Schools in Dubai

Education, education, education: Four Dubai mums talk about the benefits of schooling children in Dubai.

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 a daughter, 10-year-old Mariam, who goes to Dubai British School. They have been living in Emirates Hills for four months, and originally come from Szeged in Hungary.

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

Wow, where do we start? No matter where you live, education is a massively important issue for every parent, but in Dubai it’s a particularly contentious issue. Forget what happens when kids actually get to school; finding them a place (preferably without having to remortgage your home) is hard enough. We took four local mothers for coffee at the Park Hyatt and quizzed them on their experiences. Perhaps it was the caffeine, but they had so much to say, we decided to make this a two-parter…

Did you know that expat kids have been entitled to be part of the UAE’s public education system since 2006?
Isabel: I had no idea. It was my perception that the public system wasn’t available to expats.

Ana: As an expat you’d probably want something similar to what you’ve come from, though.

Beatrix: I actually tried to get Mariam into one but they said there was no space, otherwise I would have – why not? I think it’s a bit silly to come to another country and then have your kids in a school that’s just like the ones where you came from.

Ingvild: We didn’t even think about it because we got a list from my husband’s company, which just named all the international schools. So it was kind of ruled out from the beginning.

How did you decide what school to send your kids to?
Ana: I’m Portuguese and my husband is Italian, so for me it was about finding a school system that I’d be able to find wherever I go. That basically meant it had to be English-speaking, with a British or American curriculum. I settled on British because at the time I was working in a British school, and I wanted my children to be there with me.

Ingvild: It was very important for me to have all my children in the same school – my youngest one was only three years old, and had been in kindergarten in Norway. My choice was between the British, American or French systems (my husband is French). I actually saw seven schools, ruling them out because I didn’t like the staff. Another thing was that my kids didn’t speak any English, just French and Norwegian, so I needed to find a school that could work with their English. I eventually chose ISAS [International School of Arts and Science]. From the first time I walked through the door, especially because of the headmaster and teachers I met, I just knew it was the right one.

Isabel: When Emma got offered a place at JC [Jumeirah College], I walked in and thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of school that I went to as a kid, but better!’ – it just felt really good. We picked JPS [Jumeirah Primary School] for Tom on the back of JC.

Ana: It’s not the name of the school, it’s what you feel when you walk in that has to count. But I did not have that choice. I looked through the directory from A to Z, and Wellington was the only school that said ‘Come in and have a look’. All the other ones just closed the doors because we weren’t British.

Did you find it easy to get information?
Beatrix: From day one, nobody tells you the same thing. I would even call the same person two days running and they would give me contradictory stories. Everything was such a big headache. I was seriously thinking I would just leave Dubai.

Isabel: We went through the angst that everyone goes through before they come over here of thinking the kids wouldn’t get a place. I phoned round an awful lot and I just didn’t seem to be opening any doors. I was also in Europe at the time, so I didn’t have inexhaustible funds to keep making phone calls. In the end I asked my husband’s company to help me out.

Beatrix: People just won’t give you any advice. There’s a real need for a good educational consultancy that could tell you what to do and where to go for, I don’t know, Dhs2,000.

Isabel: The question is, who’s the expert? If you want the actual facts, who do you talk to? There doesn’t seem to be anyone. I couldn’t find anything that gave me a summary of, say, GEMS versus JESS.

Ana: You do have relocation agencies in Dubai that do all that, but they’re probably not advertised that much.

Isabel: I guess we could have gone through an agency – if we felt like paying even more money out to even more people.

Beatrix: You should be able to do it for yourself though. I find a lot of people are not told by the recruitment agencies or their new company that they’ll be dropped in at the deep end, and that they’re on their own.

Ana: If companies plan to recruit somebody, they should tell them to register the children immediately. If nothing happens then all you lose is that money, and some schools like Wellington will even refund that if the place isn’t taken. And then if the person does move over, it’s sorted out in advance.

What has your experience of the admissions procedure been like?
Beatrix: I had huge problems with the stamps* that are required. Mariam’s last school was in Hungary and so we needed five sets.

Ana: No, it’s four because Hungary’s in the European Community.

Beatrix: Believe me, it’s five, or that’s what we were told. A lot of people think that Hungary is Eastern Europe, not EC. But I would have to actually go to the education ministry to get a straight answer.

