The Westminster School was in the news in 2013, due to its announced closure by owners GEMS Education, and the subsequent decision to save it. Since that time, the school seems only to have gone from strength to strength - not only in terms of student numbers, but also in terms of academic performance. It obtained its Good rating from the regulator in the following year and has retained it since that time.
In 2013, when The Westminster School (TWS) was threatened with closure by owners GEMS Education, the main issue had been the viability of a school charging tuition fees between AED 5,392 and AED 10,483. According to the GEMS Education boss, Sunny Varkey, any school charging below AED 12,000 per annum on average is simply economically unsustainable. The addition of an Administration fee and a Computer fee, without a significant increase in fees, appeared to have made the difference. Fees are still at the low end at AED 8.410 and AED 15,831, although obviously significantly higher than in 2013.
A key factor that would have enabled the school to receive approval for such increases has been its progression from Acceptable to Good in 2014-15 and the fact that it has been able to retain this rating for the past five years. Since fee increases are linked to school performance, retaining or improving the inspection rating is a fundamental requirement.
Home to close to 5,200 students, TWS is one of the largest schools in Dubai and such student numbers must, at least, give it good economies of scale. It has introduced FS1 for children aged 3+, bringing it into line with practice in the UK. Over 70 nationalities are included in the student population - including those from Pakistan, Egypt, India, UAE, other Arabs, and other Asians. Numbers include some 122 Emirati students and over 237 Students of Determination (with SEND requirements). The school states that it is inclusive and these figures would support that statement. Students travel to school from around Dubai and also from neighbouring Sharjah.
Introducing his school, Principal and CEO Carl Roberts says "At The Westminster School we believe in supporting every individual to achieve his or her dreams, no matter how big they may be. Our students are ambitious, inquisitive and hardworking, ever embracing challenges and striving for their best. We recognise that all children have different abilities and talents, and we are committed to helping them discover and develop these in a nurturing environment. Inclusion is an important part of life at TWS".
In common with many affordable-fee schools offering the English National Curriculum, the school is led by an experienced UK Principal with a leadership team made up of a diverse range of mainly Asian nationals, very much reflective of the city (and the school's) cultural mix.
The school's close to 275 (mainly Indian) teachers give it a teacher to student ratio of 1:23 in FS and 1:18 elsewhere. Teacher turnover at 12% is less than half the average of international schools in the UAE (though to be fair, the figure is usually lower in Asian-staffed schools), but would suggest that staff are relatively content.
The school is by far the largest UK curriculum (IGCSE, AS and A' Level) school in Dubai. Traditionally split into Infant School, Junior School, Middle and Senior Schools The Westminster students may join the Foundation Stage where students follow the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum, and Key Stage One (for Years 1 and 2) in the Infant School and then follow the Primary Key Stage Two for Years 2 to 6 in Junior School. Students from Years 7 and 8 follow the Key Stage 3 curriculum in Middle School.
The Wesminster allows its students to study for their IGCSE exams at the end of Key Stage Four over the three year period from Years 9 to 11, rather than the more usual two year period followed by most UK curriculum schools.
Core subjects in the Foundation section focus on developing reading and writing and number development through a largely play-based curriculum. By years 1 and 2, the curriculum includes English, Mathematics, Science/Environmental Studies, Arabic, Islamic, Social Studies and Moral Education, supplemented with programmes in humanities (history and geography), the arts, sports and technology.
Arabic is the required second language from FS 2 to Year 9. It is offered in two levels, a special higher level, as per the Ministry of Education requirement for Arab nationals and a regular level for non-native speakers.
The Key Stage Two curriculum builds on the subjects from Key Stage One, adding Science (in place of Environmental Studies), Social Studies, and third language options which include French, Hindi or Urdu (which are offered from Year 3 to Year 8). These subjects form the basis of the curriculum for Years 7 and 8, prior to students selecting their IGCSE options in Year 9 for study in Years 10 and 11 with additional subjects including Accounting, Art and Design, Business Studies, Economics, Environmental Management, French, Global Perspectives, Sociology, Travel & Tourism and Urdu.
