School Rules

Finding a good, value-for-money school where your child is happy is every parent’s holy grail. Joanna England and Karen Iley probe four experts on the current state of Dubai’s schools

Tricia Evans, Eli Ghazel, Francesca McGeary and Clive Pierrpont
Tricia Evans, Eli Ghazel, Francesca McGeary and Clive Pierrpont
Tricia Evans
Tricia Evans
Eli Ghazel
Eli Ghazel
Francesca McGeary
Francesca McGeary
Clive Pierrpont
Clive Pierrpont
Debate team

• Vice-chair of Jess Parent Group at Arabian Ranches Tricia Evans is mum to Siân, aged 12. A Jumeirah resident, she’s lived in Dubai for 16 years and is a business coach and writer.

• Eli Ghazel is a teacher trainer and educational consultant at Eton Institute. A regular commuter to Dubai since 2004, the father-of-two has lived in Al Barsha for a year.

• Francesca McGeary has lived in the UAE for five years, first as a teacher in Abu Dhabi and now as an independent educational consultant. An Al Barsha resident, she helps families find the right school for their child.

• Father-of-five Clive Pierrpont is Director of Communications and Marketing for Taaleem Schools. He has lived in Arabian Ranches for two years and his youngest son, Giordan, 12,
goes to Greenfield Community School.

If you’re a parent, we reckon you’ll expel a lot of hot air talking about education, whether you’re grumbling about rising school fees, singing the praises of an enthusiastic teacher, fretting that slacker Sally isn’t getting enough homework or just concerned that you’ve chosen the right school. The worst part? You’ve got 13 years of this. So, in an effort to steer us through the maze, we gathered four educational experts together over coffee at swish Japanese restaurant Zuma and picked their brains.

Where do we stand with waiting lists and competition for places in Dubai schools?
Clive: There’s been a large turnover of students in Dubai – people have left, but there’s been an influx of new people – our numbers (at Taaleem schools) are up 12 per cent on last year. But waiting lists, especially at the younger end are still very long. It does get easier later on, but if you are looking for a place for your child and they are aged two, then you need to get their names down on some waiting lists as soon as you can.

Francesca: But it depends on the school. There are certain schools here that have good reputations and they have long waiting lists. Also, parents get involved in ‘you should join this or that school’ conversations and have little else to base their choice upon, so there are a few schools with huge waiting lists, but it’s not that there are millions of kids in Dubai, it’s often because the same kids are on all those lists.

Tricia: I have friends currently looking for places for their kids, and where they have siblings of different age groups, getting them into the same school can be total nightmare. But you’re right Francesca, key schools will have lists as long as you arm, and that’s because parents ask around about reputations. I think newer schools should be doing more to get themselves out there and advertise what they offer. All schools say, ‘We’re fab, we’re great, we’re amazing’ – but how do you really judge that? All you can do is go on parental advice from people who are already here. There needs to be a way through the maze.

Where do parents start?
Clive: There are placement agencies families can go through which have their fingers on the pulse in terms of which schools offer what and where waiting lists are. Lots of multi-nationals will offer that.

Tricia: But if you don’t work for a multi-national and you’re here on your own, there is very little guidance available.

Francesca: Every child is different, and every family is different. Lots of parents walk into a school, and they see a grand piano in the reception, or an Olympic-sized pool – and they think, ‘Oh, that must be good education.’ What they should be doing is asking certain pertinent questions, like how many students go to university from this school? What are the SAT results?

Tricia: The KHDA inspections started last year and the assessments are available on the website ( Obviously it needs development, but as an initial marker, it’s definitely helpful.

Eli: They have reports on every school they have inspected, but unfortunately they’re not in layman’s terms. A lot of parents may find it difficult to understand the standards… and the snippet on the website certainly doesn’t give you the whole picture.

Francesca: There are some very good schools out there that were graded ‘acceptable’ and some other schools that are not so great that got ‘good’ or ‘exceptional’ grades.

Eli: Schools may be exceptional in several areas, but be downgraded on a certain subject, so it’s difficult to get a clear picture.

That’s true. I’m not interested if a school has a state-of-the-art climbing wall. Who cares? I’m only really interested in the standards of teaching. The most important element in any school is the head teacher he or she sets the culture for the whole school.

Should parents get involved? Or should they just let the school do their job?
Clive: Research shows that the more of a role a parent plays in a child’s education, the better results they get.

Francesca: Some parents work, they drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up at 4pm and don’t really know what’s going on within the school. They’re not involved, yet they’re the ones who tend to complain. Culturally, westerners aren’t used to having to pay for their education – so when they pay for it, they need to know exactly what their money is being spent on. If they aren’t getting involved, and speaking to teachers and being a part of the school community, then they aren’t going to know enough.

