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Choosing a School in Dubai

How many factors should you consider when choosing a school in Dubai? Here's a long list, each as important as the next but what's important to your child?

Updated 03-March-2015  

We asked the Founding Principal of Hartland International School about choosing a school in Dubai (or anywhere else in the world).  Dr Paul Silverwood BA (Hons), MA (Cantab), PhD, QTS, CChem, MRSC, came up with a host of great suggestions but it’s only scratching the surface.

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Selecting the best school for your child is a huge responsibility. There are so many choices and opinions available. However, making the right choice is very easy: you should choose the school where your child will be happy, because if he is happy he will feel part of and demonstrate a willingness to contribute to the community, be able to build lasting relationships, benefit from all the academic and enrichment opportunities and have the greatest chance of not just reaching his potential but exceeding all expectations. There is no magic formula to help your decision making, because every child is unique. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else and so you must make careful observations, ask the right questions and work out where he will be happiest. So what will make your child happy at school?

A Friendly and Welcoming Environment

Young children usually respond best to smiling faces, friendly teachers and a warm child-centred approach to learning. When you visit a school, notice how much attention is given to your child. Do the teachers you meet speak to your child, address him by name, and find out about his likes and aspirations? Do they get down to your child’s eye level and make him feel comfortable and smile?

Evidence of Children Learning

music, arts, teacher, learning, education, educate, school, hartland international school, meydan, dubai, First impressions count. When you enter a school for a visit for the first time, what impression does it give you? Is it a place which is chaotic and disorganised? Is it an empty shell where it is impossible to find evidence of children and their contribution to life there? Or is it a place where children’s learning is visible?

Learning through Play and Engagement

Children learn through being engaged. This requires the perfect balance of work, rest and play within the school day. Ask about the structure of the school day and its timings, the opportunities children will have for free play, to build relationships with other children and to reflect upon the learning opportunities in and outside the classroom. Will the children feel rushed and have to sacrifice their lunchtime in order to have time in the playground with friends?

A Sense of Fun

The most heartwarming moment, as a parent, is when your child returns home and says they had fun at school. ‘Fun’ is child-speak for engagement, activity, inclusion, direction, progress and success. Does the school you are considering provide a sense of fun?

Small Class Sizes and Individual Attention

Much has been written about class sizes. Class size must always be considered alongside the quality of the teacher, the learning environment and the age range in question, but it makes perfect sense that a teacher with 20 in his class will be able to dedicate more time to the individual needs of each student than one with 30 in his class. Does your child thrive on a personal approach?

Individual Tutorials and Target Setting

Will the school spot your child’s talent and nurture it, set challenging targets and then monitor those targets? Will your child be able to develop a real passion for a particular discipline and be a leading practitioner when they leave school, able to compete with the best of their generation? She will, if the school has a commitment to nurturing talent and employs teachers who are passionate about their discipline, whether it be creative, sporting, technological or intellectual.

Narrow Minded or Open Leadership

One size never fits all. Whether it’s visual learning over kinaesthetic techniques or the International Baccalaureate over A Levels that schools offer, the most important thing is the flexibility to respond to a child’s needs. All systems and curriculums have room for diversity, but how willing is a school to be flexible to an individual child’s needs and developing aspirations?

Challenging Academic Standards

A school which talks about aspirations, role models and supporting entry to the world’s top universities is one which takes academic standards seriously. However, academic drive must never be to the detriment of high quality pastoral care and well-being. High academic standards in the long-term are built upon a genuine love of learning, not over testing at an early age.

Ownership of Learning

It is so important for academic progression that children learn how and then want to take ownership of their own learning. The children should be part of the target setting and be invited to attend parent – teacher conferences; after all, they are the ones we wish to inspire.

Learning Support Provision

If your child has any physical, emotional, linguistic, or learning need she will require a school that understands, supports and nurtures her. The school should demonstrate a commitment to open dialogue with you and the ability to provide strategies which will enable your child to grow in confidence and take ownership of her own learning.

Language Learning Opportunities

An international education should promote the acquisition and practice of language skills. Parents should be aware of the provision of language classes and the methodology employed in the teaching of languages. Will they inspire the students and equip them with the confidence and skills necessary to communicate with others?

Inclusive Enrichment Activities

Enrichment activities are an excellent means of providing opportunities for leadership, collaboration, problem solving and decision making. Parents should be aware of what is included in the school day (and fees), how much of the programme is supported by the permanent teaching staff and whether the progress of the children will be monitored and reported back to parents on a regular basis.

Sporting Expectations

Schools should be places where healthy habits are nurtured. This starts with the approach to exercise, healthy eating and developing a love for sport that will continue for a lifetime. Schools should have programmes in place to support the physical development of all children. If you have a child who excels at or shows an interest in sport, he should be given every opportunity to develop his interest and skills and to compete. Ask the school about their plans for coaching, competitive fixtures and House-based competitions within school.

Leadership Opportunities

A collegiate structure of inter-house activities and competitions provides an excellent basis for leadership opportunities for children. Parents should ask about the provision of friendly competitions which bring together children of all ages to work as a team. It’s a great taste of the real world at an early age; older students take on leadership roles and younger ones have role models.

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Most schools will have a theatre and dance studio; many offer textile design, operate a recording studio and build a wing of music rooms; but do they take the Arts seriously? Parents should inquire about the programme available to all students and the specialist support that will be provided for the talented individual.

Celebration

Schools are communities and it is important that the community comes together to recognise achievement and hard work; to celebrate festivals and special events. Find out about the school calendar and how parents can be involved. Does the school really want to be a community?

At this point I realise that I have only just scratched the surface; picking the right school is not a quick task. You might also wish to consider: the Dubai School Inspection Bureau’s (KHDA) annual inspection reports, the school’s location and age, the pedigree and openness of the Head, the academic credentials of senior staff, the plans for the Professional Development for teachers, teacher retention rates, the plans for future facilities, the overall size of the school, the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity of the school community, the school’s use of cutting-edge technology, the school’s policies (for instance countering bullying or keeping children safe at all times), the provision of transportation for students to and from the campus and the food available at lunch and break times, to name a few… phew!

What are your most important considerations?  Dr Silverwood’s advice to help break this task into smaller bite-sized chunks is to make a list of these considerations and what’s important to your family and your child.  Then number each factor in order of their importance to you as a family. While all the factors on the wish list may play some role in your decision, it’s unlikely that any school will offer everything you’re looking for. The goal of this exercise is to clarify which qualities you can live without — and which are deal breakers.

And finally, remember that the best way to find out whether a school is a good fit for your child is to spend some time there. Make sure you speak to the Head and don’t settle for ambiguous answers. Bear in mind – you want the school where your child will be most happy. The various curricula available in Dubai will be discussed in a later guide. You can follow Dr Silverwood or contact him through Hartland International School, Meydan, Dubai. Hartland International School opens under the guidance of Dr Silverwood in September 2015.  To meet school staff, teachers and Dr Silverwood you can visit the Discovery Centre in Business Bay.  Their website also has a virtual tour of the school.


The advice provided in our columns does not constitute legal advice and is provided for information only. Readers are encouraged to seek appropriate independent legal advice.

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