Expert Advice on Expat International Schools in the United Arab Emirates

Former Principal of Gems American Academy of Abu Dhabi, Ian Deakin, sheds some light on the international school selection process for expat parents moving to Abu Dhabi in this exclusive Expat Arrivals interview.

For more information on the United Arab Emirates see the Abu Dhabi and Dubai education pages. 

Q: Are expats allowed to enroll their children in the public school system of Abu Dhabi?

A: There are many school options available for children of expatriate families in Abu Dhabi. Families choose schools according to their ability to pay and their educational priorities. The educational philosophies and practices, curricula, quality of teachers, demographics, and facilities are significantly different across the range of opportunities available - so families must research well before choosing.

Q: Can you explain the American school curriculum and structure as it would relate to the international schools in Abu Dhabi?

A: Like most other school systems, general education in the USA typically begins at 3 or 4 years of age and lasts 13 or 14 years. Graduates of high/secondary school are usually 17 or 18 years of age. The education system intends to build individual and collective capacity, engender a desire for lifelong learning and to prepare children for the responsibilities of citizenship and leadership.

American education is ‘holistic’ meaning it intends to bring about growth in the ‘whole’ child (intellectual, social, physical, ethical, spiritual). To some degree the school day touches on ‘subjects’ that include Mathematics, Language Arts(Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, Interpreting), Science, Social Studies (History, Geography, Civics, Economics), Information Communication Technology (ICT), Physical Education, Music and Art. In the UAE all students also learn the Arabic Language and Culture.

Ours [GEMS School] is a standards-based approach to education and reporting – meaning learning goals at each grade level and in each subject area are pre-determined and alignment is tight among outcomes, assessment, instruction and reporting. The educational standards we embrace are published by the well known Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) in Denver Colorado. Curriculum design within years and across grade levels is developmentally appropriate (matched to the age and stage of learner development) so that work becomes more complex and abstract as the brain develops those capacities and students are equipped for the challenge.

The school day lasts for 7 hours, starting at 7:45 am and concluding at 2:45pm (Sunday through Thursday). The American school year typically starts in late August or early September and runs through mid-June. Often, families enjoy a longer break in December and short mid-semester breaks in October and March. A school year typically includes 180- 190 instructional days.

Q: Why would you encourage expats to choose an international school versus a public school in Abu Dhabi?

A: Expats need to consider many things when selecting a school experience for their child(ren). Foremost, families must consider the value of a ‘different’ experience for their child while living outside their home country and the issues of transition upon repatriation. They must also think carefully about their child’s preparedness for the new school context and their child’s ability to enjoy, succeed and grow. Anything radically different from a child’s previous experience must be considered with great care.

Q: What factors should expats consider when choosing an international school?

A: In addition to the answer above expats must also consider geographic proximity and travel time to and from school.
What is the average cost of tuition that expats should expect to pay?
Worldwide, placeholder value for quality international schools is about USD$20,000 - 25, 000 for day school and USD$15,000 additional for boarding.

Q: Are there scholarships and financial aid available, do most companies help with tuition?

A: For many, the days of the ‘full expat package’ are gone, but most companies still provide a general living allowance - some of which can be applied to tuition expenses. GEMS does have a financial assistance package.

Is there a problem with space in International Schools? Do you recommend registering early? Is there a fee for securing a seat in the school?

In the past, shortages and waiting lists were common in Abu Dhabi. That does not appear to be the case for 2010-2011 with an increase in the supply of seats and a decrease in demand. That said, I would advise families considering an overseas assignment to settle the school situation first. Seats in some schools are always in short supply and some grade levels are always in high demand – so better to plan ahead with something so important. The laws in Abu Dhabi protect families and most deposits are refundable or transferable to tuition upon registration.

Q: Do schools admit students based on any specific criteria? As an American school is preference given based on nationality or company sponsorship?

A: Admissions criteria should fit with the school’s mission. Some schools are very selective while others are very open. Our school is very international with students from over 40 countries currently attending. Admission to our school requires students to demonstrate their readiness and preparation on an Admissions assessment.

Q: How does the standard of education compare with that of the western world that many of the expats are used to? Class size? Level of professionalism? Understanding of child psychology?

A: Well, first there is no single standard of education in the western world – experiences vary dramatically from classroom to classroom let alone school to school, state to state, country to country – nor is there a single standard of education in the UAE. Premium schools like ours aspire to send all graduates to top-quality universities. University offers and placements would suggest that GEMS students learn well what is valued most by universities. Results on national and international examinations, performances in international competitions would all indicate that our students and graduates are among the most able worldwide. We can take only some of the credit for these results. One must recognize that the families we serve most often have two parents present at least one of whom is a university graduate. These families value education; there is a predisposition to university. We are privileged to educate the children that grace our hallways.

Q: Is Arabic taught in most international schools? Is it mandatory? Are classes taught with any Islamic undertones?

A: There is a local syllabus that is required in all schools in the UAE. All students study the Arabic language and depending on age, country of origin and religion students might also study UAE Social Studies and or Islamic Education.

Q: Do expat children seem to have trouble adjusting to their new school environment?

A: Generally, children are far more adaptable than adults. International schools are usually fluent in issues of transition in and out of their school and provide counseling services for students who need a bit more emotional support. Schools can and usually do provide a great deal to assist families in transition.

Is there any additional information or words of advice that expats should know regarding the education and school system in Abu Dhabi?

Families can shift to Abu Dhabi without fearing the educational experience available to their children. There is a good deal of competition in the marketplace and regulation from government. Schools will provide value according to the cost of tuition. For approximately 60,000 dirham per year (USD$16,500) parents can provide a world-class education and memories that will last a lifetime.

Q: Why would you encourage expats to enroll their children at GEMS? What are the advantages in comparison with other international schools?

A: GEMS continues to pioneer quality education in the UAE by focusing on quality and value. This is our 50th year of operations and our reputation is sterling. The company is rich in experience with the UK National, Indian, and American curricula as well as programs of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO). These experiences fuel a meaningful Professional Development/Learning program that together with a competitive compensation package allows GEMS to attract and retain high-quality Teachers for our classrooms. Schools are held accountable through semi-annual performance reviews against the same key performance indicators found in quality UK schools. The end result - our students enjoy their GEMS experience and our graduates achieve success at the very best universities and colleges in the world, and beyond. Currently over 100,000 students are studying in GEMS schools, worldwide.

All this is true for GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi, but what makes us special is the feel that our ‘Culture of Kindness’ creates. Our school is a warm and intimate place of learning and personal growth.

Q: Do you plan to include more grade levels soon?

A: A beautiful new GAA will open in Khalifa City A in August 2011. This will be a k-12 school offering a superior physical environment suitable for a student capacity of 2100. The academic experience will be similar – American standards and benchmarks (content) - but now enhanced through the International Baccalaureate framework – really the best of both worlds.

The current site will be retained and although the name might change the learning experience for children will not. With the big kids gone, this school will develop a more acute focus on pre-Kinder through Grade 3 students and will also offer an American curriculum through the IB framework – here the Primary Years Program

~ Interviewed July 2010

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