The Best School in the UAE, 2019/20

The Best School in the UAE was won this year by DESSC  – Dubai English Speaking School and Dubai English Speaking College, a power house duo that is showing the UAE how to be inclusive, and deliver stellar results.

First, Dubai English Speaking School…


It’s very difficult to describe just how successful the remodelling of DESS is – it has set a definitive benchmark, in our view, on how to successfully manage the transition of children during early years learning. 


Learning at Dubai English Speaking School has been set up to travel through three two-year phases – and the children physically experience almost three completely different schools within one school. 


Certain elements are carried through from the earlier phases to maintain the core aspects of school identity, but with progressing sophistication of learning cleverly blended into the mix as children mature in the school. 


We have not seen this done in any other school. It’s almost an academic and whole-child Disneyland theme park for children – that’s the best way we can think of describing what they have achieved, particularly in the later years, when you add into the mix the extraordinary investment in child friendly engines of imagination that seem to pop all over the place. 


From indoor fountains and water gardens to a Head of Technology delving into the wondrous possibilities of tool boxes, the school is a feast for the senses and mind.  In the younger ages, the effect is like a tunnel within which we counted at least 40 different activity clusters. 


Teaching staff are extensive and engaged. As the children become older you can see the impact of Dubai English Speaking College, its slipstream school, working its way down. It’s significantly more “adult” with a pace and powerful sense of purpose.


The bigger picture here is DESC. 


DESS has, in our view, for too long been overshadowed by its slipstream outstanding school – and we think that it’s time that DESS, in its own right, secures the recognition that it undoubtedly deserves. 


The approximate AED 18M investment in DESS, not before time, has been transformational. But it is the role of DESS in preparing children for their eventual success at DESC that has been unrecognised historically – and we know from conversations with the school that this has, bluntly, hurt. 


DESS deserves this Award. The stakes are three-fold. 


First, it is rare to see this level of investment in a Primary. That should be recognised because it sets the bar high for other schools (and the beneficiaries of investment are children). 

“This is fantastic, a great affirmation for both schools, one a fantastic primary, and one a fantastic secondary...” Andrew Gibbs, DESSC

Second, as above, what DESS has achieved here is not short of a transformed model of British primary delivery that deserves to be shared across the sector.


Third, and importantly given our values, we need to celebrate female leadership in education more than we do. School leadership here is world class.  


The Primary sector in the UAE is of a quality that is globally competitive. Only DESS here, however, can stake the claim, on the back of its investment, to re-define what Primary education looks like. That, for us, tips the balance, and powerfully. 


The achievements of Catherine Dando at DESS are beyond outstanding. During our last visit, it became very clear that Ms Dando is the driving force behind what surely must be the benchmark Primary School in the UAE for the way that it demarcates phases of learning. 


We have never seen this extraordinarily insightful and inspiring way of demarcating learning in any school before. 


Ms Dando’s achievements here deserve as much praise as it is possible to shower on an individual. 


Investment is very, very high and considered in its application. 


Worth noting too that DESS achieved Outstanding school status this year – finally the school will, in the perception of the school, be able to stand out in its own right and not be overshadowed by DESC. 


For us, this has never been an issue. For others, however, the success of what has been achieved at this extremely effective and special school should mean that DESS no longer has to be discussed as the little sister of DESC. There is nothing little about DESS. It is, today a powerhouse of education, a tour de force of Primary education – and DESC would  be absolutely lost without it rather than vice versa.    


Second, Dubai English Speaking College…

Dubai English Speaking College, together with the British School of Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, set the benchmark for inclusive schooling in the UAE. 


It’s promise, and it is just that, is never to leave any child behind. Many schools promise this – but in reality almost none can deliver to the degree that parent’s expect from such promises. 


There are legion examples of how DESC delivers, but probably the most powerful one comes from the way that DESC responded to a student who, in other schools, would have almost certainly faced graduating without qualifications. DESC, however, will never abandon a child. 


As a result, at huge expense and investment in time, they worked with the student to build an entirely bespoke learning programme around his needs so that he would graduate school with a “business in a box.” The result was a student equipped with all the skills and entrepreneurial vision to start a professional career. To do this DESC employed whatever resources were required from external experts in business and finance to specialist teachers, each mobilised to map an entire programme around the student’s needs. 


Other aspects of Dubai English Speaking School equally dazzle.


Sport, in particular, shows a clear concentration on results, but, unlike many other schools, this is matched with an absolute care to be as inclusive as possible with children so that all children are engaged with, and find their own place of joy, in a subject that in many other schools leaves an “in-crowd” and failed outsiders. DESC children leave school inspired by sport rather than frightened, angry or simply immune to its benefits.


Success here is judged by taking part rather than exclusively by successes on the field, track or grounds of which it produces many.   


Sixth Form provision and subject choice, particularly in BTEC, is a testament to just how seriously DESC is committed to meeting the needs of all children. 


Telling, for us, is the school’s researching of buying an engineering company so as to be able to provide the BTEC in Engineering. Ultimately the cost just proved too prohibitive – but the fact that it was explored says everything about a school driven to meet the needs of * every * single * child *. 


The Sixth Form facility at DESC, in its design, flow and inspiration, is the best of any school in the UAE. 


Finally, School leadership, in the shape of Andy Gibbs, is so impressive. Yes, he is fiercely protective of his school. As with other outstanding leaders in UAE education, Mr Gibbs is unwavering in his pride for his school, its faculty, parents and students. 


But… there is a much bigger picture that he considers outside the school in how it can engage with all schools to build the capacity and quality of education across the UAE – and how, on an ongoing basis, he can learn from other schools the many ways he can drive DESC forward with best practice. 


Feedback to us is of someone who is very open to other schools, works tirelessly to build bridges between them, and who cares as much about “what happens outside his school in broader education within the UAE as within it.”


Both Dubai English Speaking School, and Dubai English Speaking College, stand individually, in their own right, as extraordinary, world class schools in the uniquely powerful ways they achieve for their children. 


Taken together, the sum of their parts creates no less than wonder in education and a UAE showcase for the power of education, at its best, to discover and nurture the many extraordinary gifts and potential within every single child.



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) 



Established: 1963

KHDA Rating: Outstanding

KHDA weakness: Arabic subjects – historically data now addresses

Subject breadth/meeting the needs of children: Outstanding 

Fees: AED 36K – 45K

Number of students: 1022

Age of role: 3 – 11

Curriculum: British Primary

School type: NFP

Number of students with SEND: 54/5.2%) (Above 5% in an international school we rate as outstandingly inclusive for SEND)

Number of Emirati children: 6/0.6% (Above 10% in an international school we rate as outstandingly inclusive to the local population) 



American School of Dubai
Brighton College Abu Dhabi
British School Al Khubairat (BSAK)
Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi
GEMS Modern Academy
Jumeirah Primary School (JPS) and Jumeirah College (JC) [Joint nomination]
Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) Primary & Arabian Ranches [Joint nomination] 
Raha International School
Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Boys

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