| Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Education debate

Parents in Dubai debate the merits of different curricula, international perception of UAE schooling and whether kids enjoy school

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Debate Team

Ingvild Denut, A former government adviser from Stavanger in Norway, has three children: Marius, 4, Amelie, 6 and Tobias, 9. They all attend the International School of Arts and Science, and have been living in Garhoud for one year.

Sustainability and environmental consultant Beatrix Ferenczi has one daughter, 10-year-old Mariam, who goes to Dubai British School. They have been living in Emirates Hills for five months, and originally come from the town of Szeged in Hungary.

Hailing from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, full-time consultant Isabel Haran has lived in Jumeirah for 18 months. Her son Thomas, 7, goes to Jumeirah Primary School and her 12-year-old daughter, Emma, is at Jumeirah College.

Ana Scalamandre’, a two-year resident of Sheikh Zayed Road, is from Lisbon in Portugal. Her children, Ruy, 7, and Pedro, 11 attend Wellington International School, where she works full-time as a registrar.

What got us talking…

Last month, we tasked our participants with telling us about their experiences of breaking into Dubai’s infamously impenetrable education system – but they had so much to say, we couldn’t fit it all into one issue. Living in such a multicultural city, our second installment sees them discuss the merits of different countries’ curricula, how they think their kids’ education in Dubai is perceived by those overseas, and the oft-forgotten matter of whether their children actually enjoy school.

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 maths, 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 [The International School of Arts and Science] 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.

Isabel: Jumeirah College [JC] covers a huge range of courses. For the slightly more obscure ones, especially for A-level students, they have remote learning where you have a video conference. I think that’s fabulous, and it encompasses complex subjects when they can’t accommodate them here.

Beatrix: I think Hungarian is the best. Your kids are really taught to have respect, whereas here, they can just do whatever – even throw things at the teacher.

Ingvild: You mean there’s no discipline in the school? Well at ISAS there’s lots of discipline.

Ana: I find that it’s the attitude that’s very different. We are living in a society where nearly everyone has maids, and that inevitably affects the way kids behave. That’s why I won’t have a maid living in.

Isabel: You can blame it on having a maid, but I think it’s about parental discipline. I have a maid and I also work a lot, and if I heard that my kids had been disruptive in class, I would come down on them like a ton of bricks. And because I have a very good relationship with the other mums in the class, I’d ring them up and say, ‘Sorry about Tom,’ or if it was the other way around I’d ring them and say, ‘Your little Johnny has been mean to my kid and I want you to do something about that.’ And certainly in my two schools, the kids are happy – they’re encouraged to be neat and tidy and respectful, but they’re not really regimented or anything.

Ana: I’m like a general in my school! Sometimes the students will walk past my office door and I’ll say, ‘Stop the ball, tidy up, tuck your shirt in…’

Isabel: When I was looking at JC, we were walking down the corridor and there was this scruffy guy with his shirt hanging out, and a teacher said, ‘Raymond, tuck your shirt in!’ The boy said ‘Yes Mr Bell,’ and I liked that because the teacher knew the kid’s name and the kid knew the teacher’s name; the teacher wasn’t afraid to tell the kid off and the kid wasn’t afraid to accept that there are rules.

How would you feel if your kids did badly in their exams?
Ingvild: Well you might want to ask for a refund from the school for charging you all that money without providing the child with the tools to at least have a minimum
level of knowledge.

Ana: But everywhere people fail school. I don’t think that’s particular to Dubai and I don’t see how the schools should be paying for that when it’s a country law that you have to send them to school.

Beatrix: But you’re paying for them to go to private school.

Isabel: What is the private schools’ proposition to the parents? They’re just saying, ‘Give me lots of money.’ We’re not looking for babysitters, you know. I’m a consultant, and if I tell a client I’m going to do something and I don’t do it, they either won’t pay my fee or they’ll sue me. These schools are businesses and if their business proposition is to educate your kids to a particular level, the accountability really must be there.

Ana: I’ve always had my kids in private schools and I can see your point, but failure happens all over the world, not just here.

Beatrix: One solution is what I’m doing with Mariam: she is still a pupil in a Hungarian school which allows your kids to be absent but remain a student. They’re doing the Hungarian curriculum, so she does her homework, plus an hour-and-a-half every day from each subject – and we don’t have to pay.

Ingvild: I don’t do that with my kids because they are so young and we’re staying here for such a short period, but we have the opportunity to do exactly the same through the internet. The system is actually organised by the Norwegian government.

Do your kids enjoy school?
Isabel: There are loads of extra clubs in both my kids’ schools, and that’s teachers giving up their spare time which I’m not sure they’re paid for, so hats off to them; that’s super. Emma has a huge amount of freedom because she’s in secondary school, and she’s just lapping it up – she organises mall dates, and she has a good crowd of friends in school who seem to get on great. It’s nice to see that they’re all multicultural and that they speak languages other than English, and that they are getting experiences that they really wouldn’t ever gain in the UK. I genuinely think that both the schools I chose for my kids are very good.

Beatrix: I went to the parent and teacher evening and the teacher said she was concerned about Mariam because she just reads all the time. She’d rather be in the library and I’m concerned that she doesn’t really mix with the class. But every week a new student seems to start, and another one leaves, and Mariam now says, ‘I don’t want to waste my time with other kids,’ so she’s in the library.

Isabel: Unfortunately, the size of primary classes has gone up to between 26 and 29. I understand why – they have to run as a business, they’re not allowed to put their fees up, but their rent and the cost of teachers is going up. But from an enjoyment perspective, it will impact the kids because the teachers won’t be able to give them as much time and they’ll be more stressed.

Ingvild: My youngest child, who is four years old, will cry on Saturdays because he cannot go to school! He loves his teacher, he loves the fellow students and one of the first phrases he learnt in English was ‘I’m proud of you’. He said his teacher was telling him this! That’s when I knew that I chose the right school.

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.

How about at A-level?
Isabel: JC, where my daughter goes, has had outstanding GCSE and A-level results, even compared to the UK – and this year they got their first student into Oxford. I think they’re beginning to mature into a school that can credibly offer A-levels for kids. So I’m pretty confident that if Emma stays on track she will go back to the UK and she will be able to get into a university without too much hassle. I don’t feel as confident about Dubai’s universities, so I wouldn’t see that as a possibility for my kids. But, having said that, there’s another six years to go before my oldest leaves school, and maybe things will have changed by then.

Ingvild: I think since my kids are so small I don’t need to worry about that, but if I were staying I would prefer a school that offered the IB system, without a doubt.

Ana: This is the second year Wellington has offered A-levels, but we’re actually changing over to the IB diploma – again, this comes down to the fact that we’re an international school, because we offer education to children of so many nationalities. That’s when Dubai College comes in as a good alternative, because they have been established longer.

Isabel: It’s just a maturity level. Not many schools have offered credible post-GCSE education for more than, say, three years. It doesn’t mean they won’t ever get there.

Beatrix: Again, you can’t just throw money at it; it won’t happen overnight. You can’t buy educational standards.

Ana: You really need to have a team of people that is focused, and one of the good things in Wellington is that most of the staff have kids there, so it’s even more important to us that things are done properly.

If you would like to take part in the next Time Out Kids debate, email your details to timeoutkids@itp.com

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