Finding the perfect school

Where to go, what to look for and what questions to ask

Finding the perfect school

How do I go about selecting a school?
With 22,000 new places since September 2014 and the KHDA’s plan to add a further 80 schools by 2030, for the first time in the city’s history, parents are in the driving seat, with supply outstripping demand, according to experts at

While schools in Dubai differ in their admission and application times, January is a great time to start the process. Research is essential: think about contacting your chosen school for a tour and ask other parents about their experiences. This will help you make an informed decision.

What is the ideal age for children to start nursery?
“Evidence shows that high quality provision during the early years has an impact on children’s future life chances,” says Tracy Penketh, headmistress of the Motor City branch of Emirates British Nursery.

“Any age is good for a child to start nursery, but younger is always better as they become familiar to the setting and transitions. In our opinion, this really supports them when they go on to start school.

“However, the right age to start is up to the individual family as parents need to be happy with the decision that they make.”

What should I consider when choosing a school?
“In essence, you want your child to grow as a person and access an education that will prepare them for the future,” says Nadine Heikamp, parents’ relations officer from Jumeira Baccalaureate School, a Taaleem school. “You should choose a school where you know your child will be happy and successful, and where students are challenged and encouraged to move outside of their comfort zone.”

It’s recommended to look for schools that offer you a glimpse of the learning environment, during a school tour or even by meeting the teachers.

“It is also very important how your child learns, how a school should teach and interact with your child both in and outside the classroom,” says Heikamp. “These include your child’s learning styles, motivation, physical and mental health challenges, behaviour challenges, learning disabilities and disorders, and self-understanding. Essential extracurricular activities are also compelling choice factors for some children.”

What is the most important factor in a good school?
“The physical learning environment the child will be studying in, extra-curricular provision and the curriculum the school offers are vital,” says Nargish Khambatta, principal of GEMS Modern Academy. “For younger children, proximity to the school might be a primary consideration. Ideally, you should choose a school at least a year before your child is of school-going age.”

How far in advance should I start thinking about schools?
“If you are applying for the early years (between three and six), the earlier you do this the better as these age groups are high in demand,” says Heikamp. “Most schools open their admissions one year ahead, others require you to put down your name as much as two years in advance. Make sure you check with each school individually, because their dates and procedures may be different from one another.”

How many primary schools should I apply for?
Alison Schofield, co-founder of educational consultants IngeniousEd, says: “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 admissions staff to ensure you are clear on their availability and policies.”

What really happens at school assessments?
“For FS/KG students, they typically undergo a play-based assessment where they are invited to play among other children in a classroom environment,” says Schofield. “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.”

When should I start thinking about secondary school applications?
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,” says Schofield. “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).”

Should I focus on results?
“Many parents focus on the academic results, however I think what really makes a school tick is the things that you cannot measure so easily, what I would call the hidden curricular. These include things like team work, communications, responsibility and building resilience,” says Fiona McKenzie of Gabbitas Education Consultants.

“You can see if these are important to the school by looking at their extra-curricular opportunities: Have they got team sports? Do they offer debating? What is the school prefect system like? Where
do they take the children on school trips?

“Facilities is another easy one to evaluate. Most schools out here have stunning facilities, but parents should not be overwhelmed by this. The most important thing is what goes on inside these facilities, not how shiny and new they are.

“The key thing is making sure that the values of the school are ones that you as a family can subscribe to and that these values are clearly articulated and demonstrated, that they are not just posted on the wall.”

How important are the teachers?
“Obviously the leadership and quality of the teaching staff is one of the key factors in any school – great teachers can add an additional year’s worth of academic progress for some children,” says McKenzie from Gabbitas.

“Does the school prioritise its staff? Are they featured on the website? Do you have a chance to meet them if you are visiting the school? How long has the senior leadership team been in place? What was their experience before they took this post? The KHDA inspections give good feedback on the leadership in schools, which can be helpful.

“The best schools offer a blend of tradition and innovation, with an openness to embrace change and to incorporate new ideas and technologies. I always advise families who are new to the area to choose the school first and then find a house. Finding the right school for your child is much harder than finding the right house.

Financially, what should I bear in mind?
“Schools are a significant part of many parents’ budgets out here – they can seem expensive, especially if you are coming from a country that provides free education,” says McKenzie.

“Make sure you know what is included in the fees. Several of the new schools are offering an all-inclusive fee that covers extra-curricular activities, outings and school uniform. This can make quite a difference as these all add up. Some of the newer schools will also be offering a discount for founding families, which can last for up to four years and this can represent a big saving. Shop around for different price points for school fees and compare what you get for your money.”

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