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.
The Westminster School has been rated Good for the fifth year running in the 2018-19 KHDA inspection process. An abbreviated version of the inspection report can be found under the Inspection report tab. An update of this review will be completed once the full reports have been published.
The Story so far...
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 (currently AED 550 per child per year), without a significant increase in fees, appears to have made the difference. Fees are still at the low end at AED 7,558 and AED 14,693, 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 four years. Since fee increases are linked to school performance, retaining or improving the inspection rating is a fundamental requirement.
Home to close to 5,100 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 recently introduced FS1 for children aged 3+, bringing it into line with practice in the UK. Some 72 nationalities are included in the student population - including those from Pakistan, Egypt, India, UAE, other Arabs, and other Asians. Numbers include some 176 Emirati students and over 270 Students of Determination (with SEND requirements). The school states that it is inclusive and these figures would support that statement. The school's close to 300 (mainly Indian) teachers give it a teacher to student ratio of 1:23 in FS and 1:18 elsewhere. Students travel to school from around Dubai and also from neighbouring Sharjah.
The Principal notes that “It is a place of inspiration, aspiration and innovation based on… the urgent belief that improving education is the key to shaping a sustainable future for ourselves and those around us.” The School Vision – reflective of the Principal’s comments - is “Striving to integrate Excellence……. Beyond Borders!”
What about the curriculum?
The school is by far the largest UK curriculum (IGCSE, AS and A' Level) school in Dubai. The school is split into the more traditional Infant School (incorporating FS1 to Year 2), Junior School (years 3 to 6), Middle and Senior Schools. Core subjects in the Foundation section focus on reading and writing and number development. By years 1 and 2, the curriculum includes English, Mathematics, Environmental Studies, Arabic, Computer Studies, Islamic Studies (in Arabic and in English), Moral Instruction, Art and Craft, Music, and Physical Education.
The Junior School curriculum builds on the subjects from Key Stage One, adding Science (in place of Environmental Studies), Social Studies, and second language options which include French, Hindi or Urdu. 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 Economics, Business Studies, Accounting, Sociology, Environmental Management, French, and Travel & Tourism, Art and Design and Global Perspectives.
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 Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Language, French, Accounting, Sociology, Psychology, Business Studies, Economics, Computer Science, Applied ICT, Global Perspectives, 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.
For those students more interested in creative activities, The Westminster School offers Art, craft and music rooms encouraging students to develop a variety of interests. 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. As part of the Club, students participate in various clean up drives, they learn more about the environment and the conservation and management of resources. The students are driven by the enthusiasm to make sure the environment they live in is clean and conducive to learning. This has been extended to recycling waste and cleaning neighbouring public areas.
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 is being updated to provide Radio and Newsroom broadcasts. The school’s cultural club gives students multiple opportunities to participate in performance Students are mapped against their talent and provided a platform through the various events at school such as the Carnival, Edupulse, Talentestic, Shakespeare.
Students are also encouraged to enhance their literary skills. The Wordpeckers (from year 6 upwards) ensure that writers are provided a platform for free expression. Students are also provided with opportunities to connect with writers / authors through the Book Fairs and Author visits to the school.
What about academic achievement?
The school apparently does well academically in external IGCSE and A Level examinations based on the last data we have seen (Note: GEMS has stopped publishing data for its schools which is a shame). TWS does include some information around toppers on its website, but provides little additional data in relation to subject achievement among its students. In 2017-18, the School entered 946 students from 71 nationalities with almost 4,100 entries and a 100% pass rate.
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 (2017-18) Inspection report praises a number of key facets of the school, noting that its strengths are:
Students' achievement continues to improve, with the majority of ratings in the Foundation, Primary (Years 1-6) and Secondary (Years 7-11) sections for the core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science being Good or Very Good. Progress in English across the school is Very Good, although there has been a decline in attainment in Sixth Form to Good. Sixth Form Mathematics is rated Outstanding for both attainment and progress and Good across the rest of the school. Science is also rated Good in Foundation and Primary sections, and largely Very Good in the Secondary school and Sixth Form (Years 12 and 13).
In terms of Arabic and Islamic Studies, inspectors commented that "Standards are improving in Arabic as an additional language where achievement is now acceptable across all three phases. Progress in Arabic as a first language is now good". In fact, these comments do not recognise just how well TWS is doing in the context of raising achievement in Arabic and Islamic Studies - a bug bear for many otherwise high-performing schools in the city.
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 and Assessment are rated Good across almost the entire school, with the Sixth Form teaching being rated Very Good. The inspection team found that "Teaching and assessment are generally strong, with teaching being very good in post-16. Teachers generally know their students well. [However], the implementation of assessment strategies to inform the personalisation of teaching and learning is not consistent enough".
Similarly, curriculum design and implementation were rated Good across the school, whilst the adaptation of the curriculum to meet the needs of students was rated Very Good. The inspectors noted that "Curriculum implementation is effective across all phases and although the range of courses taken up by students in post-16 is limited, it meets the needs of the relatively small cohort. Curriculum adaptations are strong across the school and these include a successful and broad range of extra-curricular provision". 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 area are almost entirely Outstanding - inspectors commented that "Almost all students conduct themselves as true ambassadors for the school. Except for a small minority of mostly boys, students demonstrate excellent behaviour and attitudes. Many students are involved in a range of in-school as well as community outreach initiatives. Innovation skills, including creative use of technology are a strength of the school and developing well".
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. The inspection team stated that "This is a responsible and safe school. The focus is always on how to improve over time so that risks to students, staff and visitors are minimised". In addition, "The protection, care and support of students remains a strong feature of the school". Praise was singled out specifically in relation to guidance for students, noting that "The school has a well-developed care team culminating in improved counselling support across the phases. The care team link very well to phase leaders, so that students at risk are identified and supported in a timely way. Support and guidance for career choices is comprehensive across secondary and Post-16".
In terms of the final key performance area - that of leadership and management - ratings were largely Good, with the measure for Parents and the Community Very Good. Improvements in ratings related to Governance and to Management, Staffing, Facilities and Resources to Good, are explained in the remarks from the inspectors who note that "Leadership and management of the school remain strong. Governance is improved strengthened by the work of the local advisory board. This group, who both support and provide challenge for the school, offers greater capacity for the school to improve. Whilst too many classrooms remain of a size which limits the quality of teaching for some teachers, leaders have put in place a phased plan to improve this situation and the impact of this is beginning to be evident".
Overall areas key improvement recommendations for TWS were limited:
The Westminster School did surprisingly well in WhichSchoolAdvisor.com's Best British Schools in Dubai report which pivots cost with educational achievement. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com itself has received limited feedback for Westminster, Dubai in its school survey (a surprise given the size of the school). If you are a parent at The Westminster School, please complete our survey here.
However, some 750 parents who responded to the KHDA's pre-inspection survey were found to be "very satisfied with the school's provision for the education of their child. A large minority feel that not enough is done to promote a love of reading in Arabic, but most parents particularly feel that the school makes excellent provision for the care support and guidance of their child; a view also held by the inspection team". Students also were happy at the school with some 200 (a relatively small number given overall student numbers - though the survey is only offered to Senior school students), with the report noting that "Overwhelmingly, students appear happy and well supported at the school. They feel safe and well cared - for and are satisfied that they are receiving a good education".
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.
Fees as noted are very affordable for a UK curriculum school. FS1 tuition fees start at AED 7,558 per annum and rise to AED 14,693 in Year 13. You will be hard pushed to find a UK curriculum school with lower fees, and for a GEMs school, with the results it achieves, it is very much a statistical outlier.
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