Schools in Dubai: An Expert Guide

A Dubai school classroom Plan in advance and apply early. That is the overarching advice to any family investigating their options when it comes to education and schools in Dubai.

Free local education in not open to expats who are not local Emiratis or citizens of a nearby Islamic country and so private, fee-paying schools are the only option other than homeschooling (which is relatively uncommon). In fact, many locals choose to send their children to private schools in Dubai for the international flavour that they provide.

Dubai is booming, largely due to the economic and political stability in an otherwise potentially volatile region. The interestingly named Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) which regulates schools, estimates that there will be a need for an additional 80,000 to 100,000 school places by 2020. Consequently, places are hard to come by in the most sought after schools and are almost impossible to find at short notice in some year groups, particularly the Foundation and Reception ages, between four and six. 

Many families find that they are unable to place all of their children in the same school and some find that they have to resort to home schooling for a while before a place becomes available, especially if they arrive in the middle of the school year (September to June). New schools are being planned and built all the time, and there are several high profile schools either opening new sites or on completely new premises.

Keeping children out of school on arrival to await the start of the next academic year might not be an option. The KHDA have strict rules about accepting children into a particular age group, and a child who has been out of school for too long might have to go “back” a year in order to satisfy these criteria.

Private and international schools in Dubai

There are 158 private schools in Dubai which cater for all segments of a truly cosmopolitan and international workforce.  This is reflected in the diverse curricula followed by schools ranging from Japanese and Pakistani, to British and Indian – the latter two being the most provided for with 31 and 30 percent of students respectively. 

Many private schools in Dubai have illustrious names that are borrowed from overseas such as ‘Winchester’ or ‘Wellington’. In almost all cases these have no links or affiliations with their suggested overseas namesakes. 

There are many establishments attracting specific nationals such as Canadian, American, French and British schools, while there are also a good number of truly international schools with a huge variety of cultures and nationalities. Many of these schools are preferred by parents who place emphasis on cultural roundedness and integration.

The school year begins in late August or early September, and ends for the long holiday towards the end of June when many expats flee the searing heat for a cooler summer elsewhere. Entry to the correct academic year can be a problem for pupils transferring from a southern hemisphere school where the  year begins in January, as it can be when transferring into or out of the US system which consists of twelve ‘Grades’ rather than thirteen ‘Years’.

The KDHA inspects all schools every year and rates them as Outstanding, Good, Acceptable or Unsatisfactory. There are currently 12 ‘outstanding’ schools, the majority of which follow the UK curriculum, and 25 ‘good’ schools. The majority of expats seek a place at an ‘outstanding’ school and the ratings are keenly awaited and much discussed. 

All but seven of Dubai’s private schools are run to make a profit for their owners. This means that to a greater or lesser extent, private schools are big businesses first and educational establishments second – or at least, that is how some schools are perceived. Coupled with the fact that most schools have between 1,000 and 2,000 pupils, and class sizes are generally in the low to mid twenties, many schools do not have a distinctive ethos that tends to characterise a smaller school.

The not-for-profit schools in Dubai are all highly sought after and the majority fall into the ‘outstanding’ category. These include Jumeirah English Speaking Schools (JESS), Jebel Ali Primary School, Dubai College, the Dubai English Speaking School (DESS) and its sister secondary school, Dubai English Speaking College (DESC).

Academic standards vary between schools, though standards overall are rising all the time. Whereas a few years ago, most expats tended to look overseas for schooling beyond Year 11, local schools are now the generally preferred alternative. The benchmark for many schools is, however, the UK National Curriculum (NC) with many schools taking the regular SAT tests. Here the level tends to be a little below that of UK private schools and thus there is often a gap to be made up for children hoping to transfer from Dubai back to the UK.

There are a number of schools offering a full International Baccalaureat(IB) programme which is popular with continental European families, while several offer IGCSEs instead of the Middle Years Programme (MYP) at secondary level, followed by the IB diploma.

Many British Curriculum schools in Dubai compare their results extremely favourably with UK league tables, with the top schools here outperforming some of the better well-known UK schools.

School fees in Dubai

Private school buses can add to the cost of school fees in Dubai
Fees vary enormously from school and are quoted as an annual figure. Fees may also increase with additional services such as school buses and boarding. Guideline prices at schools popular with expats range from between 35,000 and 50,000 AED for a Year 1 pupil, to between 60,000 and 100,000 AED for a secondary pupil.  

The KHDA caps fee increases to try and avoid profiteering. Fees are currently linked to an inflationary index plus an added increment according to inspection rating – the better the rating, the more a school can increase its fees. 

Though many here consider schools expensive and have seen large rises in the past, Dubai’s top schools’ fees are actually about 20 percent cheaper that one might pay in the UK, though comparisons are difficult. One thing to ascertain before arrival is that any allowance given for school fees in a relocation package adequately covers expected fees, as many seem to fall woefully short.

School standards and enrolment in Dubai

Most of the best schools in Dubai provide good tuition and overall standards are high. However, many parents find that with class sizes tending to be larger than overseas private schools their children get less individual attention. There is also a high turnover of staff, with an apparent emphasis on recruitment of recent college graduates who are more mobile and cheaper to employ, but who nonetheless lack experience. 

Whatever the case, many schools don’t have a traditional balance of old and young, though the best schools are able to buck this trend – a professionally managed school which treats staff well and is able to retain them for more than one or two years is certainly to be preferred.

School shortages in Dubai

With the acute shortage of places across the emirate, it is essential to get an accurate idea about the nature of provisional placements in any given school when enrolling. If an expat’s child is put on a waiting list, they should establish how many other children are on this list and whether they  have a realistic chance of gaining a guaranteed place. 

Though Dubai is a fluid environment with families coming and going all the time, many over-subscribed schools do not cap or close their waiting lists and seem happy to relieve parents of their non-refundable deposit even when they know that a registration has no chance of actually securing a place. 

Some schools also have a priority hierarchy, for example holding places for employees of certain companies, children transferring from a sister school, or for siblings of existing students. Other schools will have a genuine first come, first served policy, so check carefully with the respective registrars.

Dubai school admission requirements

Registration requirements include birth certificate, parents’ and students’ passport copies and visa pages, vaccination certificates and certification that the child completed the previous year’s schooling.

For whatever reason, academic pressure in Dubai is huge. Tutoring from an early age is commonplace with both parents and schools making no secret of their aspirations to improve the academic fortunes of their children. Some of the top schools have heightened prestige with a good deal of academic elitism attached; as entrance to most schools is selective, there is huge competition for places, resulting in a burgeoning tuition market to prepare for the tests.

Most schools will perform an academic assessment on any prospective child to ensure they are at the correct level for their peer group. This is generally fine when coming from overseas, but if a child has been moved several times it might well be that they will need tuition for these tests. Many schools will offer to retest a pupil who falls short if there is sufficient time before their proposed entry.

One area where Dubai falls short is on provision for special educational needs. There are virtually no schools for children with severe learning difficulties, and for those with conditions such as dyslexia, finding a place can be difficult. Though most schools will take struggling pupils out of classes for remedial tuition, very few have established special needs departments and it is unlikely that a place will be offered to a student who fails an entrance test for this reason.

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