Build a foundation

Puzzled and panicked by the British early years’ education system? Time Out Kids has the lowdown


We recently received a letter from a popular Dubai school regretfully informing us that our daughter, who will soon turn three, had not made it into Foundation Stage One (FS1), the first year of ‘academic’ learning under the British system. How much do we have to panic? Will she get a place elsewhere? Have we scuppered her chances of getting into university? We cut through the teeth-gnashing and wailing and take a look at primary and nursery school options.

What is Foundation Stage One?
Foundation Stage One is the first year of the British system and applies to kids aged three to four years. It is not mandatory and, in the UK, kids typically get their first experience of ‘big’ school at age four to five years when they enter Foundation Stage Two (FS2) in the reception class at a primary or infant school.

Is it obligatory?
No. Your child doesn’t have to complete FS1 to get into FS2. In fact, while FS1 seems very popular in some Dubai schools, many others, such as Dubai English Speaking School (DESS), Jebel Ali Primary School and Horizon School don’t have an FS1 unit and only start to take kids after their fourth birthday.

If my child doesn’t do FS1 in a school, does he have less chance of getting into FS2?
Academically, no – that depends entirely on the individual child, but if he has completed FS1 in a nursery or school environment, he’s more likely be ready for FS2. The real problem is that existing FS1 kids in school are automatically guaranteed a place in FS2, so there’ll be fewer places up for grabs. If your child is due to start FS2 in September 2011 (yes, 2011!), don’t dilly dally. You should be looking for places now.

Is there an admissions test?
Sometimes. But remember, FS1 is play-based learning that should recognise kids of this age develop at hugely different rates. Schools or nurseries should not over-emphasise academic skills.

What do they learn?
The early years’ curriculum is divided into six sections:
• Personal, social and emotional development
• Communication, language and literature
• Mathematical development
• Knowledge and understanding of the world
• Physical development
• Creative development

It sounds pretty hard going and high brow, but it’s totally play based and the kids don’t even realise they’re learning. Most nurseries and schools focus on personal, social and emotional development – the basic skills that will ready them for learning and get them off to a flying start when they reach Year One.

How do class sizes compare in nursery and school FS1 units?
The child:adult ratio in nurseries tends to be lower, with class sizes ranging from 12 to 16 children compared to up to 20 kids in a foundation class at a primary school.

What are the advantages of a ‘big’ school FS1 environment?
They can’t stay at home or in nursery forever – they’re going to have to make the jump at some point. If they are emotionally and physically ready – they can dress themselves, take the lid of their lunchbox etc – then they’ll probably enjoy being in a school environment. At Dubai British School, a Taaleem school, kids in the foundation unit interact with older pupils via a buddy system. ‘Ten-year-olds from Year Five come to play, read books and teach the younger kids new games.

The younger ones love it and it’s great for the older kids too,’ says Sally Chapman, Foundation Stage leader at the school. The little ones, who ‘feel very grown up in their school uniform’ get to experience assembly, watch the older kids in drama and music performances and enjoy bigger and better facilities such as sports fields, gyms, libraries, interactive whiteboards and even science labs (although they’ll not be let loose with the Bunsen burners just yet). The kids benefit from a continuation of the curriculum as well as meeting specialist teachers in, for example, PE and languages. ‘They get used to being around lots of adults, so they don’t get attached to one teacher which is a plus,’ adds Chapman.

What are the advantages of a nursery FS1 environment?
Your tots will be learning the same skills and following the same curriculum and it’s certainly not true that FS1 at nursery is an easier option. The main difference comes down to the feel of the two, and nurseries are usually located in smaller premises, with typically lower children-to-adult ratios, smaller class sizes and no uniform. ‘This creates a warmer, more nurturing environment, or a less formal or intimidating
environment for children,’ says Agathe Amatoury, headmistress of Cocoon Nursery.

Importantly, parents may feel nurseries operate a more open-door policy than the more formal atmosphere in a primary school so they can easily walk into the office or classroom and have more personal, daily feedback on their child’s progress. Nursery hours are more flexible, with options to send your child three to five mornings a week (that said, if you’re planning to continue with the British system it is advisable to send your child for at least four mornings a week) and, while you’re expected to be punctual, if you’re running late because little Johnny has flung his cornflakes all over the kitchen, it’s not so much of an issue. Finally, in most cases, fees at nursery schools are invariably lower than at primary schools.

Remember, school or nursery, the focus of FS1 is the same: to produce emotionally and socially well-balanced children who are well-equipped to deal with the demands of FS2.
Cocoon Nursery, Umm Sequim (04 394 9394); Dubai British School, Emirates Hills (04 361 9361).

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