We rounded up a panel of Dubai mums to find out what's really going on in our emirate's schools
Time Out: Did you know that expat kids have been entitled to be part of the UAE’s public education system since 2006? Isabel: I had no idea.
Ana: As an expat you’d probably want something similar to what you’ve come from, though.
Beatrix: I tried to get Mariam into one but they said there was no space, otherwise I would have – why not? I think it’s a bit silly to come to another country and then have your kids in a school that’s just like the ones where you came from.
Ingvild: We didn’t even think about it because we got a list from my husband’s company that named all the international schools. So it was kind of ruled out from the beginning.
Time Out: How did you decide on the school for your kids? Ana: I’m Portuguese and my husband is Italian, so for me it was about finding a school system that I’d be able to find wherever I go. That basically meant it had to be English-speaking, with a British or American curriculum. I settled on British because at the time I was working in a British school, and I wanted my children to be with me.
Ingvild: It was very important for me to have all my children in the same school – my youngest one was only three years old, and had been in kindergarten in Norway. My choice was between the British, American or French systems [Ingvild’s husband is French]. I actually saw seven schools, ruling them out because I didn’t like the staff. Another thing was that my kids didn’t speak any English, just French and Norwegian, so I needed to find a school that could work with their English. I eventually chose ISAS [International School of Arts and Science]. From the first time I walked through the door, especially because of the headmaster and teachers I met, I just knew it was the right one.
Isabel: When Emma got offered a place at JC [Jumeirah College], I walked in and thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of school that I went to as a kid, but better!’ – it just felt really good. We picked JPS [Jumeirah Primary School] for Tom on the back of JC.
Ana: It’s not the name of the school, it’s what you feel when you walk in that has to count. But I did not have that choice. I looked through the directory from A to Z, and Wellington was the only school that said ‘Come in and have a look’. All the other ones just closed the doors because we weren’t British.
Time Out: What has your experience of the admissions procedure been like? Beatrix: I had huge problems with the stamps* that are required. Mariam’s last school was in Hungary and so we needed five sets.
Ana: No, it’s four because Hungary’s in the European Community.
Beatrix: Believe me, it’s five, or that’s what we were told. A lot of people think that Hungary is Eastern Europe, not EC. But I would have to actually go to the education ministry to get a straight answer.
Isabel: Regardless of whether it’s four or five, it’s really complicated for an ordinary person on the ground. I know it makes a lot of sense when you as a registrar go through it, but that’s because it’s your job.
Ana: But the paperwork issue has more to do with the ministry than the schools really – I’ve had transfer certificates that for me were OK, but they were sent back because there was a word that they didn’t like – like ‘equivalent’. Don’t ever write ‘equivalent’ on a transfer certificate, for example saying ‘year three in the Norwegian system is equivalent to year four in the British system’, because it’ll be rejected. Instead, just put in brackets, ‘(year four British curriculum)’.
Beatrix: This famous transfer certificate was a huge problem for us. My criteria became, simply, whoever doesn’t need one! Wellington was brilliant, it even offered to open a new class for Mariam, although we didn’t end up choosing it because it was quite expensive. I eventually chose Dubai British School because it was the closest to our home. But it wasn’t a free choice; that is taken away from you – by the time you’ve actually got any offers you just want your kid to be going to school. Every day Mariam would ask me, ‘Can I go to school yet?’ And I would have to tell her she couldn’t because there were no places. She’s had a really rough time.
Ingvild: This sort of thing always happens, and it’s got nothing to do with availability. If your kids can’t speak English, they don’t care if there’s a place available. And yet they’re still allowed to call themselves international schools, which just isn’t good enough. In Europe, they wouldn’t allow schools to call themselves international if they didn’t have a system in place to cater for this. Isabel: But, in fairness, the schools here aren’t pretending to give that facility. I can’t see Dubai ever gearing itself up for that.
Ana: When Wellington says it’s international, at least it’s based on the number of different nationalities there – it’s a means of differentiating ourselves against schools that demand that you have a British passport. That’s discrimination.
Beatrix: It is true that if you’re flinging your British passport around you get things much quicker.
Isabel: But, in a way, that makes sense if it’s an English curriculum at an English-speaking school.
Ana: But it’s proven that up until about five or six years old, it’s very easy to sit in a classroom and pick up a language. After that age, it’s no longer as easy and you need lessons. My youngest child didn’t speak any English at all when he joined. He’s now in year two and he speaks English better than some of the British children in his class!
Ingvild: I went to ISAS and they said ‘No problem, we’ll teach your kids English in no time.’ There was no mention of not being able to do it, or it being a hassle. But admissions aren’t just a matter of nationality and language. A friend of mine has a daughter who’s dyslexic and one school refused to take her. What kind of stupidity is that? I mean, come on, we’re not talking about having a huge handicap here – dyslexia wouldn’t even be considered a problem where I come from.
Time Out: Which country’s curriculum would you say is the best? Ingvild: I prefer the Norwegian system, but here I’ve got them in an American school. I’m lucky – being here for just a year, whatever choice I make is not something that will bind me forever. But I have shown the Norwegian school what my kids are doing in math, English and science, and they were more than happy with it.
Ana: I’m amazed that there are no Portuguese or Italian schools here – I’d prefer my children to be in one of those.
Isabel: Our schools do the English curriculum. It’s not necessarily the best in the world, but it’s really well known and accepted in most countries. It’s certainly our expectation that if we moved to the UK tomorrow, our kids would be able to slot right back in at the same level because they’re studying the same subjects.
Ana: The main difference would be that it’s slightly adapted to suit various cultures. So in history, they still talk about the kings of England, but the trend is increasingly not to focus on that too much because there’s so much more in the world. But literacy and numeracy are exactly the same as what they’d be doing in the UK.
Ingvild: I really like the American system used at ISAS because it’s much more creative than the British curriculum. They have beautiful labs, which even the small kids use, and they learn how to make food, and, again, the little ones are doing this too. I absolutely love the idea of seeing my child do that in school. Another thing I really like is that they do the same things across the year groups – so my daughter, who’s six, will be studying the same subject as her nine-year-old brother but in a less complicated way, and they actually work together on their homework, which is really encouraging for her. It’s brilliant.
Ana: That’s great to hear. I’m more and more convinced that it’s not the curriculum the schools follow, it’s the school. My oldest son, who was in a British school in Florence, then an American school, then a Portuguese school, and now British again, hated the American school. He lost all his self confidence. Then we went to Portugal, which is considered a minor country, but, for us, it was the best school ever.
Time Out: What do you think the perception of a UAE education is in other countries? Beatrix: I think it’s very bad. Based on this, I don’t think Mariam will go on to further education.
Isabel: I think schools in Dubai compare very favourably with British state schools, so I’d be happy that my kids are being educated right bang on with the local state school. But, bearing in mind that I pay quite a bit for their education, I think it’s fair to say that they don’t compare very favourably with private schools in the UK. *On starting school in the UAE, expat students must produce a transfer certificate from their last school. Unless they are from Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, the UAE or America, it must also be stamped by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UAE Embassy.