A guide to British International Schools in Abu Dhabi

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They start them how young? My baptism of fire to the world of British Curriculum schooling overseas

“Well its fine for them they have siblings and will get a spot”;

“Yes, but they carpool; you wouldn’t want that commute every day”;

“Last I checked the portal still hadn’t opened”;

“What time are you going to start queuing?”.

This was the first mum’s group conversation I walked into when I arrived in the UAE in 2012. With a freshly toilet trained 2-year-old tot and a newborn.

I was expecting conversations on soft plays and nappy brands perhaps.  But nope, we were in a 2-year-old playgroup talking about the upcoming school sign up season.

Kids in the British curriculum system in the UAE apparently started “Big School” at age 3 and I needed to be on top of registrations NOW; I was gobsmacked.

Wind the clock forward six years and I have just sent all 3 children off to school together for what would have been their first year in the UK at the same school.  Had they been brought up in Australia, my youngest would still be home.

Welcome to the mysterious world of international schooling!

Now if you are reading this article as a newbie parent looking at moving to the UAE, don’t panic. Yet!!!

Related reading: Schooling in a Foreign Language – taking the local school route during an expat posting

Yes, it can be difficult to get a good school spot at your first school of choice at anything remotely resembling a good price. But the landscape has somewhat changed since 2012.  For one thing, there are no more 3am lineup skirmishes on sign up days (it’s all online now).

There are more international schools catering to the expat population, and in general, fewer expats to fill them. To help Abu Dhabi newcomers, I’ve reproduced for you here an excerpt of an article I originally wrote for AngloInfo to help parents navigate the Abu Dhabi system a few years ago.

It is still really useful today and as we are again approaching the October “sign up season” thought it was worth sharing with many of you who are following along with us in the UAE or looking to move here.

Commonly asked questions about schools in Abu Dhabi

Can’t I just send my child to the local school?

No. Local schools are only available to the Emirati population. Anyone here on an Employment Visa with children on a Residents Visa will have to seek out private schooling – of which there are nearly 200 options in the Abu Dhabi. This may or may not be funded by your employer. It can be costly for the top schools (expect to pay £10,000 – £15,000 pa, even from primary). These rates are still nowhere near the hefty rates that some need to pay in neighbouring Dubai!

Related Reading: What to look for in an expat salary package

Why send them to school at 3 years old?

Under the British schooling system in the UAE, you can start Nursery or Foundation Stage 1 (FS1) at primary school from the year they will turn 4 – i.e. 3 years old by 31 August. 

The American and International school system gives you an extra years grace before their kindergarten or KG1 equivalent classes open up.

The 3-year-old fuss is all about the precious school spot. Some schools open up extra school spots as you get up to 4 and 5 years old (schooling becomes compulsory from the year you turn 6 according to ADEK – The Department of Education and Knowledge).

For many schools, the nursery class will move straight up into Reception or Foundation Stage 2 (FS2) the following year, and on to Year 1, the compulsory age group.  If you are lucky 10 – 15 spots might open up across a year group with 125 spots with expat attrition. Siblings are given priority; thereafter complete newcomers may not stand a chance at the most sought-after schools

Does my child really have to go to school at 3 years old?

Not at all. Particularly summer babies who have just turned 3 may simply not be ready. Toilet training is one strict requirement all schools will enforce. If they are not ready for “big school” but you still want the social interaction, there’s a huge number of nurseries to choose from, particularly “off-island” around Khalifa City where more families now tend to live. 

You may not get your first choice of primary spots in a British school if doing this (they can then start at FS2 or Reception, but the priority for these spots goes to kids who have already completed FS1/nursery – hence the rush to get in at 3 years old).

There are a load more decent schooling options now, even compared to a few years ago to consider so don’t feel pressured simply for “the spot”.

So what do parents do? 

The good news is; the options these days are plentiful. Most nursery schools will allow children to be enrolled up to 4 years old (some Montessori schools even older) – though they may insist you put them in 5 days a week to follow the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) Framework once they turn 3. 

You can keep them in a nursery and try your luck at an FS2 spot instead. Also note, just because you may be British there’s no reason not to follow the American, Canadian or International system and vice versa.  Homeschooling is also an option, beyond the compulsory schooling age (5 turning 6) though you must be registered to do this.

Will my baby have to be assessed?

This varies by school. Most schools will go through a two-stage admissions process. Applications open around October/November for the following academic year (you cannot waitlist any earlier than 2 years old, so no panic to register them as soon as they’re born!)

Successful applicants who meet the school’s criteria will be offered to come into a “playdate” or “assessment” around January/February before being offered a place. Some will separate the child from the parent to see how they behave on their own, others will simply chat with you and observe the child at play in the room with the parent or caregiver present. (NB Please don’t worry if your child is not yet toilet trained, the assessors know they are making observations a good 6 months + prior to them starting – you have time!)

What are the curriculum choices in Abu Dhabi?

There are loads of schooling systems to choose from. We chose the British system as we have a British/Australian background and feel this is the system they’ll be most easily be able to integrate back to should we leave. But there are several American curriculum schools, International (leading to IB), Canadian, German, French, Indian, Japanese – the list goes on!

Related Reading – Expat money matters you need to understand

What languages or special lessons are taught?