Tricia: I am a very involved parent. I am horrified at how many people just dump their kids at the school gates, pick them up afterwards and think that’s their duty done for the day. A good school is a community – the teachers, the kids, the governing body and the parents are all in it together. And you want to make it a great experience. It’s not all just about learning by rote and cramming facts. It’s about creating healthy adults that can contribute to society – this is about holistic child development. And as a parent, I think that’s so important.

What’s the difference between for profit and not-for-profit schools?
Tricia: My experience is that the not-for-profit schools concentrate on the calibre of teachers and facilities. There’s got to be a different agenda if you’re going to take a profit. Non- profit schools do pay their staff more.

Clive: All schools have to make their books balance, and whether you call it a profit or a surplus, it depends where that profit goes. Good schools starting up will have a very deep ‘j’ curve and won’t have a surplus for many years. Education – if you’re doing it right – is not profitable in the short term or even in the medium term. What we have to get across to investors is that a school is part of a community, a loss-leader that will benefit the whole area. Developers know that if they haven’t got a school, they haven’t got a community. People will move to an area to be near to a school if it’s a good school.

Francesca: If you look at the not-for-profit schools in Dubai, they are all ‘good’ or better by KHDA standards. Teachers don’t go into teaching to be millionaires. They go into it because they value education and the not-for-profit schools back that up. Most teachers in Dubai would like to teach in not-for-profit schools. Not just because the salaries are higher (they are), but because the whole ethos of the school is angled in a slightly different way. That’s not to say there aren’t good for-profit schools out there, because there are.

Why are schools here so expensive?
Clive: Bringing teachers in is very expensive. In our schools, it costs us Dhs350,000 to bring in a new faculty member. That’s an average teacher – not a senior one. There’s also the important question of teacher development. Tricia: Hear hear. Good teachers are what it’s all about. Professional development is very important.

Francesca: Rent is another big thing. A lot of the not-for-profit schools have gifted land whereas for-profit schools have to budget that in. I know a school that saw its rent leap from Dhs80,000 to Dhs600,000. Where are they going to get the difference? The only way is by upping the fees. It’s not just about people making money. A lot of it is about schools just trying to cover costs.

Tricia: As a parent and a single parent who pays fees myself, there is nothing else that gives me better value for money. As long as I have a child that’s happy and growing in a healthy, comfortable way, that’s priceless. Blimey, the cost of a term of education is the same as a smart sofa – it’s nothing really.

Kids seem to lots of homework these days. Is it too much?
Francesca: Well, if a Year One student comes home with an hour’s homework, yes, that’s too much. And it does happen here.

Tricia: But it’s a case of practising a skill. If you’re learning to drive, you take the car out for practise. You don’t just rely on lessons.

Francesca: There’s homework and there’s homework, though. Take maths, for example. If your children are sent home with 50 sums to do and after the first three, they’ve got them all right, its pointless making them do the other 47. They know how to do it and that task is simply wasting their time. And it’s horrible. If I was a parent and my child came home with that, I would question their teacher.

Clive: It’s quality rather than quantity, but a lot of parents judge the standards of the school on the amount of homework their child gets given. It’s comforting for them and they think they’re getting value for money.

Francesca: Homework is practice – and it should be about preparing them to work on their own. All you’re doing is training to them to work independently.

Tricia: It can be really simple, like counting all the lightbulbs in the house, or going to the supermarket with mum and helping her count out the carrots. That’s more about engaging.

Clive: Absolutely. The best homework is when a parent gets involved and it becomes interactive – like sitting down and reading a book together and chatting about that. It’s soul-destroying for kids to come home with pages of homework where they’re locked away in an isolated environment. It’s torture for them – and it’s torture for the parents too.

It’s interesting how education has changed over the years. How will it change in the future?
Eli: Twenty five years from now, 90 per cent of the jobs that will exist have not been invented yet – and that’s what our generation of kids has to somehow prepare itself for.

Tricia: My daughter’s head said to me, ‘You’ve got to forget what school was like when you were there because the world has changed.’

Eli: I’m an advocate of the ‘silent teacher’ who is a manager and a facilitator. But often when parents see that, they think the teacher is not doing his or her job. They think the teacher should be standing there with chalk or spouting forth. It’s difficult to break that mould.

Francesca: I think that’s why it’s so important to educate parents to let them know that teaching is not the same as it was 50 years ago. It’s much more hands on.

Clive: Some parents like to see parents standing there talking and filling kids’ heads with knowledge, but that’s no longer how it’s done. If you walk into any of our classrooms, you’ll see multi-tasking, talking, kids moving about. It might look chaotic, but that’s the way the world works now.

Francesca: That’s where schools have a responsibility to make themselves more open and welcoming to parents. Even as an educationalist, I will be kept at the door of a classroom. It’s not that schools have anything to hide, they’re just not open to being open.
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