So, what have we looked for here in order to help us guide our judges?
First, we have focused on the inclusiveness of cultural and academic intake and mapped this onto the breadth of provision post-16.
SchoolsCompared.com has lobbied widely for all IB schools to provide the IB Career-related Programme or stand-alone BTEC vocational/technical stream alternatives. Historically, with the IB CP, this was not possible for schools in Abu Dhabi because the qualification was not recognised – this is no longer the case today. Even where a school is more academically selective, we think the argument for providing a technical stream alternative to the International Baccalaureate Diploma is pretty much bullet proof for schools genuinely committed to meet the needs, interests, potential, ambition and ability of all students.
Some children are academic and technical. Whilst less of an issue in the UAE, the Diploma very poorly represents otherwise academic children who are weak in a second language – this not true of the CP which treats languages differently and arguably much more rationally.
The general downgrading of technical and vocational education and the prejudices that have driven it we think have historically hurt children wherever applied, and these Awards are one way of supporting and empowering those schools which have prioritised inclusion through (often expensive investment in) subject breadth.
Second, we have looked at the progress children make throughout their schooling. We have taken our lead from post-16 performance when we have looked at attainment, or looked at it in the context of PYP entrance as a way to substantiate selection. The best school is not the school, necessarily, that gets the best results – it is, quite rightly, the one that has delivered the best progress against predicted flightpaths.
Third, we have weighed our own visits to schools. As we always evangelise with parents, you can only tell so much on paper, league tables and the like. During our visits we weight more than a hundred criteria – from whether security guards insist on returning our security passes when we leave a school (you would be surprised at how many do not) to how children relate to us when we independently speak with them – in most cases we achieve this without it being set up in any way by the schools. The same holds true of teaching faculty and parents who we endeavour to speak with on promise of confidentiality away from school leadership. We rate the perceived happiness of children and their engagement very highly. All of this is backed from independent feedback we receive directly through our sites.
We have also looked at the broader splay of subject choice and provision outside core academics. Rightly or wrongly, and often perhaps against the priority for parents, we value investment in the whole child – and that means looking at ECAs and broader Arts (Art, Music, Drama, Debating and so on) and sporting provision outside the core academic syllabus.
We look for evidence of on-going investment. The impact of this, perhaps unfairly, is that schools that are well established tend to have a greater crack of the whip for us. New schools may well start with clear signs of investment – but we are looking for owners who are not simply looking to extract profit after a first initial investment – however large that may have been. Schools can generally prove this only over time.
Finally, we have looked at school leadership and the feedback we have received from parents, teachers and in some cases children direct to Editors or through feedback on our sites. It’s become somewhat of a platitude that leadership is important. In a school, however, we think that it’s absolutely make-or-break. This lends complication where we have outstanding schools facing flux and change because of leadership changes or changes to owners – this considerably weakens the case in many cases because we are facing an unknown quantity.”
Given that these are blended schools, we have also looked at how blending has worked within these schools in practice, generally through a fissure of school curriculum Post-16 to transition from an alternative curriculum to the IB. It sounds simpler than it is. Not all curricular are well placed to offer easy transition, although arguably IGCSE suffers less than others given its depth of academic study and, in the schools represented here, breadth of subject offer.
The outright winner of last year’s top award for the SchoolsCompared.com Best School in the UAE 2018, it should not be surprising that we can find little to critique in Jumeirah English Speaking School Arabian Ranches – and much to celebrate.
The departure of Mark Steed, in our view one of the UAE’s most stand-out Principals, is probably the single aspect of change that differentiates our view of the school this year in our environmental scanning, then and now, of the opportunities and threats faced by the school moving forward. It’s unarguable that his role in shaping and leading the school has been instrumental and profound.
Whilst it does not shape our view, it’s also worth noting the short-lived downgrade of the school’s rating by the KHDA to Very Good with Outstanding features which fell into the period of our judging. This was a shock to the school, and the broader British and IB school community, and turned on a disagreement with data metrics now addressed with the return of Outstanding school status. In this particular case we know that the grading did not reflect the reality of beyond-outstanding school performance and the decision could certainly be seen as being harsh.
