Finding the right school for your child is one of the most challenging aspects faced by parents in the UAE. Dr Michael Biggs from the UAE’s first dedicated school guide, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com shares his insights into how to go about it.
New parents are faced with the important and often emotionally charged task of finding the right school or nursery for their children in Dubai. Even parents who have been in Dubai for some time will often need to revisit the ‘which school’ question between stages of their child’s education, and sometimes, and unfortunately, when a particular school is not working out for their child. Some parents will be lucky with company support in finding the right school in a location that is reasonably close to their residence. Sadly, new arrivals are often left to solve this problem themselves, alone, with few people to turn to for guidance. Finding a place for one child is daunting enough but finding two or more places in a generally oversubscribed system can and does lead to nightmare scenarios of guilt at not being able to treat all children in a family to the same opportunity, simply because openings and offers may not be in the same school. This further raises the question of transport to and from the schools.
So, where to begin? The recently launched WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is a great starting point and offers an invaluable source of new and existing information that was previously scattered or difficult to acquire. The informative school reviews show the wide range of options on offer in the UAE.
Being new to the UAE and its international setting opens up choice that you may not have had before. It may be that a school with more of an international or a US or UK curriculum focus becomes an option. The UAE does offer wonderful new educational opportunities for youngsters that may simply not be available in their home country. An important consideration to introduce is that of residential area. If living in one of the smaller emirates this may not pose a concern, however, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah it does. Gone are the days of spending hours on the school bus travelling from one side of Sharjah to the other side of Dubai for secondary schooling but, do not underestimate the time spent travelling to a school during the ‘school run’ rush hours in these larger cities. This leaves the chicken and egg scenario of which comes first; a place to live, or the school which may determine the area in which to live. Do not make the mistake of thinking that there is right of access to the school based in a residential area. Familiar catchment rules that exist in state education in some countries do not exist in the private school sector or here.
It is a challenge, but once you accept that it is not easy, some of the pressure will lift. Identify and short-list the schools and residential areas of interest. Get a realistic sense of the oversubscription of certain schools. Do not exclude a school if it is oversubscribed as there may be a short waiting-list or vacancies in a particular grade or year group. Do expect heavy oversubscription in the nursery and primary sectors.
A great source of information and local knowledge is often found in the admissions staff, registrars and parent relation’s teams who are often parents themselves and are usually very helpful. Visit the schools on your short-list, ideally taking your son or daughter with you. School tours during the school day offer a real ‘feel’ for the school and a sense of whether they are delivering what they say in their promotional materials.
Remember that ‘gut feeling’ is pulling together the whole experience of the visit. Don’t ignore it! Was there a pleasant atmosphere? Were there warm relationships between the students, staff and parents? Were people smiling? These are all important things to note. And when asking questions, do have an open mind as the school may do things differently - it may even be a better way, especially if it is learner-centered.
Application procedures will vary from school to school and admission assessments are quite common. Be honest with the school about any learning differences and special needs as there is limited provision in this area. Be armed with appropriate reports to support the application, a letter of recommendation from the last school is also valuable for secondary aged students. Expect to pay non-refundable application fees that cover processing costs for each application and, on accepting an offer of a place, expect a deposit requirement that is usually offset against the first terms fees.
The great thing about schooling in the UAE is the choice that now exists with schools to suit most nationality or cultural needs, preferred curriculum and approach to learning and budgets. But do remember, it is your son or daughter who will be attending the school and, so, do involve him or her in the decision, especially as they get older. Last but definitely not least, do not be afraid to ask the youngsters who attend these schools, as they are far more insightful than we often give them credit for!
Dr Michael Biggs is an educator, senior school leader and lifelong learner with research interests in education. He has worked in primary, secondary and higher education in the UAE over a twenty-five year period and was the principal of one of Dubai’s leading secondary schools.