When this forward-thinking school opened in 2018, it was something radically different for Dubai. Sustainability and the environment are at the heart of an education here: the aim is for children to graduate with real ecological awareness, which will give them a major advantage in such a rapidly changing world.
Located in Al Furjan in the south of Dubai, the school is within easy reach of the Jumeirah Village Triangle, Green Community, Dubai Sport City, Media City and the Marina. The 7.5-acre campus, for Early Years Foundation Stage through to Year 13 (currently the school runs up to Year 9; the secondary school will roll out organically), is unlike anything else in Dubai.
Incredibly, the school has six climate-controlled biodomes that meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Standards. One of the larger domes is a makerspace for D&T and innovation; in another, tropical crops are grown that are picked by students and used in the school kitchen.
The setting is lush, with water features and wooden walkways. Green spaces include a reflection garden, which is used for mindfulness and guided reading lessons; a learning garden dedicated to sustainable agriculture and outdoor learning; and a bio farm in partnership with Emirates Bio Farm, the UAE’s largest private organic farm. The school also has a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, a small theatrical space filled with antiques and curios that is seen as a place to inspire pupils' creativity.
New facilities that are yet to be built but have been commissioned include a photography darkroom and a kiln room, and development of the sports provision. As you’d expect, the school encourages pupils to take zero-emission transport options each day – cycling or walking – although there is a standard bus service available.
Previously deputy head at Dubai’s well-regarded Kings’ School Al Barsha, Brett Girven arrived in 2019 to replace the founding principal. Young, ambitious and energetic – and with qualifications in zoology and environmental science – he is very focused on children’s wellbeing. Access to his office is from the reflection garden – a deliberate move so that parents feel that they can knock on his door at any time.
As the school is new, it is not oversubscribed and welcomes registrations up to Year 7. The secondary school is growing year by year.
A project-based curriculum, lessons in biodomes and learning gardens are all part of The Arbor’s unique approach to education (at least eight hours a week are spent on cross-curricular projects). Ecology is a critical component of the curriculum, which is delivered with a focus on the UN’s 17 sustainable-development goals. There are special programmes that are built around field trips to the deserts, mangrove swamps and heritage sites across the UAE.
The school’s founder, Abdullah Al Sharhan, is best known for setting up the Australian College of Kuwait, which was established to meet the needs of those who were being failed by the system – so this is an extremely inclusive school, with excellent SEN provision.
The Arbor has adequate sports facilities: a football pitch, multi-purpose indoor hall, outdoor courts and a swimming pool. The belief here is that sport is as important for pupils’ mental health as it is physically.
After-school activities are paid for and include all kinds of sports and dance.
There’s a large focus on pastoral care, which is led by Merushka Hansraj, who has 20 years’ experience of working with children who have learning difficulties and disabilities. The school also employs a full-time educational psychologist and counsellor. Pupils are encouraged to be caring and compassionate, and we have heard from many parents who say that their child’s confidence has improved dramatically after joining The Arbor.
This supportive environment extends to parents too, who are welcome to join wellness classes, reflection yoga and arts classes such as pottery, photography and sculpture. The Friends of Arbor also organises social events. There are 58 nationalities within the school.
The school also creates an important link between the wellbeing of students and the farm-to-table experience. Children are provided with organic, low-carbon-footprint lunches and snacks. During Covid, The Arbor continued to provide a meal service, prepared on site, individually boxed and delivered to pupils in their classrooms.
Although the school hasn’t been running long enough to have a year group complete its education all the way through to Year 13, there is a lot to celebrate about The Arbor’s unique approach to education, which is embedded in environmental mindfulness and sustainability.