From the moment we arrive at the school we find a place where enjoyment of learning is paramount. Yet, if there is a message that the team want to convey, it’s that (the sheer joy in hearing Principal Ms Sasha Crabb’s laugh echoing down the corridors aside) there is a distinct method in the madness (a phrase which has become a catchphrase at VHPS) and that this a school focussed on attainment and student wellbeing in equal measure.
On arriving for our morning at VHPS, we notice one small but significant practical change since our last visit; the team have secured an area of open space next to the school for parking. Whilst this might not be a permanent fixture, Ms Crabb tells us that they have the space “until further notice” and that it has been a notable improvement on previous arrangements.
Want to know more about Victory Heights Primary School? Read our SCHOOL REVIEW HERE
The impact of Founding Principal Ms Crabb (winner of the SchoolsCompared.com Top School Award for Principal of the Year, 2019) is obvious in every aspect of life at VHPS. For parents more used to school leaders with a slight reserve or air of formality, Ms Crabb is likely to be surprising. But don’t be fooled… Ms Crabb a Principal with high ambition and expectation for the children in her care, as well as for her team and the school.
As Ms Crabb tells us,
“We are definitely ambitious to get to “outstanding”! [VHPS is currently rated Very Good by the KHDA]. We know we have the capacity. We have been recognised for our passion, hard work and energy and we are always looking for ways to keep improving”.
Ms Crabb is one of WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s Inspiring Women in Education, read more about her HERE.
We asked Ms Crabb to tell us what it is that makes VHPS unique. For her it is “trust” that defines her school.
“This is somewhere that everyone is allowed to be themselves" confides Ms Crabb. "The trust we all have in our staff and in our students is amazing. What this means is that everyone gives themselves wholeheartedly to the classroom. Our children are nurtured with a combination of fun and really high expectations”.
VHPS is one of only a handful of standalone primary schools in Dubai. Ms Crabb personally meets with each Year 5 student and their family to ensure that they choose the “right fit” secondary school and to help them to navigate the application process.
Despite the praise and awards, Ms Crabb is keen to shine the spotlight on the impact, innovation and leadership of her team. For this reason, she hands over much of our School Experience visit to Laura Dowlman, Head Teacher and Ms Dowlman’s passionate teaching team.
Ms Dowlman leads us on a tour of the school and introduces us to a number of key personnel. The first is Hannah Hepworth, Early Years Coordinator. Ms Hepworth is a highly knowledgeable Early Years leader and is brimming with enthusiasm for her phase of the school.
The very youngest students at VHPS, the FS1 year group, are housed in a building that is entirely separate from the rest of the school (connected to the main school by a “rainbow bridge” which we like as a creative touch!). Ms Hepworth loves how this arrangement allows the children to have a very gentle transition to “big school”. Our consultant agreed that the unit has a “nursery like” feel and atmosphere. The children visit the main school buildings for assemblies, PE and swimming. Classrooms are laid out around a central play area and children have freedom to choose their own activities. Teachers encourage learning through play, with a balance of a small number of adult led activities.
Ms Hepworth points out thoughtful touches such as the low level display boards, which are at child height to ensure that the children can enjoy and take pride in their work on display. Each classroom has access to a well-equipped outdoor area which surrounds the entire building.
Our tour continues (back over the rainbow bridge!) in the main building. This isn’t a “high gloss” campus but it does have all the facilities one might expect in a Dubai school. There is a swimming pool (indoor to ensure that swimming goes on all year round, which ensures that “our children become fantastic swimmers”, Ms Dowlman says), football pitch, library and specialist music, art, STEAM and ICT rooms.
Classrooms are spacious and bright, and cluster around central areas designed for group work and activities. There is no canteen building, but a shaded area outside is served by a café/hot food provider.
This year, a new, larger office space has been created to accommodate the 17 members of the inclusion team at VHPS. In our opinion, such a large cohort working to support children of all abilities demonstrates a true commitment to this vitally important facet of education.
Being a small campus has meant an emphasis on the creative use of space; we were impressed to see a wellbeing garden had been created in a small, otherwise unused outdoor area on the first floor.
We also notice that the throughout the school, display boards are used meaningfully to support the children’s learning, rather than as simply a space to hang art work. That said, art is a vital component of the curriculum. Ms Dowlman tells us that they have recently adapted the curriculum to give every child a one hour specialist art session per fortnight rather than 30 minutes per week as before. “An hour means the children can dive deeper into whatever they are doing. Sasha and I agree that art is incredibly important and this change has worked really well."
