Opened in 2005 in Dubai Festival City, Universal American School is one of two schools in this location that are owned and operated by the Al Futtaim Education Foundation as not for profit schools. The school operates a mixed US/IB curriculum. UAS is one of a small number of US curriculum schools to have achieved the KHDA's second highest rating of Very Good.
Located in Festival City, Universal American School (UAS) provides education for approximately 1,030 boys and girls (a reduction of almost 300 on the previous year) from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12, aged three to 18 years. In 2018, the management of the school was transferred from ESOL Education to the owners of the school building and Festival City development, Al Futtaim, through its Al Futtaim Education Foundation, converting to a not-for-profit organisation as part of this change.
Reviews of the school are somewhat mixed - parents rated it 2.9/5 - a positivity rating of 58%. Comments from parents, teachers and students to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com have been relatively limited in the current academic year, although just over 90 parents have responded to our School Survey.
Recent feedback includes:
"Excellent curriculum. Competent teachers. Lovely community and great sense of belonging. UAS is a home away from home."
"Great learning and growing atmosphere."
In August 2020, AFEF announced the appointment of Mrs. Janecke Aarnaes as Director of Universal American School. Mrs. Aarnaes joined the school from Dwight School Dubai where she was the Founding Principal. Mrs. Aarnaes has a strong background in the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
For reasons that have not been clarified, in January 2022, Mrs. Aarneas was replaced by Mr. Kevin Loft as Principal. A New Zealander with experience in the UK, Mr. Loft was previously with GEMS Education as Principal of one of the UK/IB curriculum schools and one of its two Outstanding rated UK curriculum Primary schools in Dubai. He does not appear to have previously led a US curriculum school.
About 70 nationalities are represented within the student body, served by 124 full time teachers, and 19 teaching assistants. The largest proportion of student nationalities is Arabic, whilst teachers are mainly from the USA. With a teacher:student ratio of 1:8, students are assured of a good deal of individual attention, though teacher turnover, at 31% in 2018, and 25% in 2017, is considerably above the UAE average (of 20-22%). It seems likely that this level of turnover results from the recent change in management, which has resulted in a complete overhaul of staffing at all levels.
Some 88 students (approximately 8.5%) are Emirati and 70 students (just under 7%) have been identified as Students of Determination with additional learning requirements.
Universal American School is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA) and the Council of International Schools (CIS). It is also accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organisation to teach its Primary Years and Diploma programmes.
UAS offers a mix of curricula in KG and Elementary School sections (using the Creative Curriculum as the resource for teaching the IB Primary Years Programme), and following the US AERO Common Core in Middle and Junior High school sections. In Senior High School students have two curriculum pathways in Grades 11 and 12 - either the AERO/AP programme or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Students also participate in PSAT, SAT I and II examinations.
The school follows the US AERO/NGSS standards from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 6, using The Creative Curriculum as the principal resource, together with the increasingly popular International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP) methodology. The Creative Curriculum is a comprehensive, research-based curriculum aligned to the philosophy of the IB PYP, which features exploration and discovery as a way of learning, enabling children to develop confidence, creativity, and lifelong critical-thinking skills. Children receive specialist classes in Music, PE, and Art from Pre-KG, with Arabic classes starting in KG1.
Starting in the 2019-20 academic year, UAS will offer its Early Years Program as a full school day and an After School Care program will be extended for all students from Pre-KG to Grade 5.
From Grades 7 to 10, UAS students follow the US AERO/NGSS Common Core curriculum. The AERO standards based curriculum teaches students to think critically with an emphasis on inquiry-driven instructional strategies. Elective Classes allow students to explore languages and the arts, including Spanish, French, and Arabic, and visual arts, theatre, band and choir programmes, and Film and Media studies.
The school also offers a 'Week Without Walls' programme to all Middle School students on an annual basis, which provides learning experiences for students to extend their curricular knowledge beyond the classroom. Each grade is offered an opportunity to participate in either an overseas (Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia and Tanzania are among the countries included) or UAE-based activity week. This is usually service-based and is an opportunity for students to take part in the type of experience required for the CAS (Community, Action and Service) element of the IB Diploma programme.
The exposure to AERO standards in Middle and Lower High school sections is designed to help students make informed choices as learners in their pathway selection in Grades 11 and 12. During their 10th grade year, students, teachers, counselors, and parents work together closely to select an appropriate, personalised graduation pathway.
From September 2019, UAS also began offering the US AERO Common Core Plus standards and Advanced Placement courses in Grades 11 and 12, as an alternative to the two year IB Diploma Programme. This provides students with access to two separate pathways towards College and University entry with the AERO/AP pathway enabling students to earn university credits. All students earn an American High School Diploma.
