Dubai English Speaking College

Best School in the UAE for Sport, 2019/20

Every school in this category has a good claim on this award. It is by far the most complex to judge in terms of the sheer quantity of statistics our journalists have faced in making sense of competitive provision and success. This is also an award category that is contested – schools are impressively passionate about winning and celebrating the achievements of their children. At points in the judging process we felt that whatever we decided, given that passions run so high, we were likely to be faced with something of a riot amongst our runners up.   

In this category, too, we had a complete split of views between our journalists and very limited consensus. Our judges ultimately weighed up these views to make the final judgement. In practice, this means that parents that are intent on finding the very best schools for sport in the UAE will not take a wrong turn with any one of the schools that made our list of finalists and eventual winner. 


We have, in the category, looked at 5 key areas:


(1) The breadth of sports offered by the schools;


(2) The depth of offer within sports and inclusion. We have looked to the degree to which schools celebrate all achievement in B, (C, D and E teams). Sport, in our view, should not be seen as simply a means for schools to secure competitive wins outside the school, but as a discipline for all children within a school to be engaged, inspired and celebrated;


(3) The positioning of Sport within each school. What are the values underpinning it, and how are these communicated to children?


(4) Investment in facilities. We have tried to look at the degree to which sporting investment in each school compares with overall investment at each school and the degree to which it is ongoing; 


(5) We have considered feedback from parents, students and teachers at each school. Because sport is a shared activity between schools, we have received significant informal views that have guided our decision making.


(6) Finally, we have looked at other technical stream linkages, including BTEC.


It is worth noting that some schools are not finalists here because of a weighting of league and competition results. The truth is that there are many schools that offer an outstanding education in sport, but measured in child engagement, not fixtures. Not all schools have anywhere near the facilities of the schools here – but almost all their children take part in one or more aspects of sporting life. These are very much the unsung heroes and no less impressive for that… 


It’s also highly relevant that sporting leagues are nowhere near as developed in Abu Dhabi as they are in Dubai – and the fall out is that if we purely looked at matches played, truly inspirational and frankly amazing schools for sport like BSAK would not be a finalist here. That would be ludicrous. 


Against schools that argue that only results are important, we insist that sport needs to be measured in inclusion, the culture of kindness in which it operates, the celebration of taking part not just winning, of relative school wealth and the easy availability of sporting infrastructure. A single child with no interest in sport that, through their school, grows to love sport and take part, regardless of their results in team competition, is an achievement for both that child and the school that transcends numbers. Sport is a gift for life ….

“It's the depth: We offer a quality experience for every child. The D team for netball means as much to us as the A team.” Chris Vizzard, Headteacher, DESC

We have, as a result, sought to judge schools holistically. At a certain point of achievement, the issue of counting excel boxes and league table “wins” arguably loses sense and value. 


The politics of sport really are quite extraordinary and can really risk diverting attention from what is such an important subject for children – for their health, mental well-being and ability deal with stress, their learning about team playing and managing competitive stress, the inspiration it gives to celebrate the success of others. In these, and so many other ways sport is a subject about character building and health as much as it is, or should be, about ‘winning’.


It is also worth noting that we have been inundated with stories of different schools feeding A teams into B Team leagues, or C Teams into D team leagues and various other combinations that deliberately completely confuse the real picture of “success.” Nothing in this Awards area is quite what it seems – it seems. 


We are where we are. 


Of our finalists, Dubai College, BSAK and DESC competed extremely closely for our best overall school for Sport in 2019. 


Our winner, however, for the Best School for Sport in the UAE 2019 is Dubai English Speaking College. 


With DESC we really have a cross between the inclusion of BSAK and the competitive sports focus of DC. DESC is very, very serious about Sport. Its children perform outstandingly. It wins an awful lot, but says Andy Gibb, Exceutive Principal, “we do not win everything…” 


The interesting twist with DESC is that Sport is one of their major levers for less academic children to excel and the discipline is subject to heavy investment in BTEC. 


It was in the sporting area that DESC this year made its astounding intervention for a child in building an entire curriculum programme to ensure that he left school with a defined slipstream to start his own business. 


