Students at Jumeirah English Speaking School. The British school is one of the UAE’s oldest, having opened in 1975 Image Credit: Gulf News Archives
As the US academic Daniel J. Boorstin once famously put it: “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.” For parents delving into the UAE school system for the first time, this could sound pretty close to home. 
In a country where 89 per cent of the residents are expatriates from a wide range of countries, schools have had to adapt to the changing wants of the community. These days, children generally go to a private school catering to whatever nationality and qualification are preferred, or an international school with a more mixed student body. 
There are American and British curriculum schools of course, but there are also Arabic, Australian, Filipino, French, German, Indian, Iranian, Japanese and Russian curriculum schools — and some of these schools are governed by the embassy of that country. In short, there are a lot of options. 
Sending your child to the right private school involves legwork, research and serious number crunching (Spoiler alert: It ain’t cheap). But the good news is the standard of education in the country is improving with each passing year. Indeed, there are many truly excellent institutions available. You just need to be well prepared.
How to choose a curriculum
Selecting the right curriculum can be challenging for parents, especially when faced with the range of options. While the International Baccalaureate (IB) is being offered by an increasing number of international schools, many still follow the British and American systems. The IB diploma is a rigorous academic programme that challenges students and helps them develop the research and writing skills needed to succeed in college. 
Peter Y. Davos, Founder and Managing Director of Hale Education Group — one of the GCC’s leading US university admissions specialists — explains that to find the best fit curriculum for a child’s education, parents should understand what each truly consists of. “They need to look for a comprehensive and balanced programme that not only encourages students to achieve their academic goals but also prepares them for global competitiveness.” 
More than a curriculum covering a myriad of different topics in one school year, he advises that parents look for one with a strong emphasis on critical thinking, community service and personal skill development. A curriculum that is recognised by universities worldwide is another consideration, but ultimately the decision should be about students who are not only well educated but also well rounded. 
“Parents should also think about working backwards from their higher education goals,” he adds. “If they ultimately want to enrol their son or daughter in a university in the US, for example, they should choose a high school that has a strong track record of sending its graduates to highly selective US universities. This does not necessarily mean enrolling them in an American curriculum school, but looking at a school’s track record of success in placing students at the types of universities they ultimately want their child to attend.”
For expats keen to educate their child in the Indian curriculum, there are two key systems to consider: the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) and the CISCE (Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations). There are a few differences between the two that are worth noting.
First, the CBSE curriculum is designed and developed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi. It prepares students for the All India CBSE Secondary School Examination at age 16 (end of grade 10) and the All India Senior School Certificate Examination at age 18 (end of grade 12).
The CISCE curriculum prepares students for the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) exam in secondary school and the Indian School Certificate examination in the final year of secondary school.
“Indian universities are closely interlinked with these secondary school systems,” says a spokesperson for GEMS Education, a UAE-based organisation that runs schools educating more than 100,000 students worldwide. “This means successful students have a golden ticket to India’s best higher education establishments. The Indian curriculum is also rapidly gaining recognition and respect worldwide.” 
Know your ratings
A good start for choosing a school for your child is the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). The body publishes yearly school inspection reports that provide a comprehensive review of the performance and standards of private schools in Dubai. 
The reports now also include a Parent section that gives detailed information about the quality of education provided by a particular school, helping mums and dads make informed decisions. In addition, each report includes specific information about the quality of provision for students with special educational needs, and the quality of early years education. Visit Khda.gov.ae to check out how a potential school is ranked.
Abu Dhabi schools are regulated and inspected by the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which conducts annual inspections and publishes its findings online in the Irtiqaa reports. Schools are assessed for overall effectiveness and on individual categories, such as quality of teaching and quality of school premises, for example, and given an overall A, B or C band grade, with seven sub-scores ranging from Outstanding to Poor within those three bands.
How much will it cost?
Davos says annual tuition fees differ widely, depending on the school’s curriculum and location in the emirate. “Cost does not necessarily correspond with quality, and it is better to look at objective factors, such as the percentage of students that score well on internationally recognised exams — such as IB scores, A levels, Indian boards, or American AP tests.” 
IB schools typically tend to have the highest tuition fees in the UAE, followed by British and American curriculum schools, but there are exceptions. “Although higher fees may be an indicator of superior facilities and teaching staff, going to a school with higher fees does not necessarily mean a better education, and there are several less expensive schools in the UAE that have been ranked outstanding by the KHDA,” he says. 