UAS offers a wide range of extracurricular After School Activities in the Elementary School - details can be found here. In Middle and High School, activities are based on-campus and include Student government/Voice/Council, Environmental club, Yearbook and Media, Girls Talk, Model United Nations (MUN), Community, Activity and Service, and National Honor Society.
CAS activities at UAS include Arabic Newspaper, IB art immersion, Book Club, SAT Prep, Peer Tutoring, Sailing, Girl Guides, Yearbook, Golf, Tennis, Cheerleading, Yoga, Fitness Boot camp, and Chess Club.
As would be expected an American school, UAS offers a range of athletics and other sports activities and teams. UAS is a member of the Emirates Athletic Conference (EAC) as well as the Near East Schools Activities Conference (NESAC). Junior Scorpions (Grades 4-6) focus their training efforts on developing the skills of soccer, track and field, and basketball. The emphasis at the the Middle School level through the Middle School Scorpions is on cultivating student interest, skill development, and proper technique of the particular sport more so than winning. Students are encouraged subsequently to participate at Junior Varsity and Varsity level.
Historically, UAS has been reluctant to share details of its students' academic achievements which have largely been through participation in the rigorous IB Diploma Programme. We at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com are delighted that the school has shared its results in detail since 2019. Results are not, and cannot be the be-all and end-all of a school's successful all-round education of its students, but parents are inevitably keen to understand all aspects of a school's performance.
In 2020 and 2021, students did not take final examinations for the IB Diploma due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Awards were based on Centre Assessed Grades (teachers' predictions), together with the outcome of assessments submitted to, and marked by, IB examiners.
In 2021, 41 students were registered for the Diploma achieving a pass rate of 100%. Five students (12%) broke school records, attaining 40+ points. The overall average was 34 points with 44% of students achieving 35+ points and 90% of this year's graduates obtained 30+ points.
In 2020, a cohort of 36 students achieved an overall point score of 32 points and a 100% pass rate. 31% of students achieved 35+ points, and 61% achieved 30+ points. 3% achieved 40+ points.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com believes that there is general evidence of grade inflation, particularly in the 2021 results - the global IB average score was raised from 31.34 in 2020 to 32.99 points in 2021, a further significant leap from the figure of 29.62 in 2019, when students last took the IB exams. This appears to be more marked in the UAE, where the average has grown from 32.26 in 2019, and in 2020 when it was 34.41, to 35.89 in 2021. We would anticipate that there will be a correction in 2022, when students are expected to sit exams in the usual way.
In 2019, UAS had a cohort of 56 students who sat the IBDP and achieved an 88% pass rate, with an average score of 30.43 points, well above the global score of 29.62. This year’s cohort improved the average score for the school by 1.4 points, bringing the school above the world average. The top student achieved a remarkable 44 points, setting a new school record. The school saw an 8% increase in the percentage of students who achieved above 35 points.
What about Facilities?
Facilities at UAS are excellent. The school stands on a very large plot of 70,000 sqm at the heart of Dubai Festival City with spacious outdoor and indoor space. The building was designed by U.S. based architects THA, and includes an indoor Multi-sport gymnasium, Olympic size track and soccer field, swimming pool, and a Natural grass football pitch as well as extensive indoor and outdoor covered play areas.
Inside, facilities include spacious classrooms with natural light and extensive IT facilities, vocal and instrumental music rooms, language specialist rooms, two large fully equipped art studios, computer and science laboratories, separate elementary and secondary libraries and a Multi-purpose hall.
What the inspectors say
Ranked 'Good' by the KHDA for eight years running, UAS succeeded in the tenth year of KHDA inspections, in obtaining the second highest rating of Very Good in the 2017-18 round, repeating this rating in the 2018-19 inspection round. This is a not inconsiderable achievement, given that the Inspection focus, by the admission of the KHDA, has grown more demanding every year.
In September 2019, the KHDA announced that full DSIB inspections would no longer take place on an annual basis for schools rated Very Good or Outstanding. Instead, these schools would be subject to a one day review visit each year. With the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic, no visit took place in 2019-20 and no inspections or visits took place to any UAE schools in 2020-21. UAS did take part in the Distance Learning Evaluation which was implemented for all UAE schools in 2020 and was awarded the highest rating of Developed. You can read the report here.
One significant factor which had affected UAS at the time of the last full inspection in 2018-19, was the change in management of the school from ESOL Education to the owners and developers of the school and the Dubai Festival City community - not-for-profit Al Futtaim Education Foundation.
Inspectors were clearly aware of the challenges faced by the new management team at the school, noting that "the school has a new leadership team and new Board of Governors who have taken on roles of responsibility as the school makes the transition to a new management. Governors have managed to support the change and bring a level of stability that has effectively maintained student outcomes. The parents are highly supportive of the school." This is something of an achievement. Overall, ratings slipped in only three instances, with the vast majority remaining as per 2017-18.
