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The UAE's schooling system: Everything you need to know

By Talk Education
19 April 2022

Thinking of moving to the United Arab Emirates? Here’s what you need to know about the country’s international-schools market.

OVERVIEW

Education is a top priority in the UAE. Over the past 50 years, the country has invested heavily in education and schools – and today, the adult literacy rate is almost double what it was in the mid-1970s. Some of the best schools in the Middle East can be found in the UAE.

Education is compulsory from six to 18 for both Emirati children and expats. There are two broad categories of school:

  • Public schools. These are free for Emiratis and open to expats for a fee. Public schools are single-sex by law, with girls and boys taught separately. The language of instruction is Arabic, although English is almost always taught as a foreign language. The quality of public schools can vary hugely across the country, particularly in urban and rural areas.
  • Private schools. The number of Emiratis opting for a private-school education is growing rapidly. These schools follow certain guidelines set by the Ministry of Education, but as they are not under direct government supervision, they are free to choose the curriculum they follow. Given the number of expats in the country, many are also international schools (after China, the UAE has the highest concentration of international schools worldwide), with instruction usually in English or the school’s language of affiliation. Most private schools are co-ed.

THE INTERNATIONAL PRIVATE-SCHOOLS MARKET: KEY POINTS

The international private-school market in the UAE is booming. Many are offshoots or branches of well-established UK independent schools.

The majority of the most popular international private schools are located in
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and they are often heavily oversubscribed. 

Most international schools teach a
British or American curriculum, while others teach in the language and follow the curriculum of the country they are affiliated with. 

In contrast to public schools (which are single-sex by law), most private schools are
co-ed

Most private schools are
all-through, taking pupils from kindergarten through to secondary level. 

The school week runs from Monday to midday on Friday in the Emirates.

All pupils must take
Arabic language classes until Grade 9 (age 13).

SEND provision is often excellent in international private schools. 

Fees can be very high at private schools in the UAE, and many expats negotiate for them to be paid directly by their employer. 

THE EDUCATIONAL JOURNEY

School is compulsory from six to 18. Many families choose to enrol their children in early years education from the ages of three to five.

Most pupils join their new school at whichever stage they are at when they arrive in the country. However, the majority of international private schools are all-through, meaning once a pupil is settled in their new school, they are likely to stay there for the remainder of their educational journey (or for the duration of their time in the UAE).

The UAE has a very high rate of higher-education enrolment, with an average of 90 per cent of pupils continuing their education after 18. Many students at international private schools win places at prestigious universities across the globe, including those in the UK, the US, Europe, Canada and Asia. The UAE is also home to several branches of well-renowned private universities, including New York University Abu Dhabi and the American University in Dubai. 


THE ADMISSIONS PROCESS

Most international private schools in the UAE have rolling admissions processes due to the transient nature of so many expat families.

Getting into one of these schools can be highly competitive, and many require prospective pupils to sit an entrance exam and visit for an in-person interview. Many have waiting lists. 


THE CURRICULUM

Private schools are free to follow the curriculum of their choice, with many international schools opting for that of their homeland. The majority in the UAE follow the British, American or Indian curriculum, mirroring the origin country’s education as closely as possible and offering options such as iGCSEs, A-levels and the IB. 

All pupils must learn Arabic (even if at a very basic level) and also take courses in Islamic education and Arabic social studies. 


AND FINALLY…

Despite the high number of private schools in the UAE, it can be very difficult to secure a place. Many schools have direct links with international businesses and embassies who help with child-placement schemes, and lots of expats will enlist their employer to help them find a school place.