Parent stories: Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi
What’s it like finding the right school in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi? Vicky is British and lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and daughter. Her son is at university in the UK, and the family was based in the UK until 2009, when they moved to Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia. They moved to Abu Dhabi in 2014. Here she talks to Winter’s about all her experiences.
What were your main concerns when you moved to Saudi Arabia? This was the first time you’d lived abroad as a family, wasn’t it?
Yes it was. My husband had travelled extensively with his work, but we’d never moved abroad as a family before. As far as schools were concerned, my top priority was finding a good school that taught the British curriculum so that my children would have some continuity in their education. Continuity was especially important to me because at that point we only thought we’d be moving abroad for a year!
How old were your children at the time?
My son was in Year 8 – he was 13 – and my daughter was in Year 2, so I had to think about two quite different sets of issues as I looked at the schools. But with both of them it was the continuity with the education they’d already received that was uppermost in my mind.
And what was the choice of schools like in Al Khobar?
There were only two schools teaching the British curriculum, so the choice was obviously very narrow. I didn’t have that problem of a huge number of schools that I had to try to make sense of and reduce to a shortlist first. The choice was pretty clear!
Were you able to visit the two schools?
No, I wasn’t able to visit because of the time involved in securing the entry visa for Saudi Arabia. So my husband visited them, and we spoke to other parents who’d had to make this same choice.
What were your other concerns at the time, besides ensuring that continuity in your children’s education?
There were various things, but proximity was probably the most important consideration after the basic question of the curriculum that would be followed. They both looked like good schools, but one of them was very close to where we were living – it was in the same compound – and so this made it very attractive. At the time I was a bit concerned about the idea of the children taking the bus to school by themselves, which is how transport to the other school worked, and so this was also a factor.
Were there any other issues you’d pick out now?
Another one was class sizes. You have to be very careful about this. I found that the information you receive in advance can sometimes be misleading, so it’s worth looking into the reality of class sizes in the school quite carefully.
How concerned were you about how your children would adjust to life in a new school, in a new country?
It’s something you think about a lot, of course. I was concerned that my daughter might find it challenging. How it worked out in practice was that everyone in the compound was very welcoming, and children started calling round as soon as we’d moved – this was more important than anything the school put in place to help with the transition.
How did it work out for you with this school? Did it meet your expectations?
Unfortunately we did have some problems, and in the end I moved both my children to the other one. There were some problems settling into the culture of the school – the sorts of things that are very hard to anticipate, and that you just have to deal with as they arise. Then, more specifically, there were problems with the examinations my son was working towards. We wanted him to take the IGCSEs, but it turned out that the first school was not well set up for teaching towards these exams. So he moved to the second school, and my daughter followed as well. In hindsight, possibly we could have looked into the question of IGCSEs more closely at the time when we were first choosing the school, but of course at that point we only anticipated being there for a year. This is something you have to think hard about – how long are you going to be there? And what happens if actually you stay for longer? How does that change things? Are you still making the right choice?
And the second school worked out well?
Very well, yes. It was much better set up for teaching international exams, and was just a more stimulating place in general: it had close links with one of the American schools, so there were more things going on and it was a richer experience.
Was security something you looked into when you were choosing these schools?
Not closely, because the first school was inside the compound so it wasn’t really an issue. With the second school there was a screening process for all adults entering the school, so this was very reassuring, but it wasn’t an intrusive security environment.
So then you moved to Abu Dhabi. What happened at that point?
Well, my son had already left Saudi Arabia to finish his schooling in England, so I only had to look for a school for my daughter. When the move first came up I didn’t even know which country we’d be going to! Then, when this had been decided, it was a very different situation to the move from the UK to Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi has a huge number of schools, and there’s lots of competition for places in the best ones, so it was really a very different challenge that we faced when we made this move last year.
How did you get started?
I did lots of different things. I went by word of mouth, I talked to friends who were already in Abu Dhabi, I did a lot of online research, and then I contacted schools to try to find out more about them and to arrange visits.