The inspection team found the strengths of UAS to be:
There has been some slippage in regard to Student Achievement, with Middle School First language Arabic have slipped to Acceptable for both attainment and progress. This was also the case for Mathematics progress in the Middle School which had fallen to Good. However, overall ratings for the KG and Elementary sections for the core subjects of English, Maths and Science were almost entirely rated Very Good. Middle and High School ratings were Very Good for English, but remained Good across Maths and Science.
For the second of the key performance standards - that of Students' Personal and Social Development, and their innovation skills, UAS achieved a clean sweep of Outstanding ratings throughout the school.
Reflective of the ratings for the core subjects in the KG and Elementary sections, Teaching and Assessment were rated Very Good. And whilst Assessment was rated Very Good in the Middle and High school sections, Teaching for effective learning was deemed to be Good. Inspectors noted that "there are appropriate processes and procedures for the collection of assessment data, but the use of these and MAP data is not always effective enough to meet the needs of all groups of students."
Curriculum design and adaptation were rated Very Good across the school, with the exception of KG where the implementation was rated Outstanding, and the High School where adaptation was rated Good.
Ratings remained unchanged for the Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of students, with Health and Safety and Safeguarding remaining Outstanding, whilst Care and Support were broadly rated Very Good. UAS is also recognised as an inclusive school with the provision and outcome for students with SEND requirements again rated Very Good.
The final key indicator - that of leadership and management - shows Outstanding ratings for Parents and the Community, and Management, Staffing, Resources and Facilities.
Although the three criteria of the Effectiveness of Leadership, School Self-Evaluation, and Governance were again rated Very Good rather than Outstanding, a year ago, we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com were of the opinion that the positive feedback from the inspection team suggested that the higher rating was not too far away.
It now appears, despite the success of the Leadership and Governors in maintaining the high standards that enabled the school to achieve the Very Good rating a year prior, that, inevitably, there are a number of areas where improvements are required, which may slow the ability of UAS to make the step up to the top 'Outstanding' rating.
The KHDA Inspection team made the following recommendations for improvement:
If you would like to read the full KHDA Inspection Report - and we strongly advise that you do so in order to understand the reasons behind the rating - you will find it here.
The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey has received over 90 responses. We were somewhat surprised to see that the overall rating for the school was 2.9/5 - a positivity rating of 58%. Whilst children evidently appreciate UAS - with over 80% feeling 'quite a bit' or a 'tremendous amount' of belonging, and over 90% clearly enjoy going to school, parents do not appear to be as satisfied, with 60% satisfied and a further 21% partially satisfied with the academic performance of the school. A significant 41% of respondents said that the need to organise additional tuition outside of school.
Communication and disciplinary policy and implementation seem to be viewed positively by the majority of parents and are inline with UAE averages. Most parents also feel that the school has improved their child's confidence 'a lot' or a 'great deal'. Interestingly, whilst 24% of parents had, at some point, considered moving their child to another school, 78% would still whole-heartedly recommend UAS to other parents.
We wonder whether one particular factor in this apparent conflict is parents' relatively high level of concern about the school's fees. Whilst just over 1/3 of respondents (34%) believe that they represent good value for money, 45% only partially agreed with this statement and a further 21% (almost double the UAE average) disagreed with this view. Whilst fee levels are a perennial cause for grievance in many schools, they seem to be a particular issue among a substantial portion our Survey respondents.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at UAS, please share your opinions and experiences with other potential members of your community and complete our survey here.
181 parents participated in the KHDA's 2018-19 pre-inspection survey. Although 88% stated that they were satisfied with the quality of education provided by the school, 12% strongly disagreed - an unusually high figure in our experience.
Parents perceived their children to be happy and to feel safe at school. They were positive about their children's well-being. A very few parents, according to the KHDA inspection team, indicated that they were never involved in activities at the school. It will be interesting to see whether parents' sentiments have changed when the management change has settled at the school.
Whilst inevitably having to deal with some significant changes - from the Director of the school, through the school staff and at the Governors' level - Universal American School cannot be faulted for its focus on the delivery of a strong US curriculum at all levels of the school, enhanced by the IB programmes.
There are still a large number of schools - particularly north of the Creek, that are American in name only, and still have a long way to go to offer the quality of education that UAS delivers. This places UAS in the top tier of US curriculum schools in Dubai - and ahead of many more. The strengthening of the US curriculum options at the Senior level will enable the school to deliver a still higher standard for graduates and a wider range of options in terms of the academic demands made upon them.
Fees for Universal American School are top end, starting at AED 29,864 for pre-KG and rising to AED 76,670 for Grade 12. Not the most expensive school in the UAE by any means, but certainly in the top tier. There is also a AED 3,000 registration fee post acceptance.
Students applying for PreKG, KGI, and KGII attend a play-based assessment. Students applying for grades 1 to 11 take an assessment test in Maths and English.
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