We meet a panel of seven Year 6 students, most of whom have been with the school since it opened. The children all very confident, have a real way with words and a relaxed sense of fun. There is no hesitation or shyness around speaking to a new adult and there are proud to tell us all about their “special” school.
Want to know more about Victory Heights Primary School? Read our SCHOOL REVIEW HERE
When asked to describe life at VHPS, one of our panel begins by saying “I mean…have you met our Principal? I bet she is the funniest school Principal in Dubai!” They are full of praise for all the teachers saying that “everyone is kind” and that the teachers are “nice, strict and fair”.
Our panel are a sporty bunch and tell us about the “friendly competitiveness” that suddenly appears in the school should a house sporting event take place. “Everyone gets to take part” says one student and “winning is the cherry on the cupcake!” Outside of school, they were particularly proud of an overall second place finish at the recent British Schools in the Middle East sporting competition. The children were rightly proud to say that they placed first in netball and swimming and second in the athletics competition in the same event.
There’s plenty going on for those with interests outside of sport too. There is a Student Executive Committee, who take responsibility for many things, including “Happiness and Wellbeing” initiatives. The students enjoy the many competitions that the teachers organise (“there’s always a new competition going on” said one). A particular highlight was “VHPS Teachers Got Talent” (highly competitive, we hear!).
Extra-curricular activities appear very popular with the pupils. For Key Stage 1, there is a ‘carousel’ of activities on rotation, for other students there is a diverse range of choices including drama, dance, lots of sports and Arabic and Islamic activities.
There are small things that the students would like to change about their school. The library, (although improved since its first home) is “too small” and the uniform is “uncomfortable and sweaty”. Although the students liked the food from the canteen, the queues could be very long, meaning that they either had to miss play time or eat in their lessons, not ideal.
Last words to describe their school from our student panel? After some discussion, they agree on “achievement, challenge and nurture” – very much in line with that of the school leadership team, we were impressed!
We meet with Fran Knowles, Head of English and Ben Rothwell Assistant Head and Innovation Leader at VHPS.
Mr Rothwell has taken a lead with two areas of practice: the continuous professional development of the team and action research. He tells us that the school have created a concept they called VHPSU (Victory Heights Primary School University) which is a bespoke programme of individualised professional development designed to ensure that all teachers have access to highly targeted training or other development resources. In addition, this year, all teachers and school leaders have been required to undertake a research project, the findings of which will be shared within the school teaching community.
This approach has clearly had an impact on Ms Knowles, who describes VHPS as “by far the best school for Professional Development I have ever worked in”. Ms Knowles tells us that the peer observations and moderations between staff are “productive, useful and positive”.
We meet five parents, with children spanning the school between FS2 and Year 6.
The first parent we speak with was delighted to tell us how much their child had blossomed since joining the school. Having moved from another school for a range of issues, there had been some trepidation, but “this is such a different school for Dubai!” The family were delighted with how their child had flourished at VHPS.
We asked the parents for a few words and phrases to describe the school. After a good chat they came up with “fun”, “everything is about the small things”, “compassion for families”, “quirky”, “there is a definite competitive side” and “challenging”.
The parent panel agreed that the leadership of the school was “outstanding”. One said, “they just employ great people at this school, that is what is comes down to”. Parent and school partnerships were seen as solid, with one Mum commenting that the school “seeks out parent interaction. I do like this but sometimes it can become a challenge, they almost ask for too much interaction. I guess it is hard for them to strike a balance”.
When it comes to curriculum, the parents liked the “real emphasis on reading, spelling and writing”. They also praised the traditional air of good natured competitiveness “this isn’t a school where everyone gets the rosette!” said one Dad on the panel.
If anything could be improved, it would be school trips which could, perhaps “do with a bit of a shake up” and the food provision. Although the parents like the food, they would like a designated space for the children to eat inside, especially in the hot months. That said, they recognised that this was always going to be an issue when choosing a school on a relatively small campus.
Parents felt that the school offered “very good value for money”. “It’s small, without the glitz and the glamour, but the education our kids is getting is terrific. This school recognises that everyone is good at something and goes out of the way to find it” said one.
Dare we use the cliché “small school, big heart”? Well, yes…because that it exactly what VHPS is. But it is also much more than that. This is a school which produces well rounded children, ready to excel in the next phase of their education.
VHPS is a truly inclusive school, on the trajectory for an outstanding rating from the KHDA. It achieves all this with far fewer resources than many of its local counterparts. How? Simple: a stellar leader and a stellar team.
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