This entirely depends on the curriculum and the school you’ve chosen. Obviously British and American schools will teach in English. Arabic is also a compulsory primary subject in all Abu Dhabi schools – it is taught to both native and non-native speakers along with Islamic lessons for Muslim children taught in English or Arabic. If your child does not speak Arabic and is not Muslim, they will only do minimum ADEK required hours of Arabic lessons per week and take part in other activities consolidating learning while natives attend additional classes.

What are the British School options in Abu Dhabi?

There are several top rates choices now using the British Curriculum.  Some of the best that expatriate families use include:

British School Al Khuibarait – with a 50-year history that outdates even the country itself it is the most established of the country’s international schools and runs not-for-profit, located in the centre of Abu Dhabi Island. Takes students from nursery (FS1) all the way to GCSE and A Levels.

British International School Abu Dhabi – opened in 2012 and found next to Abu Dhabi University on the Al Ain Road (Off Island). A Nord Anglia Education school that caters from FS1 to Year 12 & 13 offering the IB Diploma.

Cranleigh – a relative newcomer (and also one of the most expensive) you will find Cranleigh in the culture district of Saadiyat Island.  They boast a curriculum which includes extended after-school activities as part of the school day, catering from FS1 through to Year 13. Although not openly labelled, they are part of Aldar Academies group.

Brighton College – Prep school you’ll find it in Khalifa Park, near Bloom Gardens and the Ministry’s complex. They take students from FS1 through to Year 13 in their Pre-prep, Prep and Senior schools.

Repton – A premium branded school open since 2013 with a focus on academic excellence. Located on Reem Island, with a second campus opening in 2017 they can now take students from FS1 to Year 2 and Year 3 through to Year 9.

Amity International – a great new option for those who live off-island. It is in Al Bahyia (think Deerfields Mall direction).  Acclaimed for its outdoor educational offering.  A newer school, it currently has intakes for FS1 through to Year 9.

There are many more to choose from but these are the ones that currently have the best reputations and come up most frequently in expat conversations. If you’d like to know more specifics or are considering schools not listed here, you can try asking further advice on a group such as British Mums Abu Dhabi.

Related Reading: Expat parenting around the world

How do I know which schools are the best?

There are a few ways to do your research.  You can look up the latest school rankings on the ADEK website (but take this with a grain of salt and if schools are not at the top “excellent” ranking, research why and if it’s a factor that really matters to you – many for example fall down in their Arabic departments, but as a non-native speaker, does this matter?)

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is a popular informative and impartial resource on schooling in the UAE. You can also get a good read-across on things like school fees by visiting EdArabia.

By all means, ask other parents their opinions too. You can ask on Facebook chat groups, but do be mindful here of slander and defamation laws. Anyone in their right mind with a serious criticism to share is best keeping it off social media.  Ask if they will direct message you if you want specific concerns addressed.

I still think nothing beats your gut feeling on visiting a school. You should arrange a pre-enrollment tour if possible before deciding which school is best for you and your family – and location plays a part in it too as the city is now so spread out, you don’t want your kids to spend half the day in a car or bus (if offered).

We’ve just found out we’re moving to Abu Dhabi and missed the enrolment period. What do we do?

Firstly, don’t panic. Still try and get a pre-move visit in if possible and tour all the schools you’re interested in.  Waitlists aren’t nearly as long as they used to be back in 2013/14.

I would still strongly recommend you at least register your child at the first school of choice, as well as a couple of back up options. The admissions teams are normally pretty good at keeping you updated and if you have more than one child, they will let you know how likely it is for a sibling spot to come up (i.e., once you’ve got one child accepted, siblings will move up the waitlist in their year group). 

There tends to be a lot of shuffling right up to the last minute and as families don’t return from the summer, normally a few spots per year group pop up in early September. You may also get lucky with a mid-year move, it is after all a transient expat community.

Is the schooling system the same in Dubai?

For the most part, yes. British Schools in Dubai also take nursery enrolments from 3 years of age. They are governed by the KHDA – Knowledge and Human Development Authority – and some rules differ. Waitlisting rules and timing, prioritization of placement offers vary by school. Not all will offer first-come, first-served – do your research early before a move to the UAE!

Preparing your child for UAE schooling

So once you’ve got your tiny two-year-old a placement offer, what next? This is a whole other chapter of parenting adventures!! The perpetual cycle of purchasing, labelling and losing school uniforms; remembering what to pack on what day as you laden your poor kid up like a pack camel with library bags, swimming gear lunch bags (no hot meal service here for sure!).

Then don’t get me started on dress-up days, mummy readers, school committees, Whatsapp groups…. Night feeds were just training for the stamina you’re going to need for the school car park. There’s lots of fun and games ahead, its survival of the fittest, parents. Be prepared!

Want to know more about Expat Life in the UAE?  Head over to our handy parents guide on Family Life in Abu Dhabi here.  We also have an extensive collection of ideas on how to fill your weekend and holidays on our page Discover the UAE.

Disclosures: This is not a sponsored post, all opinions as always are our own.  The original article was published on AngloInfo.Com in September 2016 and has been updated to the best of our knowledge as at September 2018. Always check facts directly with ADEK or the school concerned.  You can read our full disclosures policy here.

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