Willow Umm Suqiem created quite a buzz when it first opened six years ago. Here we take a look at the Willow Marina branch to see whether the Willow ethos and feel has translated to this very different location.
Willow Nursery was founded in 2010 by Jan Webber, an Early Years Specialist with over 30 years of experience in the field. She is the current director of the nurseries and has been since their opening.
The nursery takes babies from 45 days old, which are cared for by trained Early Years specialists.
Willow Nursery has also been selected as the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) International Nursery of the Year for 2017. This organization is well known in the UK for its advocacy and support of nurseries.
Willow Nursery – Dubai Marina, 24 May 2017, 8.30am
Willow is located on the one way Al Seba Street, just a short drive from exit 29 of the Sheikh Zayed Road. This is a great location for families in the Marina and JBR, but also for parents commuting into Dubai from further afield. Parking is on street with parents allowed a free 15 minute window for drop off (staff report a friendly relationship with the local traffic wardens!).
Entry to the nursery is via a security gate monitored with CCTV. We are met in the reception area by Emma Deakin, Nursery Director. Emma is an experienced Early Years manager and a Willow mum, her 5 month old baby Daisy being a member of the youngest class. Having qualified in the UK, Emma has two OFTSED “outstanding” ratings under her belt and was previously founding Principal of the popular Golden Gate nursery.
Emma is clearly passionate about teamwork, and references the quality of her team throughout our chat. “We are all friends here” is a phrase she uses several times, both when talking about the staff and children! Emma wants Willow to emphasise and praise the unique strengths of each child, and for her team to focus on kindness and good manners at all times. The role modelling of good values and kindness is reinforced regularly.
Staff are generally recruited via recommendation and word of mouth. Nearly 100% of the teaching staff are British, with one teacher hailing from Sweden. Teaching Assistants are generally Filipino, who are offered training courses in the EYFS (Cache Level 2) to bring them up to speed with the English Early Years Foundation Stage. Each new member of staff has a mentor, who is on hand to help them to settle and learn the “Willow way”. Eleven members of staff are first aid trained and there is always a Dubai Health Authority registered nurse on site.
Despite this being primarily an EYFS nursery, Emma cites the Reggio Emilio inspired ethos of Willow (an approach which focuses on both independence and enquiry based learning) as a real strength of the organisation. Teachers are trained to allow children freedom of choice, freedom of speech and to follow their own preferences and interests.
There is no entrance assessment at Willow, and wherever possible they hope to be fully inclusive for children with Special Educational Needs. If such a need is identified once a child is enrolled, teachers will work closely with parents to support the child in house in the first instance. Should extra support be needed, Willow often works with the well regarded Sensation Station Centre in JLT. A centre which offers occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and other bespoke therapies.
Communication with parents is good, with teachers sending daily updates and photos via an app. There are regular written reports and a weekly newsletter. Regular parental involvement events are evident on the busy nursery calendar, with the most recent being a cookery class and health and nutrition seminar.
We met one highly enthusiastic father, Rohit, whose 3 year old daughter attends five full days per week. Rohit had found the nursery before even moving to Dubai, and was very happy when it lived up to his expectations. He described Willow as being well structured and organised but also flexible to the needs of he and his wife, who both work full time. He felt that the parking situation could be a little better but that they were able to manage satisfactorily.
Emma showed us around the nursery, which is formed from two older villas which have be thoroughly renovated and repurposed. The first class we visited was the baby room, where all but one child was sleeping peacefully! As we entered, the teacher in the class, Tara, was cuddling and giggling with the one child not asleep. The room felt calm and well organised. Our reviewers were pleased to see that the room had a “Perfect Prep” machine for the hygienic preparation of formula milk, as well as a fridge for the storage of other milk and food items.
Tara clearly loves working at Willow, describing the team as “like a family” and telling us how the staff make a point of getting to know the children in all the classrooms, not just their own. The baby room is able to cater for children aged up to 12 months, although this is flexible depending on when each child is ready to move to an older group.
As we toured the nursery we met children engaged in a number of interesting activities. One group were thoroughly covered in paint, including their face and hair in some cases. They all found this hilarious and staff were very relaxed about it – the enquiry based learning model at work! In other rooms children were snacking happily, helped by staff wearing disposable plastic aprons and gloves, a hygiene habit Emma has brought with her from the UK.
Staff ratios are in line with EYFS recommendations, with the following in place:
· Children under 2 – 1 adult : 3 children
· Children age 2-3 – 1 adult : 4 children
· Children age 3+ - 1 adult : 8 children
Willow is able to cater for children up to the age of 4 with one FS1 class. Most children will move on to Arcadia Preparatory School, Dubai British School or Clarion School.
Outside, the nursery has a very large garden area – unusual for this built up neighbourhood. The garden is shaded and loosely split into two areas, one for younger children and one for older children. Play equipment is mostly wooden and good quality. There is a sandpit and area for water play. It was too hot for outdoor play when we visited, but Emma did tell us that the children love to wave to the police patrol boats as they pass by.
Willow uses an outside sports provider - New York Sports - to deliver a number of extra-curricular activities such as gym classes, football, ballet, tennis and Zumba. Children have two language lessons per week (Arabic and French) and a weekly music class. There is a balance between classes included in the general term fee and those which are at an additional charge.
Food is not provided by the nursery, but it does have a link with Leela’s Lunches who deliver healthy hot meals and snacks at intervals throughout the day. Emma was keen to point out that the nursery does not add a surcharge to the cost of these meals, with a full term’s worth of meals (5 full days per week) costing 1200 AED per child.
Overall, we felt that this branch of Willow has done an excellent job of continuing the group’s natural, nurturing and Reggio Emilio inspired ethos. In addition, we felt that the strong teaching and management team and superb outdoor areas were particular strengths.
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