Parent stories: Dubai
Rebecca is British and lives in Dubai with her husband and two daughters who are aged seven and five. They moved to Dubai because of work when the children were three and one. Here she tells us all about finding the right school in a city that’s growing at an incredible rate, and where new schools are opening all the time…
Rebecca, thank you for talking to Winters. Your children were very young when you moved. Was it difficult to find a school for them in Dubai?
The girls were very young, yes – one and three years old when we moved. When we arrived I discovered that here in Dubai children usually start formal school at three years old; they tend to do foundation stage 1 at school rather than in separate nurseries. So I had to get on trying to find a school place more quickly than I had expected.
We found that the waiting lists for schools were quite long. Many of the best, longest-established schools were (and still are) impossible to get into unless the company you work for has debentures. We had to use our contacts to get a place.
Were there lots of schools to choose from?
We only considered English curriculum schools. Of course there are also schools here that teach an international curriculum, and American schools (and French and German schools too, I think). My main concern in choosing a school was to try and ensure it would be as academically rigorous as a UK prep school. It was very hard to get any evidence about this. In Dubai, schools are regulated by the KHDA which strongly focuses on the teaching of Arabic and Islamic Studies, so their ratings are not so useful for UK parents. So we had to rely on anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues. I chose a school that some friends’ children attended. Our friends were pleased with it and recommended it to us.
Has the variety and choice of schools changed since you first arrived?
In the last couple of years a huge number of new schools have opened – and the sector continues to expand so things have improved even further. However, it is still hard to get in to the good schools, especially in the early years where there is the greatest demand.
Was it easy to find the information you needed? Were the schools themselves helpful and supportive in providing information and help?
It’s not easy as a newcomer to find reliable information. The KHDA ratings are publicly available but they don’t focus on the areas we were most interested in. We relied wholly on friends and colleagues for information. When calling schools in Dubai from the UK I couldn’t always get the information I wanted. We had to rely on some contacts to get a tour at the school we wanted to see.
All of this is changing though, especially because so many new schools are opening. There are also expat websites like ‘britishmumsdubai’ where parents share their experiences and advice.
How important is it to visit schools?
Really important. You have to visit a school and talk to the staff to get a true feel for it. We visited the first school with our daughter. I did a tour of the second school at an open morning for parents, and my husband and I talked for a long time with the deputy head. Both girls did assessments for the schools.
"...visiting is essential..."
So visiting is essential – but it can still be hard to get a true picture of all your options. In Dubai things change all the time.
Is the application process straightforward?
The application process involves a lot of form filling, just as you’d imagine. Assessments of the children are usually required. You may also need to pay registration fees.
Why did you move schools?
My older daughter started school in Dubai when she was three (nearly four) and remained in the same school for nursery and reception. She had good teachers there. However, when a brand new sister school opened, we decided to send both girls to the new school. They are now in year 2 and reception.
We chose to move to the second school for several reasons. It’s closer to our home, has smaller class sizes, and several of our friends were moving their children there. Also, importantly, the demographics at the first school changed. Over the space of two years it felt less "British" and more international.
Are you pleased with the new school? Was it the right choice for your children?
We are pretty happy with the new school, especially with the smaller class sizes (a maximum of sixteen per class). The school seeks to provide a British prep school experience.
"...class size is very important to me..."
Of course it hasn't met our expectations in every way – e.g. the swimming pool is still not built, and the school has grown more quickly than we expected. But overall, our girls are happy, their class-mates are lovely kids and that's good enough for us.
Having been through the process, have you changed your criteria for what you are looking for in a school?
I didn’t really have a clue when I first started looking. My biggest concern then was an English curriculum. Now class size is very important to me. And demographics is another thing I’d look at. I want a good mix of children, including some children from similar backgrounds to ours. The culture and ethos of the school is important, and so is location and proximity to home. I would continue to look for recommendations from other parents.
Do you have any final tips for other parents about to go through this process?
I'd just say it’s best not to expect too much, and go into the process with your eyes open. Get onto the expat websites and ask for views; visit the school with your child. Maybe try and get involved with any parent associations if you are new as it can be a good way to meet other parents.
Finally, on a positive note – in my experience the kids here are really open and friendly, and everyone has been a newbie to Dubai at some time so most people are very welcoming.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Rebecca. It sounds like you’ve found a good school where the children are happy.
Main article photograph: American University of Sharjah courtesy of iStock