• Lucy Chow, a business development specialist from Vancouver in Canada, has one son, three-year-old Max. They live in the Meadows and have been in Dubai for two years.
• Londoner Lesley Culley has two little girls: Lydia, five, and Esme, two. She is a full-time mum and has been in Dubai for three years, currently residing in Al Safa.
• June Hall, the head teacher at Children’s Oasis Nursery, has been in Dubai for nine years and lives in Jumeirah. Originally from Cheltenham, UK, she has three grown-up children aged between 29 and 36.
• Originally hailing from Yorkshire in the UK, full-time mum Tracey Hewison lives in Garhoud and has been in Dubai for two-and-a-half years. She is mother to four-year-old Luke and James, two.
What got us talking...
When people discuss sending their kids to nursery in Dubai, it tends to be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ – but choosing which one to sign up to seems to be only as complicated as you make it. Of course, if you do your research you’ll find that there are more factors to take into consideration than when you buy a house: teacher qualifications, physical environment and recommendation to name but a few. For some people, however, it’s simply a matter of location or cost. So what should you prioritise when making your decision; is there such a thing as a ‘wrong’ nursery? We gathered four local mums together at Atlantis’s French brasserie, Rostang, and sought their worldly wisdom on the matter.
Where and when did you send your kids to nursery?
Tracey: Luke has been at Yellow Brick Road in Garhoud since he was three. He’s had nearly two years there.
Lesley: Lydia went to Knightsbridge Nursery, which is closing down now, when she was about two-and-a-half, once she was toilet-trained. I was expecting my second child and I didn’t want her to feel abandoned when the baby came, so I got her settled into the new nursery before that happened – and she was ready for it. I could play with her but she needed something more.
Lucy: Max started going to nursery at about 18 months. My priority was actually finding a space, which was almost impossible back then, as well as proximity to home. For the first couple of months he was in one nursery, but then he moved to Raffles nursery at the Lakes, which is great. Not all nurseries are created equal.
Did you put them in nursery out of necessity?
Lesley: For me it was a choice, but I’m struggling with when to send Esme because it’ll be hard to let go.
Tracey: Unless you’re working, I don’t think it’s a necessity.
June: You might be sending them for specific reasons, like developing their social skills and allowing them to interact with other children, not just so that you can go to coffee mornings. It’s a bit different for working mums with babies; then it’s more about daycare. They’re not into their social skills at three months old.
Lesley: I could not send my child that young. I understand how hard working mums have it, but it’s not for me.
Tracey: Until the age of two-and-a-half, they’re more interested in the toy than the little boy next to them.
Lucy: It was important for me to send Max to nursery because I felt that he needed the stimulation. If you only have one child, socialisation is really important. And, frankly, they’re going to be able to teach him more than I can: I’m not one of those people who’ll say, ‘Let’s sit together and write letters.’
June: I think children are individuals and what’s best for your first can be entirely different from what’s best for your second.
Lesley: In Dubai the question seems to be when, rather than whether, they’re going to go to nursery.
Tracey: We found that when we moved here. Luke was two and I couldn’t find anyone to have play dates with because everyone’s children were at nursery.
Is sending them to nursery about their development or giving yourself a break?
Lesley: It’s a bit of both. If my daughters see me as a relaxed, happy, fulfilled woman, I’m hoping that they will become relaxed, happy, fulfilled women too. I’m trying not to feel guilty about that.
June: With nursery you’ve also got the two-day option, which still helps prepare them for big school.
Lesley: Nursery definitely made Lydia ready – there were no tears on her first day of school.
Tracey: We had tears for two terms when I started Luke at nursery; it was heartbreaking. We’d had three years together, so it was a huge wrench. I wasn’t prepared at all.
June: Do you feel that perhaps he may have settled more quickly if he’d gone to nursery a little earlier?
Tracey: I think it’s simply his personality; he just loves being at home.
Lucy: Max has always been very good and independent. I’m not sure if that’s because he went to nursery at 18 months, or if that’s why I felt it was right to do that; it’s just his character. But I do feel there’s this pressure to put your child into nursery.
Is nursery about having fun or education?
Lucy: Max is learning to write his name, and I didn’t realise he needed to know this and be tested on it at age three. There is almost this fear: I didn’t know they had to know all this, I can’t teach him all this myself; and then he’s going to be tested to get into foundation two.
June: That’s not strictly true. I visit a lot of schools and one of my first questions is, ‘What do they want the children to know when they come to visit?’ As far as reading is concerned, it’s whether they can turn pages and listen to a story, they don’t need to be able to read, and I agree with that. Nursery is there for them to develop a love of learning.