In common with many lower cost UK curriculum schools in the UAE, and driven in part by the aspirations of both parents and students towards careers in the traditional professions, the options for study at AS and A Level (the pre-university years), are limited. TWS offers Accounting, Applied ICT, Biology, Business Studies, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, English Language, French, Global Perspectives, Mathematics, Psychology, Physics, Sociology and the AS General Paper. No Humanities or Arts subjects (beyond English Language and French) are taught at this level.
The school makes up for the more limited academic subject range by providing a wide range of extracurricular activities that offer opportunities for more creative and sporting engagement. It emphasises all round development through a balanced programme of activities that are designed to inculcate team spirit, exploration and development of each students’ potential and confidence.
The extracurricular activities include field trips, trekking, educational trips, projects and leadership camps. Interest-based clubs such as drama, debating, elocution and public speaking, music, craft, creative writing and meal planning and cooking are conducted on a regular basis. Inter House competitions are held in sports, public speaking, dance, quizzes, art, music and essay writing.
A wide range of creative as well as sports opportunities are provided including Arts and Craft, Creative Writing, Educational Trips, Gymnastics, Leadership Camps, Mural Painting, Needlework, Physical Education, Projects, Reading, Team Sports and Trekking. Special emphasis is placed on developing student’s appreciation for and involvement in various forms of drama, dance, music, art and craft as a means of self-expression and cultural enrichment.
In addition, the school offers a number of specialist clubs which include The Westminster School Environment Club which is a part of the United Nation’s Environment Programme and linked with the Emirates Environment Group.
A Multimedia Club is provided for students who wish to develop their advanced ICT skills; specialist training in provided through the Multimedia club. The Westminster School boasts of a studio which has been updated to provide Radio and Newsroom broadcasts.
The school apparently does well academically in external IGCSE and A Level examinations based on the last data we have seen and on comments from the KHDA.
TWS last provided data in relation to subject achievement among its students in 2017-18, when the School entered 946 students from 71 nationalities with almost 4,100 entries and achieved a 100% pass rate. However, what the quality of those passes were across the range of grades was not provided.
Unfortunately, TWS is one of the GEMS schools that provides little if any information about its students' academic achievement. A list of toppers is provided within the school's IGCSE prospectus but beyond the details of students' individual achievements, no overall details are released.
Whilst we would fully accept that exam results are not the be-all and end-all of a good education, for a school with parents who are ambitious for their children, and with students who aspire to the more traditional qualifications, we would hope that there would be greater transparency in relation to results.
What about facilities?
For a school with a limited fee range, The Westminster School appears to offer many of the facilities and a breadth of education of a mid-range school. However, though these facilities are extensive, there is still a continuing issue of over-crowding – a point picked by the KHDA inspection reports on an on-going basis. Whilst much of the school’s academic performance is rated as at least Good, it seems that the regulator does have concerns about the crowded environment and the potential impact on availability of resources. Average class sizes are approx. 28 (above the KHDA limit of 25).
The school houses 180 purpose built classrooms for all academic subjects. Facilities include a covered play area for the Foundation (KG) students which provides a safe and secure environment for physical activity under the supervision of teachers. There is separate covered recreation area for the senior students. An activity room and an audio-visual room with multi-media facilities are also available to students of the Infant School. The school has three well-resourced libraries stocked with books, periodicals and a variety of other resources that can be used for research, reference and new learning. Reading is encouraged in students from a very young age, as an independent way to learn and gain knowledge.
Six well-equipped laboratories for Biology, Chemistry and Physics respectively are part of the Senior School infrastructure. Science and technology play key roles in student development. Technology facilities include five computer laboratories with Internet connection and multimedia facilities. Sophisticated audio/visual equipment and resources are extensively used to enhance teaching-learning techniques.
There are a wide variety of sports to choose from and the school is able to cater to the individual talents and interests of its students. Outdoor sports include Athletics, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Throw ball and Volleyball. Indoor sports include Badminton, Carom, Chess, Gymnastics and Table Tennis. The Westminster School also hosts two major inter- school events every year, The Marathon and the Junior Soccer, in which several schools from the emirates participate.
Other facilities include a canteen selling reasonably priced healthy snacks and drinks during break times. Special care is taken to provide students with options that are healthy, nutritious and balanced.
What the inspectors say
The most recent (2019-20) Inspection report praises a number of key facets of the school, noting that its strengths are:
Students' achievement is largely Good across the Foundation, Primary and Secondary sections in English, Maths and Science and also in Islamic Studies and Arabic as a first language - the latter a particular achievement. Arabic as a Second language is rated Acceptable. The post-16 section of the school shows particularly strong achievement with English, Maths and Science all rated Very Good..
