One of the oldest UK curriculum schools in the city, the not-for-profit Dubai English Speaking School (DESS) was set up in 1963 by the British Embassy.
The primary school, for FS1 (Foundation Stage 1) to Year 6 (ages three to 11), is in the traditional heart of Dubai, Oud Metha by the port; the secondary Dubai English Speaking College (DESC) is inland in Academic City on a campus which opened in 2005. Despite the school being single storey and having an older feel than many newer options in Dubai, there have been a number of improvements over the years, so it more than keeps up with its competitors. These include a redesign of the Year 2 to 6 blocks and the children helped to choose the paint colours and furniture.
The FS1 and FS2 classrooms have a huge open-plan section in the middle to allow free-flowing activities and there are nap rooms for those who need it. The library is particularly fantastic; there is a brightly coloured and spacious playground; and a zen garden and zen room for quiet time. There is a school bus service for pupils, at additional cost.
Andrew Gibbs is principal of both DESS and DESC and he ensures cohesion between the two schools. His mission, the website states, is that ‘no child at DESS and DESC will ever, ever, be left behind. Every single young man and woman will leave Dubai English Speaking College with whatever they need to meet their own potential and ambitions for their lives ahead.’ At other schools, this might just be lip service but from parents we’ve spoken to, here it seems to be true.
Catherine Dando is the head of DESS, who manages the day-to-day running of the school.
DESS is non-selective and competition for places is fierce. The school will do all it can to accommodate children’s needs. All applicants must submit a recent end-of-year school report.
Learning is focused around the 4Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. In the early stages, a specific focus is given to child-led learning to encourage self-directed and independent learning in later years; pupils are also set individual academic targets by their form tutor. By the time they reach Year 6, children follow a specific curriculum. Years 3 to 6 are encouraged to bring their own device.
The school believes in education for everybody so is very happy to adapt classes through positive planning to meet the needs of all children. DESS is fully inclusive; there is a SENCO lead for each year, plus a team of five additional support staff. The school actively tries to encourage the use of British Makaton.
There is a thriving drama and dance department, and DESS is known as being one of the strongest sports schools in the UAE (the high standard continues at DESC too). Facilities include a 25-metre pool (all ages have swimming lessons), gym, netball courts and a wonderful soft-play area for FS1 and FS2.
There are in excess of 100 extracurricular activities each week and 80 per cent of children take part (some of the more unusual options include samba and philosophy). As a British Embassy school, the pupils are able to be involved in raising awareness of the Royal British Legion by selling poppies and wristbands, as people would typically do in the UK. DESS is very active in the charitable side of its community, with book drives, bake sales and festive-decoration making for the local special-needs school. Children take responsibility for some of the outdoor areas as well, learning gardening skills in the sustainable garden.
Parents tell us how amazingly supportive and caring the school is, and there is a real focus on providing roots for the children (very helpful if their friends leave, as so often happens in transient Dubai). Pupils are taught breathing techniques and frequently take part in calming activities. There are also shared initiatives with DESC around health and personal security. The British are the predominant nationality and very few Emiratis attend the school (there are a total of 46 nationalities enrolled).
There is a genuine sense of a partnership between the staff and the parents, and a thoroughly close-knit community (a lot of events take place with DESC to encourage a collaborative feel). There are 120 house leaders who manage the school house events and pupils are intentionally given a large amount of responsibility, often meeting to discuss ideas.
DESS holds the Eco-Schools Silver Award and is aiming for the Green Flag. Initiatives include three green action plans devised by the pupils: saying no to single-use plastics, individual classroom promises and sustainable practices in the on-site café such as using compostable packaging. Children sit together for all their meals and also with the teachers, to encourage social skills.
Truly inclusive and with a real community, caring spirit, this is a great choice for a primary school.