As parents we’re well aware of how important it is to find the right fit for your child when it comes to schooling. But with so much choice in the UAE it can be daunting to know where to begin, especially with the added pressure of it often being your little one’s first brush with education. But we’re here to help, having curated a step-by-step guide on how to choose your child’s school in Dubai as well as great tips for the rest of the UAE too.
1. Check KHDA ratings
The best place to start is the KHDA. The KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Agency) is the educational authority in Dubai and it provides comprehensive yearly ratings (which range from Weak to Outstanding) of every school in the Emirates.
These ratings take into account everything from facilities, student attainment, leadership and teaching quality and are generally accepted as the best benchmark for how a school is performing - although bear in mind that your priorities in selecting your child's school may not necessarily completely align with the way that the KHDA assesses schools.
The KHDA information also includes a table of school fees, and all of it can be accessed online, which is particularly relevant for parents in the process of selecting schools as part of an international move (khda.gov.ae).
"For me choosing a school was difficult because I wasn't in the country to do school tours when we started looking," explains mum-of-two, Shannan West. "I looked at the top five from the KHDA ratings and started sorting from there." But even for those in the country, the KHDA should be the first port of call.
"We used the KHDA ratings to draw up a shortlist of schools to tour," says mum-of-three Ali Davies. "We only went on tours for schools that had a rating of very good and excellent. After the tours, the decision was driven by other factors: word of mouth, recommendations and what our son's nursery advised."
2. Tap into the parent network
Word of mouth through asking friends with school-age kids for recommendations is definitely a good way to get an insider opinion on a school, but director of tuition and educational advisory service Bonas Macfarlane, Shannon Holden, suggests going one step further. "Informal social networks of parenting groups are often more revealing than hard statistics," she says.
"The more metrics - like KHDA ratings and reports - that a school can provide is a good sign, but I’d also ask if a school has a parent network that you could tap into to get a genuine perspective of a school."
3. Match your curriculums
Ensuring your child can slot seamlessly back into the system they've come from, or into a new system depending on your move, is something that most expat parents in Dubai need to take into consideration - and that's where a school's curriculum comes in. There are 17 different curriculums available in Dubai, of which the most popular is the British, followed by the Indian CBSE, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the US curriculum.
Although this sounds like a huge number, most parents tend to use the curriculum their home country offers as a guide. "we were very determined that the school follow a curriculum that would mean an easy transfer back to Australia," says Shannan West.
"We knew we were only going to be here for three years so we wanted to minimise the disruption for our three-year-old." It's not just where your child may be going to next that should inform your decision; it's the environment that they've come from too. "My main focus was the play areas and sports facilities because the school my daughter came from placed most focus on play-led learning," says mother-of-two, Robyn Stromsoe.
"For a four-year-old, academics felt less important than making sure it was an easy transition, and she was in an environment with lots of variety in learning and we wanted to find a place where she would feel comfortable."
4. Don't feel pressure to think too far ahead
Choosing a school for the child you have now is something that educator and mindful parent consultant at mindful me, Joanne Jewell, founder of Mindful Parenting, emphasises. She says that while at this age it can be difficult to determine which area of learning is going to take your child's interest, every three-to-six-year-old benefits from a nurturing environment and free play: "You're looking for a place that feels right for your child right now and that should be your focus," she says.
"I would definitely be looking for a school with good play areas and facilities for outside play. How much opportunity there is for them to learn through doing is also a big thing. Has the play area got bikes? Has it got stuff kids can play on and climb? And if so, how much time is spent in those areas? You don't want kids to spend too long sitting in their chairs at this age. And of course the most important thing is to visit the school."
5. Research the school's background
Another way to get a feel for a school is to research the group that it's part of and see whether its qualities and values match what you're looking for. For some, that may be a school that is part of one of the large, established educational companies with a proven track record like gems education or the Al Najah group, which own and operate numerous schools across Dubai and the UAE.
For other parents, sending their child to a non-profit school is a priority, although these places tend to be more heavily contested. Non-profit schools are popular because they tend to be the older schools in Dubai, like JESS, Jebel Ali or DESS, and unlike 'for profit' schools they don't answer to shareholders. This means that, in theory, all school fees can be invested directly back into the schools themselves.
However, due to their popularity, places at the handful of existing non-profit schools are hard to come by. Local parents sign their children up at birth and local and international companies also buy up 'debentures', which are in effect reserved spaces on the waiting list that their employees can access when their children hit school age.
The third option becoming increasingly available to parents in Dubai is branded international schools, like North London Collegiate School, Repton, or Dwight school, each of which have a founding school in the UK or the US. These schools tend to maintain close connections with the original schools, offering families a sense of familiarity and facilitating a smooth transition back to a home country if and when the time comes.
6. Don't be afraid to be 'selfish'
Looking around a school plays a vital role in your selection process and is also a great way to check out the school's location and ease of access. Director of educational consultancy Gabbitas, Fiona McKenzie, advises making a shortlist of around four schools to visit, while Shannon Holden suggests that parents should return to a frontrunner school more than once, ideally on a day when an official tour hasn't been scheduled.
Interestingly, every expert stressed that parents shouldn't be afraid to be selfish when it came to selection process. "The decision has to sit well with the whole family," says Fiona McKenzie. "You don't want to be spending hours in the car on the school run and then going even further for playdates every day." "The needs of the child have to fit within the resources available to the family," adds Shannon Holden.
"Lengthy travel time affects quality of life and wellbeing, especially for younger students. Parents have to ask themselves if that's what they want."
7. Book a tour and then go with your gut
Having checked the ratings and talked to friends, the next step is to pay the school a visit (most schools will have regular tours you can book onto during term time) - and knowing what you want and trusting your gut are the two most important factors when it comes to making that final decision. "Trust the gut feeling you get when you visit. Does it feel right? Can you see your child there?" says Fiona McKenzie. "This is your choice and your child and every child is different. It's a very personal decision."
For parents still nervous about following their instincts, Joanne Jewell has these words of comfort: "focus on meeting your child's needs right now when it comes to choosing a school. If you do that at every stage then you're always preparing them for the next bit. And if, a few years down the line, the school isn't right for your child, you can always consider moving them. There are plenty of decent transition points in every curriculum. Make the decision that's right for now."