduced to 11% in 2020.
The school is led by Stephen Brecken, Principal/CEO who joined the school in 2019 and who introduces CHS on the school website as follows:
"At Cambridge High School, we aim to provide an outstanding education for all of the students in our care, and we do this by providing a learning environment, which is inclusive, ambitious and challenging. We are very fortunate to have outstanding students, who come from all corners of the world, and who thrive in our rich, vibrant and diverse school community.
We believe in creating a culture within the school where our parents and students know us, like us and, most importantly, trust us. Our teachers know their students well and encourage each of them to reach their full potential and achieve their aspirations."
The leadership of the school, and the core faculty, is made up of staff from the UK and Ireland, with a strong contingent of staff from other European countries also. The mix is approximately 60:40 between teachers from Western countries and the Subcontinent. With such a broad range of staff, professional development is key, with staff being upskilled through this focus.
The staff:student ratio at the school varies considerably from FS2 and Year 1 (which are included in the Primary section of the school) being 1:12, Lower Primary (Years 2 and 3) being 1:16, and the remainder of the school 1:30, averaging out at 1:18. Whilst the ratios in the lower sections of the school are on the lower side - and should ensure plentiful opportunity for children to receive personal attention - the ratio from Year 4 onwards is definitely on the high side. Teachers will need to be particularly skilled at assessing their students' needs to ensure that the curriculum is effectively adapted for them.
What about the curriculum?
The Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi follows the National Curriculum of England. This curriculum provides students with an education that is based on a skill-based curriculum, served by many excellent textbooks and resources, with its own testing mechanism. It fits into the English public examination system (GCSE, AS & A Level), which is accepted by universities throughout the world.
The Foundation Stage for Kindergarten children aged 3 to 5 (including FS2 and Year 1) is child-centred and oriented towards practical applications, social development and acquiring the skills, knowledge and understanding required to interact in a changing world. Learning through structured play and regular educational visits are an integral part of the Foundation Stage. Arabic as prescribed by the Ministry of Education is also taught. Core subjects are English [Reading and Writing], Art, Mathematics, Music, Science, Physical Education, Social Studies, and Information and Communication Technology.
The Primary school curriculum (from Year 2 to Year 6) continues its focus on the core subjects of FS with the addition of History, Arabic, Geography, Personal and Social Education, and Islamic Studies (for Muslim students only). The learning process is child-centered, enabling pupils to think for themselves, encouraging initiative, innovation and participation. Progress is monitored carefully through regular assessments.
The Secondary school from Years 7-9 lays the foundations for IGCSE options in Year 10. Assessment is continuous and aims for targets established in The National Curriculum for England. In Year 9 students sit the Cambridge ‘Check Point’ examinations as an internal monitoring exercise to ensure that they match the best levels of UK schools. Core subjects include English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Science, French, History, Geography, Computer science, together with Foundation subjects of Arabic, Art and Design, Business studies [an introductory course in Year 9], Islamic Studies (for Muslim students only), Physical Education, and Personal and Social Education.
In Year 10, the two year IGCSE programme is introduced and students are required to select 8 subjects (including English Language and Mathematics) with the following options: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature, History, Geography, Art and Design, Computer Studies, Business Studies, Media Studies, Arabic, Accounting, Travel and Tourism. Whilst by no means the broadest range of options, students at CHS do have the opportunity to study more Creative subjects as well as the more traditional Commerce and Science-based subjects.
In their final two years of Sixth Form, students in Year 12 and 13 take both AS and A Level GCE examinations. Sadly, the options available are rather more limited than at IGCSE with no creative and limited Humanities subjects available. Available subjects include Literature in English, Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Computer Studies, Business Studies, Geography, History, Accounting, and Travel and Tourism, We can only assume that this traditional, but limited, subject range meets the demands of parents and students based on the focus of families from the Sub-continent on Commerce and Science streams.
Students are also involved in a wide range of non-Academic activities, including Charity trips to India, Model United Nations with the Higher Colleges of Technology and the Harvard Model UN.
Optional extra-curricular activities are available after regular school hours and are organised in three strands: extra support classes in a range of academic areas, non-competitive sports activities, interest-based clubs such as cooking, journalism, drama, art and crafts, fashion design, computers and pottery. Inter-House competitions are conducted in sports, public speaking, dance, quizzes, art, music and essay writing.
They also participate in a range of very successful sports activities including cricket, football and Girls’ rugby.
What about inclusion?
An Achievement Centre provides additional support to children with mild to moderate learning difficulties (including children on the Autism spectrum and with Asperger’s syndrome) as well as a Gifted and Talented section and English Additional Language provision.
