Applying to schools in Dubai

The Dubai schools and nursery questions you really want to ask, answered

Interview, Education

Do I really need to apply for a school when my baby is born?
There’s no need to panic. Gina Seto, co-founder of Facebook group Dubai School Guide for Parents says: ‘The answer to this question really depends on the schools you are applying to. In fact, there are very few schools that accept applications from newborn babies. The trend in the past few years is for schools to restrict applications to at most one year in advance. Always check with your target school for their registration rules, but there is no need to panic if you didn’t think about it in the early days.’

What age should my child start nursery?
Aimee Collett from Paddington Nursery ( says: ‘Generally, the recommended age is between 16 to 20 months. After 18 months, your baby already has autonomy: he or she begins to walk, says their first words, learns to play with other children, and doesn’t need constant contact with his or her mother. However, if you are a working mother, you may be considering it earlier. Try and choose a nursery with specialised, qualified staff for children under two years, who provide individual, stimulating attention for the baby.’

How can I help my child to settle into nursery?
Aimee Collett continues: ‘Starting nursery is the beginning of a new and exciting stage in your child’s life, but it’s also the end of an era, so feelings of sadness and anxiety are inevitable. Children tend to cry because you are leaving and not because they are unhappy about being at nursery. In the majority of cases, once the ‘goodbye’ part is over, a child will quickly settle into an activity or cuddle with a member of staff.

Here are some tips to make the transition period as smooth as possible. Firstly, choose a nursery that offers a lengthy settling in period and a ‘key worker’ system, so they can build a connection with that person in the security of your presence. Secondly, arrive early and factor in time for comfort before you leave. Thirdly, when it comes to saying goodbye, make it quick and reassuring. Once you have said goodbye, it’s time to leave. And lastly, never sneak out when your child is playing to avoid upsetting them. To the child, it suddenly looks like Mummy is no longer there and it feels like abandonment.’

How do I go about selecting a school?
Gina Seto suggests: ‘Start by organising your priorities. Write down your targets for curriculum, budget, location/commute, KHDA rating, size, reputation, after-school activities, and any other factors that are important to you. You can then start making a shortlist of schools that fit the criteria. Research those on your shortlist; read their websites and call them for information about admissions.’

How many primary schools should I apply for?
Alison Schofield, co-founder of IngeniousEd ( explains: ‘With many new schools opening this past year, it means a sizable increase in new spaces for primary students. Placements for ages three to six tend to be the most sought-after as most families in Dubai have young children, so you may still find that your preferred schools have long waiting lists. If this is the case, you might want to consider as many as five schools. Otherwise, three should be sufficient. Remember to consult the school admissions staff to ensure you are clear on their availability and entrance policies.’

What really happens at school assessments?
Alison Schofield explains: ‘For FS/KG students, they typically undergo a play-based assessment where they are invited to play amongst other children in a classroom environment. They will be observed for “readiness” for school, their communication and social interaction skills. Their ability to identify shapes, colours, letters and numbers may also be assessed. For older years, schools here tend to use either an online or pencil-paper assessment. In the case of the online assessments, students will complete a standardised assessment that gives information about their levels for English and Maths. This can take anywhere from one to two hours. Pencil and paper tests usually include tasks for the student to complete, both in English and Maths, as well as a writing component.’

What’s the best way to ask questions about my child’s progress or raise concerns with the teacher?
Jaqueline McGarva of Cascade Learning Centre, JLT ( says: ‘You will be invited to two or three parent teacher meetings in the school year. If it’s necessary to speak outside of these meetings, you need to approach the class teacher and ask for an appointment outside of lesson times. If you are still not satisfied with the outcome, you can voice your concerns to the head teacher who either passes it on to the year leader or deals with it himself/ herself depending on the nature of the matter.’

Does it really matter if I take my child out of school for a few weeks holiday?
Jaqueline McGarva says: ‘Absolutely! Out of 52 weeks in a calendar year, around one third are already school holidays. Even during school term time, there are exam weeks, sports events, school trips, all of which take more time out of teaching. If you take a three week holiday during term time, your child could be missing out on more than 10 percent of their education for the year. There is no doubt that holiday time is important and the opportunity to travel is a very valuable one, but save it for the designated times. It may cost more in dirhams, but what is the cost to your child’s education?’

When should I start thinking about secondary school applications?
Alison Schofield says: ‘If your child attends a primary school that doesn’t advance to senior years, then you need to think ahead in order to ensure that your child will make a smooth transition. That means you should have a few schools in mind, ensure you visit them and speak with the registrar about availability and admission process. If the schools you are interested in have long waiting lists, then you may want to consider applying up to two years in advance (or more in the case of highly-selective or more popular schools).'

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