And was that difficult?
It was quite difficult, yes, because of the competition for places. Some schools would just say they had no places and it wasn’t possible to come and visit; you would just be told, sorry, we’re full. So at least this helped to narrow things down!
How much were you able to find out in advance about the schools that you eventually visited?
It varied enormously. Some of the websites were great, but others were a lot less informative. Some of them let you download a full school prospectus, which obviously meant you had a lot more information. Some answered emails with really good, useful information – but again this varied from school to school.
"...it was the visits that made all the difference."
So then you visited the schools. How many did you visit in the end?
We went to four different schools in the end. Although there were some frustrations earlier in the process – just getting into some of the best schools for visits – actually making the visits was very easy in Abu Dhabi, and of course it was the visits that made all the difference. Nothing that you find out in advance can really help you make up your mind in comparison with the visits themselves, because you just find out so much on a visit. You see it all for yourself and feel like you can trust the experiences that you have.
And were there any questions that you found yourself coming back to over and over again on the visits?
The two big questions I kept coming back to, and which became the focus of the visits I did – inevitably I think – were, how friendly and welcoming is everyone? And what’s the place, the school, the environment, actually like?
What happened in practice then – how did you make the choice?
In the end my daughter made the choice. She was 12 years old and she had strong reactions to everything that she saw. There were two schools that we were equally happy with, and then the choice between them was hers to make. She had quite a specific idea in mind as we made these visits: she really liked the idea of a school that was new, that wasn’t established, that wasn’t full of people who’d been there for a long time, that wasn’t fixed in its ways. It was a general feeling that she had.
That’s very interesting. And so you ended up choosing a new school over one that was more established?
Yes, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, which has worked out really well. And in fact it was a straight choice between very old and very new, if you like, because the other school that offered her a place was the oldest, most established school in Abu Dhabi. They were both really good schools, but my daughter just had a really strong positive reaction to the environment at Cranleigh – she loved how new and fresh everything was. It is a beautiful school. I’d like to go there!
Photograph courtesy of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi
Presumably this meant you couldn’t look at much data about the school’s results?
That’s right, that is a factor with new schools. You’re going on what you can see, what you can experience, and what others tell you, but also on the track record of the Headteacher and the rest of the teaching staff.
Did the people you met on the visits, the individual teachers or administrators, make a real difference and help you to choose?
Yes, this was absolutely key. The registrar at Cranleigh was wonderful, really friendly and welcoming. She took my daughter round the school and did everything she could to answer our questions. This sort of personal contact obviously makes a big difference to how you feel about everything. And all the staff were very young, very enthusiastic. They made a great impression on us.
Thanks Vicky, this has been really interesting. Is there anything else you’d add about the factors that have influenced you when you’ve been choosing a school?
Only to say that no one factor is ever decisive! It’s always a mixture of different things. One example is location, proximity. This was a major consideration for me when we made the first choice of school in Saudi Arabia, but then in Abu Dhabi, because of other factors and how they all come together, we’ve gone for a school that’s a 30-minute journey each way, and it hasn’t been a problem.
And is there anything you’d add about the sorts of information you’ve received over the years and what you’ve found most helpful?
In general what I’ve always hankered after is information that’s more objective – that doesn’t feel as if it’s being filtered through someone else’s special viewpoint or special interest. What you don’t want is lots of negative comments – which is what you seem to find more of – because how can you know what to trust? It all gets very personal and very tricky. I’ve also found that you need to treat the pictures that schools include on their sites and in marketing information with care. Invariably when you go into the school it seems completely different. You have to expect to be surprised by what you’ll see when you eventually make the visit.
Any plans to move again at the moment?
We love it here, so I think we’ll stay at least until my daughter’s finished her IGCSEs.
Thanks very much Vicky – and all the best for the future.
Top photograph: Abu Dhabi (iStock)