Lucy: I don’t think it’s just my nursery, though; most foundation two schools test children at the age of three. And then I start hearing, ‘Has he got pencil skills?’ I’m like, ‘Pencil skills?’ I didn’t teach him but luckily nursery had and I hadn’t even realised!
Lesley: You hear that they’re going to be tested and you think: Hang on a minute, isn’t it about where I want to send my child? I’m paying for that school – it shouldn’t be about whether they’ll deem to accept her.
Lucy: I have two friends whose kids didn’t get into their schools of choice after going there for interviews. The first boy cried when he realised his mum had forgotten to pack his snack, and the second was a little girl who was seen to be too clingy when she got upset that her mum wasn’t allowed to sit in the room. Come on, they’re two years old!
Tracey: But I wouldn’t want to send my child to a school that did that. I was really impressed with JESS because they came to nursery and just watched them playing and did puzzles with them. There was no pressure, no direct questions, just watching how they interacted, and that’s the sort of school I want.
June: They should be seen in their own environment. If you put them in a new building away from their parents, of course they’re going to be nervous, it’s entirely alien.
What did you prioritise when choosing a nursery?
Tracey: My first priority was seeing if the children and teachers seemed happy. Then making sure that it’s a safe environment, any potential problems for getting out of the building in a fire. Is it colourful, does it seem like a child’s world? What qualifications did the teachers have, how many children per class...I really did my research into what makes a good nursery. It’s a big decision.
Lesley: I feel bad because I didn’t do all that.
Lucy: Neither did I! I keep telling myself it’s only nursery, how much am I going to screw up his life if I take him to the wrong nursery?
Is there such a thing as a wrong nursery?
Lesley: My friend had her child at Knightsbridge and she was getting on alright, so I just thought I’d send Lydia there!
Is there anything unique about Dubai nurseries?
Lesley: I find it weird that everything is an ex-villa. Nothing is a purpose-built space.
Tracey: Luke’s is. I didn’t like ex-villas – if there’s a fire, trying to get children downstairs when they’re panicking is a nightmare.
Lesley: I didn’t even think of that!
Tracey: Villas also have adult-sized toilets – how are children going to use them? Are they going to eat in the classroom?
June: We’re in a villa with stairs and when we do our fire drill all 169 children are outside within three minutes. The villa was built for children: all the classrooms have their own bathrooms with small toilets. We get a lot of inspections from the ministries, they’re very strict, and when I think about some of the nurseries I’ve seen I wonder how on earth they pass.
Tracey: We were on a waiting list for Yellow Brick Road for 10 months and I was quite happy to wait for that length of time.
Lesley: When I pick Lydia up from nursery, she runs over and smiles. What bigger testament can you have from a child? Even the ratio of teachers to children – I know it’s important but it’s not my biggest concern.
Tracey: But you pay so much, though.
Lesley: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’d want there to be just one assistant, but her happiness and wellbeing were more important than how many teachers there were.
June: When I show parents around I always say to them, ‘Go and see a lot of nurseries and you’ll get the feel for them. When you’re in the right nursery, you’ll know.’
What’s the standard of care like?
Lucy: If you have a good teacher or a good principal, it doesn’t matter what nursery it is.
Lesley: At the nursery stage, for me, it’s knowing that there’s somebody that can comfort and look after her.
June: In the UK now it’s frowned upon to cuddle a child. I always said that if there comes a day that I can’t be in a classroom and comfort a child, that’s the day I leave. And thank goodness we don’t have that here.
Tracey: When the children say goodbye at Luke’s nursery, the teachers give them a hug and a kiss and say ‘I love you’.
June: From a teacher’s point of view, every day is different and you get the privilege of being a part of that little one’s life at such a crucial stage. Afterwards, they’ll be at school a long, long time and with nursery, you just want to give them a happy experience. It’s amazing how many children here don’t know how to play – it’s really important to let them be children.
Lesley: I would want someone to treat my children the way I treat them, and if that means saying ‘stop whinging’, that’s great. I want my kids to feel happy, safe and secure and with someone that cares for them. They’re not at nursery to learn, they’re there to do finger-painting and the messy stuff that I don’t do at home. The dirtier Lydia would come home from nursery, the happier I was because I’d know she’d had a great time.
Children’s Oasis Nursery, Umm Suqeim (04 348 8981), Raffles International School Nursery, The Lakes (04 422 4897). Yellow Brick Road, Garhoud (04 282 8290). If you’d like to participate in the next Great Debate, email email@example.com