The team makes use of the Phonic approach in teaching reading and addresses all the strands of the language through topic based learning. The aim is to provide each learner with a solid foundation in English language skills in order to support the learning of all subjects in mainstream.
Learners with special educational needs receive individual support backed by an Individual Educational Plan. Systems are put in place to meet the individual student’s needs. Learning support assistants support the learning of the individual student in the mainstream classroom.
What about academic achievement?
Historically, CHS did not publish its exam results, which, in our opinion, is a great pity! We at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com encourage all schools to be transparent in relation to the academic achievement of their students - something we feel should be celebrated - and also provide parents with the opportunity to contrast and compare results between schools.
However, in 2021, with the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic being felt across the UAE's schools for the second year, when all public examinations were cancelled for the second time, CHS did provide limited information for the first time.
At A Level, the school's 89 strong student cohort was entered for 270 A Level examinations. A significant 15.9% of entries were awarded the highest A* grade, whilst 44.8% of entries received A*-A grades and 65.2% of all entries were awarded A*-B.
At IGCSE, a cohort of 120 students were entered for 812 examinations. 27.1% were awarded the highest grade of A*, whilst 51.1% achieved A*-A, 74.0% achieved A*-B and 88.2% of entries were awarded A*-C. 63.3% of all students achieved a minimum of 5 I/GCSEs including English and Maths graded A*-C.
Academically, the school is rated as Good in its last ADEK report and boasts GCSE and A level results which the former Principal described to us as "superior to those of several of the Premium UK curriculum schools in Abu Dhabi", and 20% above the UK average. Note, however, that in the latest report, attainment at A' Level English and mathematics was highlighted as an area that needs to be addressed.
The school prides itself on being non-selective and delivers added value to its students (in terms of results achieved versus their predicted performance) which it itself describes as outstanding. The vast majority of students go onto university both locally and overseas. The school’s performance is recognised by ADEK, with whom they have a strong relationship through the provision of Best Practice training and “learning walks” for new teachers.
What about facilities?
In terms of facilities, there is no doubt that the school would benefit from some upgrades. Currently, the original 3-storey building which is located around a large quadrangle where assemblies and registration take place is beginning to show its age. However, much effort has gone into ensuring that classrooms and facilities have been updated with modern resources. There are two libraries for Senior and Junior students and full provision of technological aids including laptop trolleys and I-pads as well as IT labs.
The school is set out with the Primary School occupying the Ground floor, whilst the first floor is reserved for boys and the second for girls. Classes are separated by gender from year 6. There is a large multipurpose hall and, outside, a full size Astroturf football pitch and basketball court. Children in FS2 and Year 1 benefit from individual class libraries, a well-resourced school library, computer laboratories, a music studio and a dedicated Kindergarten play area.
Facilities include separate science laboratories for practical sessions in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. The labs are spacious and offer modern and excellent equipment where students are encouraged to use their analytical and creative skills through research and experimentation. There are also four ICT labs with high speed internet connection. All classes are equipped with smart boards, multimedia projectors to facilitate learning and all staff are equipped with laptop. The school Library, equipped with computers and internet, provides an ideal area for students to research and work independently.
Creative talents are supported by a music studio to provide students with adequate opportunity to develop their music abilities and two art studios which support a variety of creative activities. The Music Studio is well equipped with a keyboards, steel drums and percussion and wind instruments. There is also an air-conditioned auditorium which, in addition, serves as a multi purpose hall. The auditorium is used for school assemblies, performances and other large scale school functions.
The school has, in the past, recognised the need to develop its facilities. When we last visited, there was talk of a 3-5 year plan and a new 3-storey new build where the basketball courts are, with the KG section to be housed on the Ground floor (freeing up more space in the main building), a Sixth Form and Science Centre being located on the first floor and a new Sports section on the top floor of the building. However, these plans seem to have been put on hold, or shelved in their entirety.
What the inspectors say
ADEK rates (2017/18) academic performance in terms of achievement, teaching, and curriculum at the school as 'Good'. Student's personal development and innovation skills are described as Very Good. This suggested that the school was as yet some way off its ambition to provide an Outstanding education - at least as adjudged by ADEK's inspection team.
The school again achieved the Good rating in its last inspection (shortly prior to the halt on visits by ADEK's inspectors as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic) in early 2020 and only a short time after the arrival of the new Principal and his new Vice Principal.
In fact, The Cambridge High School might, at first sight, best be described as 'consistent' but this perhaps does not fairly reflect the very definite improvements that are taking place within the school! Every rating for Students' Achievement across the entire school and across all core English-based subjects and in Arabic for native speakers examined by the inspectors is rated at least Good. Arabic for non-native speakers is rated Acceptable for the most part, although Good in the FS/Year 1 section.