This month, private schools in Dubai were given the go-ahead to increase fees between 3.21 per cent and 6.42 per cent, depending on their rating. The increase is based on the new Education Cost Index, which is calculated annually by taking into account the consumer price index and school operation costs, including remuneration, rent and utilities.
As a guide, private school fees range from around Dh5,000 a year at a poorly resourced school to a whopping Dh100,000 per year or more at one of the more distinguished schools, Davos says. “And remember, school fees quoted are often for tuition only. Bus fares, uniforms, books, field trips, musical instrument hire and so on can add quite a bit of extra expense. Check carefully what the fees include,” he adds. 
Getting in
Competition for entry into private and international schools in the UAE remains high, and applications should be made at the earliest opportunity. How much in advance? Many of the most popular schools have waiting lists with non-refundable deposits, particularly for elementary years. 
With a rising number of applications and limited number of seats, there are often long waiting lists and students may be required to sit for an entrance examination. Many schools also require that a percentage of tuition fees be paid well in advance to secure offered spots. 
As for interviews, they are part of the process — particularly at the most selective and therefore desirable schools. There is no law that regulates admissions criteria, so interviews are legal and an accepted part of the admission process. 
Some schools are embassy schools, such as British School Al Khubairat and American School of Dubai, and have an obligation to provide preferential treatment for admissions towards students of the nationalities they were founded to educate — the former for British passport holders and the latter for North American passport holders. 
Caroline Tapken: The Dubai business owner’s son is in his final year and hopes to go to Australia to study Paramedic Science. She says: “Our son is in sixth form at Dubai English Speaking College (DESC), and the fees amount to Dh79,772 annually, which we pay ourselves. He attended JESS Arabian Ranches until he finished his GCSEs. The choice was easy as it was the closest one when we moved to Green Community. We joined the school when it first opened, and as British passport holders there was no problem with admission. 
"After GCSE’s, our son decided he preferred A levels to the IB curriculum that JESS provided in the sixth form, so we had to look for a different school. There are few choices for sixth form in Dubai, and as most children within the school are also competing for places, it’s easy to change schools. We were lucky to have an interview with DESC that offered the courses he wanted, and were accepted as seats were available. While DESC was very helpful throughout the change, it was still subject to attaining the necessary grades at GCSE — we didn’t have a plan B if he hadn’t got the grades, so we were lucky he did.”
Melanie Carpenter: The Abu Dhabi mum has a young son just out of nursery and into school. She says: “Because we decided to keep our son in nursery for Foundation Stage 1 (FS1) — they were doing the same curriculum and we didn’t think he was quite ready to go to big school — getting him a place in Foundation Stage 2 (FS2) turned out to be a real struggle. Had we known it’s even harder at FS2 than FS1 we would’ve put him straight in. We had him on the waiting list for well over a year at three different schools and of course preference is given to siblings. We were just lucky that a brand-new school, Amity International, opened up and it was only about a half-hour bus ride away.
"So far we have been happy; the facilities are fantastic, and the administration and communication with the parents have been really good and we are looking forward to our son learning how to sail. Our son is happy and learning. But, as a new school, there are no results to go on yet, so we’ll have to wait and see."
Nasreen Abdulla: The Dubai mum has two children, aged four and six years, in a city school. She says: “My kids goes to Cambridge High School and I pay about Dh15,000-17,000 average for both plus bus fees. I chose this school because I was looking for an O level that would fit in my budget. I was particularly happy with Cambridge because of its strong Arabic and Islamic curriculum, a multicultural environment and the fact that the school has been functioning for a long time. Obviously, the school has vast experience in dealing with kids. 
"My daughter had to go in for an assessment and then we were informed that she got through. My son got in automatically because she was there. I am happy so far; the kids have a lot of extracurricular activities and I feel like there is a wholesome development. I think for parents in this country getting into the school of their choice is the number one problem. I would advise people to apply well in advance so they don’t have to face any disappointment. 
"When I was growing up, there were just two schools in Dubai for Indian students. You went to one or the other. And there wasn’t much of a discussion or debate about schools. But now, with so many choices, parents become extremely confused. I think that it’s best not to overthink the decision and just pick a school that suits individual needs."