The perfect school

Picking the right school for your child can feel like an impossible decision


Ah, schooling. Forget the lifestyle, the culture and even mum or dad’s big career move. It’s the kids’ education that plagues most parents’ minds when they arrive in Dubai. Which curriculum is best for my child? Do I prefer a not-for-profit school? Should I favour the swanky gym over science achievements? Is cost an indicator of quality? The school scene here is far removed from what we’re used to in our home countries: you have to pay, the term dates can be totally out of synch and the curriculum your kids have followed at home may not be available. Add to that the facts that, until recently, there were no league tables or quality guidelines, that many of us rely on word of mouth and other, not always objective, opinions, and choosing a school becomes a major headache.

‘It’s an absolute minefield,’ says Samantha Buxton, who arrived with her husband and two girls just over a year ago. ‘We had an agency in the UK to help us find a school and they told us there was only one school available. I wasn’t happy at all – we wanted options.’

Despite the economic downturn, competition for places remains tough and, believe it or not, if you leave your school search until May or June, you could find your options severely limited. ‘It’s very daunting when you first start. You come up against a lot of brick walls,’ says Samantha. Her main gripe was the absence of league tables to point her in the right direction. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) inspection report (see, which came out mid-2009, is a marker, but with the vast majority of schools falling into the ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’ categories, it doesn’t give parents a lot to work with. ‘Parents need to get out and about and go on gut feeling,’ says Samantha. ‘You can learn some things by looking on websites or talking to other parents, but that is very subjective.’ Visit schools and talk to the teachers, she says, as there’s only so much information to be gleaned from websites and promotional packages which, bear in mind, are put together by marketing teams highly skilled in persuading you to part with your wages.

‘In general, the facilities in Dubai schools are outstanding,’ says Samantha, who by virtue of being ‘pushy’ expanded her options to four schools. ‘They’re all beautifully presented, from the swimming pools to the flower boxes, but, to me, it’s the teachers who make the difference.’ For Janet Conway, who arrived with her husband and five-year-old son over the summer, getting her head around paying for education and, even worse, schools making money from it, was difficult. ‘Coming from the UK, the thought of a school making a profit sticks in my throat, which is why I narrowed down my choices early on to not-for-profit schools. I had a look at some profit-making schools and many were excellent, but I just didn’t like the idea of someone making money from something that, to my mind, is a basic right.’

Curriculum conundrum

What shall it be: English (known widely as British)...American...International Baccalaureate (IB)...? There’s a proliferation of English schools in Dubai, a reasonable selection following the American system and the IB is increasing in popularity. On top of that, there are Indian, German, French, Australian, Russian, Japanese and Filipino schools in town. Deciding on a curriculum depends on where you think you may be in the next few years, which, for an expat family, is not always easy.

‘Parents pick a school according to the syllabus they want their child to follow and the university they’d like them to attend,’ says independent education consultant Francesca McGeary. ‘They don’t realise it’s perfectly okay to move about through the systems. You can finish high school with GCSEs and still attend Harvard – as long as you have the equivalent grades required.’

Don’t feel locked into a system. It is possible to change if it’s not working for you, but be aware that, once your child reaches middle or secondary school, the English system narrows down quite quickly and moves towards students choosing subjects. ‘Once a child has started along that road, you can still change, but it becomes more difficult,’ says McGeary. With so many mixed nationality families in Dubai, parents are often looking for as broad an education as possible. ‘Many more parents are now picking IB because it’s a more holistic approach to education. There are IB schools throughout the world so their children can fit in almost anywhere,’ says McGeary.

So what’s the difference? We take a look at English, American and IB (with apologies to readers interested in other curricula).


Philosophy: A holistic approach to learning, students are encouraged to explore the world around them, think for themselves, form opinions, relate to others, develop fitness through sports and gain experience in taking responsibility. Year 10 marks the two-year lead up to GCSE or IGCSE (International GCSE) exams. Following these results, students aiming for university will then take A Levels. Study emphasis in these later years is on depth rather than breadth of study.

Exams taken: Standard assessments on a yearly basis. (I)GCSEs are taken at the end of year 11. At least five good passes are required for eventual entrance to a British university, although before that, students will have to complete two years of A Levels.

University options: Universities in the UK and elsewhere are normally acquainted with the British system and will accept students with IGCSEs, GCSEs and A Levels.

Advantages: A worldwide reputation for quality, international schools following the British curriculum are comparable with UK standards. University courses are shorter due to the intensity of A Level study.

Disadvantages: British education outside the UK is exclusively private. Depth of study means (I)GCSE’s could drop to five subjects in year 11, and three subjects at A Levels.


Philosophy: A holistic approach to learning that doesn’t lock children into a system, students are encouraged to explore their environment and study a wide range of subjects, even up to university level. Importance is given to the appropriate development of each child, so that subjects not mastered the first time round can be repeated. Study emphasis is on breadth rather than depth.

Exams taken: Assessment varies from school to school. In general, students’ scores are based on averages of their quarterly and semester exams.

University options: Many American universities require students to pass a college entrance exam such as SATs or the ACT, but to get into a good university or an international establishment, students will also have to take the AP (Advanced Placement), a more rigourous, college-calibre programme.

Advantages: Constant assessment means students aren’t locked into do-or-die exams at the end of the programme and hard work ethics are encouraged throughout; it has a broader subject study base and the system is flexible.

Disadvantages: No set standards of performance means quality varies widely. There is no guarantee of a set curriculum in UAE schools.

International Baccalaureate

Philosophy: Aims to encourage students to have enquiring minds and a knowledgeable and caring attitude, helping to create a better world through intercultural understanding and respect (and that’s a pretty tall order). Early years concentrate on varied learning styles, middle years focus on holistic learning and in the two-year diploma programme, all students must complete core requirements including 150 hours of arts, sports and community service.

Exams taken: IB exams are taken following the diploma. Assessment takes place through numerous tests in a variety of subjects. Universities will often accept students on their predicted grades.

University options: The IB diploma is recognised internationally by universities.

Advantages: IB diploma represents the best from many different countries and provides a standard international curriculum, so it’s easily transferable between IB schools in different countries. While regarded as a tough programme, students get three chances to repeat vital exams, and the large amount of writing and research prepares students well for university life.

Disadvantages: A rigorous programme, students must prove they can keep up. Many find it tough.

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