Ah, schooling. Forget the lifestyle, the culture and even mum or dad’s big career move. It’s the kids’ education that plagues most parents’ minds when they arrive in Dubai. Which curriculum is best for my child? Do I prefer a not-for-profit school? Should I favour the swanky gym over science achievements? Is cost an indicator of quality? The school scene here is far removed from what we’re used to in our home countries: you have to pay, the term dates can be totally out of synch and the curriculum your kids have followed at home may not be available. Add to that the facts that, until recently, there were no league tables or quality guidelines, that many of us rely on word of mouth and other, subjective opinions, and choosing a school becomes a major headache.
‘It’s an absolute minefield,’ says Samantha Buxton, who arrived with her husband and two girls just over a year ago. ‘We had an agency in the UK to help us find a school and they told us there was only one school available. I wasn’t happy at all – we wanted several options.’
Despite the economic downturn, competition for places remains tough and, believe it or not, if you leave your school search until May or June, you could find your options severely limited. ‘It’s very daunting when you first start. You come up against a lot of brick walls,’ says Samantha. Her main gripe was the absence of league tables to point her in the right direction. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) inspection report (see www.khda.gov.ae), which came out mid-2009, is a marker, but with the vast majority of schools falling into the ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’ categories, it doesn’t give parents a lot to work with.
‘Parents need to get out and about and go on gut feeling,’ says Samantha. ‘You can learn some things by looking on websites or talking to other parents, but that is very subjective.’ Prospective parents need to visit schools and talk to the teachers, she says, as there’s only so much information to be gleaned from websites and promotional packages which, bear in mind, are put together by marketing teams highly skilled in persuading you to part with your hard-earnt wages.
‘In general, the facilities in Dubai schools are outstanding,’ says Samantha, who by virtue of being ‘pushy’ expanded her options to four schools. ‘They’re all beautifully presented, from the swimming pools to the flower boxes, but it’s the teachers who make the difference.’
For Janet Conway, who arrived with her husband and five-year-old son over the summer, getting her head around paying for education and, even worse, schools making money from it, was difficult. ‘Coming from the UK, the thought of a school making a profit sticks in my throat, which is why I narrowed down my choices early on to not-for-profit schools. I had a look at some profit-making schools and many were excellent, but I just didn’t like the idea of someone making money from something that,in my mind, is a basic right.’