Sunny Varkey
Sunny Varkey, founder and chairman of the GEMS Education and The Varkey Foundation Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Choosing a school is one of the most important and consequential decisions a parent is likely to face. After all, it can make all the difference, ensuring your child has the best solid foundation in life as they go through the various stages of development, and setting them on the path to success both in terms of career and personal fulfilment.

Yet the process can be daunting and is not always straightforward, particularly when faced with the breadth of educational choices available in the UAE. Parents have to contend with information overload from multiple school visits, conflicting recommendations from well-meaning family and friends, and endless browsing through brochures and websites. However, putting in the groundwork and carefully researching the options will always pay off.

Practical considerations

Practical considerations, such as the proximity of a school to home, journey times, the level of congestion en route, and the availability of parking around campus, will of course always be of importance. These details can determine whether the commute to and from school is pleasurable or otherwise. However, a degree of flexibility and sacrifice, especially if it means the difference between a good school and an excellent school, is nonetheless worth considering.

As well as the tuition fees themselves, consider also whether the school offers anything extra that adds value to the overall provision. Value-added offerings, such as loyalty and reward programmes, can significantly reduce your expenses or enhance your lifestyle without compromising on the quality of your child’s education.

‘Beware of cut-price promotions’

Often, schools will also offer sibling discounts, helping to make education more affordable for large families. However, beware of cut-price promotions designed to entice parents through the school gates; these may appear attractive in the immediate term, but the risk is that you may struggle to afford the fees once the promotion period comes to end. Drastic discounts are likely to not be sustainable, which may signal financial instability on the part of the school operator so that they will not be able to afford to pay the teachers capable of delivering the quality education in the long term that your child deserves.

Sunny Varkey
Choosing a school is one of the most important and consequential decisions a parent is likely to face, Sunny Varkey feels. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Check out too the overall quality of teachers from recommendations and other criteria such as exam results. School websites should provide you with a top-level biography of each teacher and their qualifications. Take the time to read it carefully.

School ethos and culture

Does the school promote the kind of internationally recognised values and ideals that match your own and which align with your family’s priorities and aspirations? The school’s ethos and culture, as well the direction and vision of its leadership, should be publicly visible and clear from the start. More importantly, they should be lived and breathed by the teaching staff, students and even the parents – and this should be evident as soon as you step onto campus.

I look for employees generally who are not only smart, but also bring the core values that we embrace at GEMS Education – if they do not exhibit the latter values, then we don’t hire them. As the world of finance and many other areas of business show, individuals with a lack of personal values can literally bring down a company single-handed.

Having done your research and moved onto the crucial next step of visiting the school, don’t focus merely on the physical attributes of the facilities and campus; also pay attention to the ‘feel’ of the school. Ask yourself whether you feel comfortable and welcome in the environment and around the staff. Is it a happy place when you walk through the doors? Do staff seem as content as the students? Trust your instincts.

Meet the school leader

Make sure when you do visit the school that you ask to see the head of the school – they set the tone and it’s important that you feel comfortable with their vision, the way they conduct themselves, and how welcome they make you feel. Strong heads of schools are always happy to meet prospective new parents.

NAT Sunny Varkey12-1625546220081
According to Sunny Varkey, a school’s ethos and culture, as well the direction and vision of its leadership, should be publicly visible and clear from the start. Image Credit: Supplied

Look too at the track record of the school. You may be tempted by a new school full of attractive facilities or a school run by a well-known brand but with no experience here in the UAE. Remember that it takes at least six years before a school can truly exhibit its all-round qualities when their earliest pupils will graduate, having journeyed through the school years.

Schools with a great reputation have generally earned it through many years of achievement thanks to the consolidated hard work of their staff and students – don’t pass them by in favour of the ‘new kid on the block’ without thinking very hard.

Individual needs matter

Inclusive is a word many schools like to use and indeed is the way the world is rightly moving towards, offering opportunities to all. But there can be great disparities from one school to another when it comes to their ability to offer integrated education for children with special educational needs. Can they also adequately cater to your child’s needs and fulfil their potential in areas where they may excel or need extra help? What is most important is whether the school takes the time and is able to recognise your child’s individual needs, and there should be ample provision for additional learning support. Your parental preferences are key, so try to scratch beneath the surface and find evidence that supports any claims made.