"Children enter FS2 with knowledge and skills that are below where they are expected to be. They achieve well in relation to their starting points. Across the school, students’ attainment is above curriculum expectations and their progress and learning skills are good overall."
The second key performance standard of Students' Personal and Social Development and their Innovation Skills received an improved rating to Very Good in the latest inspection a reflection of the rating in each section of the school. A similar overall improvement in rating was given to the third key performance standard of Teaching and Assessment reflecting improvements in teaching to Very Good in the High School section and Good across the remaining sections, whilst Assessment was rated Very Good across the school.
The curriculum was also praised for the Very Good adaptation which takes place in support of students with SEN requirements. The fifth key performance standard of Protection, care, guidance and support of students was also awarded a Very Good judgement overall.
In their introduction to the school's performance, the ADEK team noted that the overall performance of the school was good. The school had sustained students’ very good personal and social development. Assessment, the curriculum and protection, care, guidance and support were also adjudged very good. Students’ achievement was good overall and very good in the high phase. This is driven by well-planned and enthusiastically delivered teaching throughout the school.
Furthermore, they noted that "The school’s improving provision is underpinned by accurate self-evaluation and effective, devolved leadership at all levels. The recently appointed principal and vice-principal set a very clear strategic vision and direction for the school. This inspiring leadership has demonstrated a commitment to an inclusive learning environment for all students. A sharp focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning is resulting in positive outcomes for students."
Commenting on what the school does best, the inspectors praised:
With so many positive comments and obvious areas of improvement, one might wonder why CHS has retained the overall Good rating, rather than the Very Good rating which, in many aspects, appears to be deserved. The reasons for the retention of the Good rating is revealed within the 'areas for improvement' noted by the Inspection team.
It is evident that the Acceptable rating awarded to students of Arabic as a second language is a key factor in the overall rating and one that the school will need to focus on - this had been rated Good in the previous inspection and is the one area where the school appears to have gone backwards.
It should be remembered that whilst Acceptable is the minimum rating that schools in Abu Dhabi are expected to achieve during the inspection process - and Good is the rating that ADEK wishes to see all schools achieve - ratings of Very Good and Outstanding are ambitious targets that all schools should be aiming to achieve.
In so doing, they will be raising student attainment (and the opportunities for students' futures) to the highest level.
If you would like to read the latest inspection report - and we strongly recommend that you do so in order to understand the reasons behind the ratings - you will find it here.
The ADEK Good rating and the slightly dated facilities do not seem to dampen the enthusiasm and energy at the school. On our last visit, we spoke with students, staff and parents. All were full of praise and ambitious for the school and its students.
Students, in particular, valued the international nature of the school, the kindness of their teachers, the opportunity to participate in school life through a Student Council, the vast range of extracurricular activities and the Canteen Food!
They described the school as different to others that they had attended – as fun, where their feedback was sought, staff were supportive and friendly – one described it as an exceptional environment. Students we spoke to, aspired to jobs as Doctors, Lawyers, Astronauts and Scientists and felt that the school was providing them with the tools to achieve these ambitions. Parents appreciated the on-going efforts to obtain their feedback through surveys and workshops and the efforts of the staff to listen, share and encourage them in participating in school life and in supporting their children.
Whilst the direct feedback that we have received from parents during our visit to CHS was positive, the limited feedback to the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey is less so. Currently just over seven out of 10 parents would recommend the school to another parent - a key metric in the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com survey.
Parents are split over whether the school offers good value for money, and about its academic performance. There is some concern over bullying at the school with four in ten respondents saying that they are 'extremely' or 'very' concerned about this. Click here for considerably more data and insight from parents regarding The Cambridge High School.
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As one of the longest established GEMS schools in the UAE, and a long history of educating students in Abu Dhabi, there is no question that The Cambridge High School will continue to attract families seeking a good quality British education at an affordable price. It seems that under the relatively new leadership, new life, enthusiasm and professionalism is being breathed into the school, ensuring that the quality of teaching and the curriculum is being improved to meet the demands of a fast-changing world.
Fees at The Cambridge High School are mid-range, starting at AED 15,300 for FS2 and rising to AED 32,100 for Years 12 and 13. Text books and stationary are additional to this - the school does not provide details on its website. A five percent re-enrolment fee is required each year to retain a child's place at the school which is deducted from the first term's fees. New admissions are required to pay the same 5% enrolment fee on offer of a place.
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