In terms of facilities, we rate DESC as having the best in the UAE.


To balance this, when we first spoke with DESC about sport, its response was much more focused around results than it was the ethical framework of sport. This is despite DESC being hugely inclusive. It did take us some prompting to inspire a discussion on, and celebration of, child engagement and inclusion, this later through discussions with Robin Giles, DESC Director of High Performance Sport, which we think are worth quoting from in full. 


“DESC is not a “win at all costs” school. We therefore play genuine B team players in our B teams to increase participation and game time for players at an appropriate level.  We also try and ensure as much as possible that if players are reserves for a game, they do have an opportunity to play, irrespective of the score.”


“We are focused on increasing participation across all sports at all levels. Differentiating between aspirational athletes and social/participation athletes that just want to play sport. This ensures that everyone that wants to play sport, can play sport at a suitable level of competition. 


“We have development programmes in 4 sports (Rugby -Girls and Boys-, Football -Girls and Boys – , Netball and Swimming), providing more opportunities for aspirational athletes to develop than any other school. But we do not measure success by winning or losing, but by performance and character shown during a performance. We believe this is more important than measuring short term outcomes such as winning or losing.” 


“DESC is not just about developing sport at DESC, but developing sport in the UAE, providing good opportunities for players and athletes from other schools to have a competitive and suitable fixture in a supportive environment that will encourage the individuals to enjoy sport and keep playing in the future.”


DESC offers an extraordinarily rich choice of sports. These include Cycling, Football, Futsal, Climbing, Rugby, Touch, Rugby, Netball, Tennis, Table Tennis, Badminton, Swimming, Water Polo, Gaelic Football, Horse Riding, Scuba Diving, Yoga Fitness and Wellbeing, Boxing, Dance and Volleyball Clubs.


Every single one of these is open to all children. 


The issue at DESC is the sheer strength of competition and ability and the resulting pressure on team places. On this note DESC told us: “…..we provide many options to improve in competitive sports if children do not get into the team for interschool matches. These opportunities are exclusive to non-interschool players so team players cannot attend. For example, Sunday development football is for non-team players only and is run by the Director of football, with approx. 100 players. Currently, to be inclusive, the College is running well over 100 teams across the various sports.”


DESC argues that much of its sporting structure is unique: “we run development programs in the four Major sports of Rugby, Football, Netball and Swimming. This involves the withdrawal of students on a rotation basis to receive specialist coaching from the Directors of the sport alongside Strength and conditioning from the Head of S and C and rehabilitation and nutritional support from in-house staff. This works in much the same way as music lessons in terms of allowing students to pursue their sporting passions within the constraints of time and curriculum. I believe this approach is unique to DESC and has required considerable investment in staff. This system allows those students with a passion for sport to be fully supported.”


For the most gifted in Sport, DESC has multiple slipstreams. Currently DESS has students on sports scholarships to the USA in Women’s Golf and Soccer, both Men’s and Women’s. This year they anticipate further scholarships including Rugby through their partnership with Firstpoint USA.  DESC currently has students studying sport at University level at both Loughborough and Exeter. Its former student, Mackenzie Hunt, is currently part of the Everton U17 team.  


As above, we rate sporting facilities the best in the UAE. They include a full-size, grass, International Standard, rugby Pitch; floodlit, full-size, grass, senior football pitch; two, flood-lit, multi-purpose 7 aside football/Rounders grass pitches; flood-lit, two-year-old, two, 85m by 42m, 2, flood-lit,4G, Astro turf pitches (the highest standard in the UAE); two, international standard, synthetic cricket nets; one Golf net; a six-lane outdoor swimming pool (that is also used for water polo); 3 shaded Netball/ Tennis courts; a Zen garden; Indoor Six-badminton court sports hall with 9m roof clearance; fully- equipped gym with resistance and cardio equipment; dance studio with mirrors and bars; performance gym equipped with advanced conditioning equipment; sled track used by professional teams on a regular basis; staff wellbeing room for fitness and wellbeing classes; Indoor 25m pool; coach education room for coaching course delivery; and a plethora of treatment and rehabilitation facilities.


