Abu Dhabi’s leading British school, all-through BSAK is the top choice for many expats in the UAE. Founded in 1971, it is one of the most established schools in the region, and known for its welcoming community feel. It was also recently officially appointed as the British Embassy’s recommended school.
The site is on land donated by Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi, in the very heart of the emirate – which means that wherever you live, it’s likely to be a 30 minute drive at the most. Although the primary and secondary schools are on the same campus, the younger years have their own nurturing community, with two Astro pitches that children play on during breaks and a dedicated dining hall. There are plans to build a new technology and innovation centre with 12 labs; the current labs will become extra classrooms.
Since 2009, Mark Leppard MBE (for services to education overseas) has been in charge. He has been in the region for over 20 years, first as the assistant principal and then principal of Doha College, so he knows the UAE very well. He is a real family man, passionate about ensuring the school is inclusive and nuts about sports. All the parents we have spoken to tell us that he really embodies the spirit of the school.
BSAK is non-selective and, thanks to its reputation, usually oversubscribed. The school asks for a child’s two previous school reports and a reference, and there are waiting lists for most year groups, with priority given to British-passport holders and siblings. The admissions team prides itself on being upfront and honest about a child’s likelihood of scoring one of the coveted places.
The school offers scholarships in music, sport and academics but there is no fee discount – instead, pupils are assigned a specific tutor who will give them extra support within their specialised area. It’s also worth noting that class sizes are comparable to those of state schools in the UK - roughly 28 pupils per class.
School runs from Sunday to Thursday, in line with the business working week in the UAE. BSAK follows the English National Curriculum (adapted to its UAE setting to include aspects of Emirati culture) throughout the school. Every child from Year 5 onwards is given a Chromebook to use with school software preloaded.
There are three qualified special-needs teachers, and a learning-support teacher dedicated to each year group. Depending on their needs, children might do group rather than class work, or receive one-to-one additional learning. As with all things here, SEN included, the school works with the ethos ‘Adapt, Improvise and Overcome’.
Arts and sport are very strong. In music, the school collaborates with Trinity College in the UK and has links with Twofour54 (Abu Dhabi’s entertainment and media free-zone), giving it access to state-of-the-art recording studios.
Specialist music staff are employed directly by the school (unusual in the UAE), and one is a former UK band member from the 1990s – thanks to whom children now have the option of studying rock and pop. Instrument and theory, music theatre and rock and pop exams can be taken twice a year. At time of writing, eight students were taking part in the BBC’s Young Musician of The Year competition. And the parents’ choir performs at Christmas in the only Christian church in Abu Dhabi, a stone’s throw from the school.
Sport is hugely important and is played competitively from Year 3 (mixed sports up to Year 9, in line with Abu Dhabi regulations). Facilities include Knowle, an off-site grass pitch a short walk away, a pool, sports halls and two dance studios (one specifically for primary). The school takes part in the British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) Games, where many matches are inter-emirate, meaning the pool of players to compete against is bigger.
The strongest sports are football and rugby; in the former, BSAK has previously won the BSME Games; in the latter, they are the only school in Abu Dhabi to participate in the International Dubai 7s, and each year BSAK hosts the UK’s Sedbergh School for a rugby training camp. If a child expresses real interest in other sports (such as golf or competitive cycling, say), the school will go out of its way to find someone to teach and support them.
Co-curricular clubs change on a termly basis and are available for children from Year 3. If a child wants to do two activities per evening, one must be academic and one sporty (this is to keep their interests diverse).
Pastoral care is taken very seriously here. At BSAK, there is a counsellor who works across all school years and two heads of wellbeing (one in primary, another in secondary). Positive wellbeing is also threaded through much of what is studied. BSAK recently appointed ‘link parents’ whose details are given to families moving out to Abu Dhabi with children in the same school year. They are there for any questions, will make sure that families are added to class WhatsApp groups and generally act as a sounding board for new residents finding their feet – very useful.
Community really underpins the school and many families know each other very well. Lots of children in the western compounds go to BSAK, so friendships are often just as close among parents as they are among pupils. There is also a PTA-style Friends of BSAK group and, as this is the British Embassy’s recommended school, it is allowed to fundraise, which is usually difficult to get permission to do in the UAE.
BSAK’s status as the British Embassy-recommended school affords other exceptions too, including being allowed to openly celebrate Christmas and Easter. It’s unique for children to be able to decorate their school with anything religious that isn’t Islamic. The school also marks all Hindu and Muslim festivals.
Solid academics, top co-curricular and a really inclusive sense of community – it’s no wonder that waiting lists are long for this excellent all-rounder.