Isabel: Regardless of whether it’s four or five, it’s really complicated for an ordinary person on the ground. I know it makes a lot of sense when you as a registrar go through it, but that’s because it’s your job.

Ana: But the paperwork issue has more to do with the ministry than the schools really – I’ve had transfer certificates that for me were OK, but they were sent back because there was a word that they didn’t like – like ‘equivalent’. Don’t ever write ‘equivalent’ on a transfer certificate, for example saying ‘year three in the Norwegian system is equivalent to year four in the British system’, because it’ll be rejected. Instead, just put in brackets, ‘(year four British curriculum)’.

Beatrix: This famous transfer certificate was a huge problem for us. My criteria became, simply, whoever doesn’t need one! Wellington was brilliant, it even offered to open a new class for Mariam, although we didn’t end up choosing it because it was quite expensive. I eventually chose Dubai British School because it was the closest to our home. But it wasn’t a free choice; that is taken away from you – by the time you’ve actually got any offers you just want your kid to be going to school. Every day Mariam would ask me, ‘Can I go to school yet?’ And I would have to tell her she couldn’t because there were no places. She’s had a really rough time.

Ingvild: This sort of thing always happens, and it’s got nothing to do with availability. If your kids can’t speak English, they don’t care if there’s a place available. And yet they’re still allowed to call themselves international schools, which just isn’t good enough. In Europe, they wouldn’t allow schools to call themselves international if they didn’t have a system in place to cater for this.

Isabel: But in fairness, the schools here aren’t pretending to give that facility. I can’t see Dubai ever gearing itself up for that.

Ana: When Wellington says it’s international, at least it’s based on the number of different nationalities there – it’s a means of differentiating ourselves against schools that demand that you have a British passport. That’s discrimination.

Beatrix: It is true that if you’re flinging your British passport around you get things much quicker.

Isabel: But in a way, that makes sense if it’s an English curriculum at an English-speaking school.

Ana: But it’s proven that up until about five or six years old, it’s very easy to sit in a classroom and pick up a language. After that age, it’s no longer as easy and you need lessons. My youngest child didn’t speak any English at all when he joined. He’s now in year two and he speaks English better than some of the British children in his class!

Ingvild: I went to ISAS and they said ‘No problem, we’ll teach your kids English in no time.’ There was no mention of not being able to do it, or it being a hassle. But admissions aren’t just a matter of nationality and language. A friend of mine has a daughter who’s dyslexic and one school refused to take her. What kind of stupidity is that? I mean, come on, we’re not talking about having a huge handicap here – dyslexia wouldn’t even be considered a problem where I come from.

What do you think about the school fees here?
Ingvild: ISAS is not at all cheap but I don’t care because the company’s paying!

Beatrix: Money is important to me because I don’t have a company that pays for it. I really don’t appreciate them putting up the prices year on year. The quality isn’t there; it’s not value for money.

Isabel: When we came over, fees weren’t really an issue because, although they were high, they were insignificant compared to the astronomical rent, which takes the most significant chunk of our salaries.

Beatrix: The other thing is that the fees are just for tuition – there’s also the uniform, swimming stuff, bus, food, books etc on top of that. Plus the admin fee – what’s that about?

Ana: There’s always an admin fee. From my point of view as staff, each application that comes in requires the school to spend money.

Isabel: Come on!

Ana: I have to spend time, and I have other work too. There’s always an admin fee.

Beatrix: But talking about the fees, if you don’t pay your term fee fully, let’s say you take your kid out, the school always makes sure it’s better off – so even if your kid leaves at half term, you still pay for the full term.

Ana: I don’t think that’s a Dubai thing.

Beatrix: But it’s getting money for nothing.

Ana: I refused to move here from Portugal until I’d found a school so I actually paid pre-registration fee to the school they were at in Portugal because I didn’t want to take the chance of losing that place. It was about 1,000 euros (more than Dhs5,000). Then after doing that I was offered a place here, so I decided to move. I was not refunded, I was not given my 1,000 euros – the school said it was non-refundable. So it’s not just Dubai.

Beatrix: But the quality of staff here is lower than elsewhere. People who’ve never even been to school get a job here. I’ll be talking to helpers and I’ll be thinking, really, you work in a school?

So, the children’s places in school were secured – but what happened next? Find out next month what the ladies discovered once they’d actually got their little learners past the school gates…

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