What is offered at DESC is most easily captured when you think of the type of campus used by Olympic athletes; it’s frankly extraordinary. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the facilities are in high demand from professional teams in Dubai including the New Zealand rugby league and the England 7’s. In January 2019 DESC will hosting a Scottish premiership team for its winter break. 


DESC has 20 full time PE and sport staff including specialists in S and C, rehabilitation, and psychology, each qualified to Masters level. This extensive (astonishing) level of staffing enables the College to deliver the breadth and richness of its sports programmes.


Like at least one other school here, the list of achievements fills pages (and pages) of tables. We list some of them below: 


• The school with the largest number of Sports team entered into the DASSA schools league of any school in Dubai.

• Overall winner of the BSAK trophy for Football Netball and Rugby combined across the UAE.

• Boys Football league U12 2nd place (A Team)

• U14 2nd place (A Team)

• U16 1st place (A Team)

• U18 2nd place (A Team)

• 12 total Boys football teams

• DASSA and BSAK 7s Girls Football: U12 1st; U14 1st; U16 1st; U18 2nd (A team results)

• 8 total Girls teams.

• DASSA and BSAK 7s Rugby League: U12 2nd; U14 1st; u16 2nd; U18 2nd 

• DC7s Tournament U12 1st; u13 2nd; U14 1st; U15 2nd; U16 1st

• The most Rugby teams of any school in Dubai

• Range of girl’s Rugby teams including a contact team in Dubai 7s

• Swimming: 3rd Place overall in the DASSA A swim league; B team in Division 3 – 3rd Place.

• A teams Netball: U12 3rd; U14 1st; U16 3rd; U18 3rd.

• Highly inclusive: 77 % of the College taking part it at some stage in sports and physical activity during the year. 

• Participation based on student surveys 2018 Year 7: 76%; Year 8: 72% Year 9: 72% Year 10 :65% Year 11: 77% Year 12: 51% Year 13: 48% 

• Gender equality: almost all sports are open to girls and boys including football and rugby.

• Female coaches support male teams in rugby

• Male coaches are in both female basketball and football. 

• Mixed-sex clubs including fitness, tennis, badminton and running. 

• Community hub for UAE rugby

• Host for UAERF training enabling more coaches to become qualified in the UAE. 

• Host for Warriors rugby club (not for profit club, run by volunteers, which focuses on youth grass roots rugby)

• Consultancy investment in Richard Shorter to work with school community on parental roles and how best to support young athletes.

• External providers for football, rugby, and swimming to allow the community easy access to additional coaching. 

• ECA sport every night after school from 3:00pm to 4:15pm for training as well as additional time for matches. 

• Gym pre-school open to all. 

• Lunchtime additional training and house matches. 

DESC was awarded the Best Sports School Award 2018 at the Teen fitness awards jointly with Dubai College and the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Order of Merit for Sports Education in a School alone in 2018.


In summary, for children interested in Sport, DESC has everything. In facilities, and particularly their depth, it betters most dedicated sport universities. The thought behind timetabling here is quite beyond outstanding. For athletes and young sports men and women almost across every conceivable sport there is nothing left wanting. 


BUT, as importantly, DESC is richly inclusive in its approach. This is a school that measures success as much in engagement as league table results. This means that DESC has everything too for non-athletes and those less certain in Sport to be inspired to take part and find their place. The engagement for these children is surely every bit as important – perhaps more important, than any league tables will ever tell you.    



The Backstage Interview


Established: 2005

KHDA Rating: Outstanding (we rate Outstanding+)

KHDA weakness: Arabic subjects, data 

Subject breadth/meeting the needs of children: Outstanding 

Fees: AED 78K – 84K

Number of students: 1514

Age of role: Secondary 11 – 18

Curriculum: British (GCSE, A Level plus BTEC)

School type: Not-for-profit

Number of students with SEND: 129/8.5% (Above 5% in an international school we rate as outstandingly inclusive for SEND)

Number of Emirati children: 18/1.2% (Above 10% in an international school we rate as outstandingly inclusive to the local population) 

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