At this level of outstanding, rich provision, it is more helpful to discuss where we feel the school could improve rather than detail its success. In this context we believe JESS should be doing much more with scholarships and bursaries (with a view to its Emirati intake) than it has shown itself historically willing to entertain. NFPs counter-argue that their whole model is to some degree equivalent to bursaries given a) the way the fees are structured and b) their inclusive intake. We disagree and believe that there is room for positive discrimination. Schools like JESS, we think, could be doing more to lead the market in establishing ring-fenced funds specifically for scholarships and bursaries – where one leads others follow. Schools like Cranleigh and Repton have made a bigger impact in this area.
Second, whilst the school behind the scenes has been a powerful voice for value-add, we think it could have done even more publicly to put the case and help guide parents. The trap is that even creditably inclusive schools like JESS find it hard to break away from celebrating examination performance, so feeding parental perception that this is the key measure of a school. Given the extraordinary achievement of their pupils, and market pressures, it’s more than understandable – but we think that it should be done with value-add context. We need schools to begin taking a lead here rather than leaving it to organisations like our or the Inspectors.
Both of these are big ticket asks – but this is one of a very small number of leading schools that we think carries, and has the capacity to carry, broader responsibility. To be fair to JESS, it has been a brave, courageous, powerful and at times a lone voice for VA behind the scenes.
Of so many positives, subject breadth here is extraordinary – not all IB schools are the same and you need to interrogate the detail of course breadth. The IB course options here match the breadth of the best pure British A Level schools (Psychology, DT, Theatre, Sport, Visual Arts, Music …) – but JESS goes further with BTEC Level 3 options (broadly equivalent to 3 A Levels) in Sport, Art&Design and Business. This is a unique approach in the UAE as JESS has chosen pure BTEC as its technical stream alternative for students rather than the IB Career-related Programme. Given historic parents’ views on BTEC (and fortunately these are now changing) this took some courage – but the rationale stacks up.
JESS, wherever possible, will always prioritise and resource the Diploma for the largest possible number of students – and get them the required grades. BTEC is fully resourced to meet every child’s needs and with breadth. Vocational education is genuinely celebrated and invested in.
The blending of British and IB education here, as across the curriculum, is outstanding. IGCSE breadth of choice matches the best in the sector, and mapped fluidly into later IB and BTEC vocational options. The split between IB and GCSE is expertly guided and fluid, not a break point.
Second, investment and innovation. JESS investment is second to none, guided, under Mark Steed, through the lens of technology. Its application at JESS, for example in cross-curricular VR is the best we have seen in any school in the UAE. Facilities and infrastructure are university level.
Third, Sport. Arguably, between them, JESS, DC and DESC are responsible for shaping an extraordinarily mature sports framework for schools in the UAE. It’s hard to choose between them (hence the Sports award being so difficult). The highly inclusive opportunities for JESS children, and the school’s contribution to Sport across the UAE, is recognised and creditable.
Finally, faculty and leadership. In this area the school shines. It’s not just in results (it is arguable, but, read through the lens of value-add (as they should be), JESS results place it as a contender for highest performing school in the UAE for child attainment. The bigger picture is extraordinary whole-child attainment. JESS young men and women on graduation are a credit to the UAE. It’s subjective, but we look for that rare balance of humility and confidence, engagement and interest, intellectual curiosity and humanity, that characterise the personality traits of children educated in the highest performing schools.
Finally, JESS is as far from a hot house school as you can imagine – there is no truck here with pressurising children for the sake of chasing exam league table performance. Children first.
JESS is one of the best schools in the UAE and many consider it, with justification, the best school in the UAE. This is a difficult award to judge. Getting the shortlist to this limited group of finalists has been tough. But even within this elite cluster of the highest performing schools, JESS is our stand-out winner in this category not only for its outstanding achievements for children at JESS, but its broader impact on school performance across the UAE in best practice academically and the whole child (particularly in Sport). JESS redefines the art of the possible in schools with its clear eye on the cutting edge of research and the likely demands of industry within a relatively uncharted global economy to come. It’s JESS students that benefit – and in spades.
The Backstage Interview
KHDA Rating: Very Good with Outstanding features 2018/Outstanding 2019 (Our rating Outstanding+)
KHDA weakness: Arabic subjects and some disagreement over data now resolved
Subject breadth/meeting the needs of children: Outstanding
Fees: AED 39K – 92K
Number of students: 1394
Age of role: 3 – 18
Curriculum: International Baccalaureate blended
School type: NFP
Number of students with SEND: 45/3.2% (Above 5% in an international school we rate as outstandingly inclusive for SEND)
Number of Emirati children: 24/1.7% (Above 10% in an international school we rate as outstandingly inclusive to the local population)