In my view, truly inclusive schools work harder to ‘equalise’ opportunities for all and that starts at the point of entry. Is there any kind of ‘discrimination’ in the way a school allows your child to join it during the selection stage – or is it really exhibiting inclusive characteristics in seeing the potential of all and welcoming them into one united group of students? We believe strongly in non-selective policies for our schools.

School run – bus or car?

Next, as a general point, I highly recommend to parents that they take advantage of the school transport service. Many of you will have noted the worrying news from the United Nations and others that we are continually hearing about the effect of our daily traffic on climate change and the world’s ever-growing carbon footprint. If all of our children in the UAE took the school bus that would go at least some way to helping to minimise this impact in this country.

Having made this important decision, it’s vital to establish whether buses are operated by a specialist provider. Externally-operated bus services usually mean newer, more technologically advanced buses, highly trained drivers and better operational support. Ask about the staffing and safety procedures on board, and whether vehicles are fitted not only with adequate seatbelts, but also technology such as GPS trackers and student ID scanners. Just as important, all the more in the age of COVID, are the on-board sanitisation and health and safety protocols. The standards and values that you encounter from your first step on to the school bus each day should set the tone for your child’s entire experience at their school itself.

Bridge to university

As a child grows older, it becomes increasingly important for the school to offer solid counselling and university placement support. A list of where past graduates have gone on to study and work is a good indication, but it’s also worth asking whether the school has formal ties to any particular colleges. A school that has established partnerships with further and higher education institutions will be able to offer guidance on a greater breadth of options, helping to open doors to those all-important opportunities.

Does the school also offer comprehensive careers support? While this kind of support is generally available, it is important to find out how seriously the school takes this. Ask what opportunities there are throughout a child’s school life to consider, gain exposure to, and even experience different careers, and find out the level of guidance available.

Even though, due to the high proportion of expats in the UAE, many families may be looking to enrol their children only for a few years, it’s still important to consider the quality of the school-teacher-parent relationship. How well does the school, whether it’s the principal, the teachers or the support staff, communicate with parents? What effort is made to keep families informed, get to know them, gauge their opinion and subsequently respond to their feedback? This can make all the difference to the happiness and wellbeing of both children and parents.

I look for employees generally who are not only smart, but also bring the core values that we embrace at GEMS Education.

- Sunny Varkey, Chairman and Founder of GEMS Education and The Varkey Foundation

Long-term stability

Finally, it is always a good idea to look closely at the owners of a school, as this will give you an indication of its long-term stability and direction. What is their reputation and track record, what is their sector-specific experience, and where do their core business interests lie? What is their motivation for entering the entering the education sector? Simply to make money? If the school is backed by financial investors, for example, bear in mind that investors may look to exit the business down the line – which could negatively impact the school.

Think too about whether their model is sustainable – especially during the current pandemic – and has the long-term interests of your child at heart. This includes serious investment in the classroom technology that will help students take on the challenges of a future that will be driven by ever-changing IT trends and tools.

Don’t forget either that a school’s involvement in your child should not end simply when they graduate. Do they have an alumni programme? What is the counselling pre-university? And after school graduation? We are proud to support our students, for example, well after they have left our schools whether they are attending university or are beyond it and into their working life.

We believe strongly that ‘learning is for life’ and that includes your school’s involvement. Like a favoured health company – or even automobile maker – your school group should be a friendly, reliable and trustworthy area of support that lasts your entire life. At GEMS we are making this a major focus as a lifelong ‘guardian’ of our students and alumni and have invested considerably in the technology to make this possible.

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‘Our children deserve the very best’

To sum up, the choice you make for your child’s school could not be more important for their entire life. Our children – the future leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs of our world – deserve the highest quality education and the very best start in life.

It is the greatest gift we can offer them and my final piece of advice is simply to try your best to cut through all the sales talk and focus on one thing: will this school offer the best possible all-round education for my chid? I wish you well in making the right selection.

The author is Chairman and Founder of GEMS Education and The Varkey Foundation.