Teaching and Assessment, and the Curriculum, two key performance areas that fundamentally impact achievement, also largely reflect the ratings for Students' achievement. Teaching for Effective Learning is rated Good across almost the entire school, with the Sixth Form teaching being rated Very Good. Assessment is rated Good in Foundation and improved to Good in post-16, but remains Acceptable in Primary and Secondary - an area that will need to be a focus for improvement since it is so vital to ensuring individual student support.
Similarly, curriculum design and implementation is rated Good across the school, whilst the adaptation of the curriculum to meet the needs of students was rated Very Good. Curriculum adaptation is an increasingly important requirement in Dubai schools in order to meet the requirements of students with SEND; success in this key performance area is fundamental to success of SEND students. The provision and outcome for students with SEND was rated Good by the inspection team - it seems that the next step to improve this rating is essentially one of providing additional specialist staffing, as well as ensuring that subject teachers focus on the needs of individual students.
Where TWS stands out in terms of its inspection ratings is in regard to the Personal and Social Development and Innovation skills of its students. Ratings for this key performance measure are almost entirely Outstanding - the sole exception being Personal development in the Secondary section.
As would be expected, TWS also performs at a high level in relation to the Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of its students. All ratings across the school were Very Good for Health and Safety and Safeguarding including Child Protection, whilst Care and Support were retained the ratings of Very Good in Foundation and post-16, and Good in Primary and Secondary.
In terms of the final key performance area - that of leadership and management - ratings were Good for the Effectiveness of leadership and Governance, with the measure for Parents and the Community Very Good. However, the school's self-evaluation processes in relation to improvement, and the management, staffing, facilities and resources were rated only Acceptable (with the latter indicator downgraded from a year ago). Inspectors identified that "a few classrooms are too small for the number of students. There are too few resources, including technology across the school. The learning environment and available resources in FS and the primary phase do not promote achievement in reading sufficiently well, because there are too few books and no designated reading areas".
Overall areas key improvement recommendations for TWS were:
If you would like to read the full KHDA 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 most recent KHDA report highlighted the Very Good performance of the school in regard to its relationship with parents and the community, noting that the engagement of parents is clear and they are extremely appreciative of the improved reporting procedures and the opportunities to contribute to school priorities through evenings such as the Emirati parents’ meeting.
Some 390 parents who responded to the KHDA's pre-inspection survey were found for the most part (93%) to be happy with the quality of education provided by the school. Most confirmed that the school listens to their views and were satisfied with the quality of information provided to help them to support their children's education. Almost all parents stated that their children are safe at school and are developing the skills needed to be successful learners.
Over 2,000 students participated in the KHDA Well-being Survey and their responses were found to be less positive than those of the average results from other Dubai schools. The exception to this was where most confirmed that they have never experienced cyber-bullying. The majority of students’ stated that they have good relationships with their teachers, are safe at school, and provided with high quality care and support.
The Westminster School did surprisingly well in WhichSchoolAdvisor.com's Best British Schools in Dubai report which pivoted cost with educational achievement. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com itself has received limited feedback for The Westminster School and what has been received is not especially positive (a surprise given the size of the school).
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The Westminster School is very much a symbol of a traditional GEMS school - large in student numbers, with a focus on providing a solid education at a price-point that its parents can afford. The school has been successfully attracting students for many years (since 1995) because of its solid, no whistles offering, and will no doubt continue to do so.
Teachers are well-qualified and experienced and there have been evident improvements in terms of the school buildings, though concerns are still raised about the availability of resources. However, it does seem that The Westminster will remain one of the many schools in Dubai that consistently retain a Good KHDA rating, reflective of the overall quality of the school and its affordable fee structure.
Whilst there are clearly strengths in post-16, we do not see the school progressing further on the KHDA's scale - but then, why would it need to do so when it is clearly maintaining its standards and continuing to deliver what parents and students want.
Fees as noted are very affordable for a UK curriculum school. FS1 tuition fees start at AED 8,410 per annum and rise to AED 15,831 in Year 13. You will be hard pushed to find a good quality UK curriculum school with lower fees.
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