GEMS United School, Dubai Sports City – THE REVIEW
Updated August 2019 – GEMS United School (formerly GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy) exclusive: first in-depth school review – leadership, curriculum, facilities, Advanced Placement, KHDA 2019
“Our culture of kindness is the foundation on which we all learn and practice respect, responsibility, and leadership.
Whether it’s holding doors open for each other, the hearty “Good morning!” you’ll hear as children run into the courtyard each day, the high-fives and handshakes between teachers and students as they leave for the weekend, or the audience sing-alongs at the winter concert, our community’s inherent kindness is palpable.”
Katharine Vavpetic, Head of School and CEO, GEMS United School
GEMS United School represents the re-branding of GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy and remains an all-though, premium, US curriculum school offering an education to children from Pre-K to Year 12 between the ages of 4 and 18 years.
Set in the heart Dubai Sports City, the school enjoys access to the spectrum of sports facilities so important to many US parents and has been subject to considerable investment by GEMS, most recently in two new swimming pools (2016), digital learning infrastructure and in vocational education and the Arts, particularly in the teaching of film, music, PE and Social Studies.
The history of GEMS United School, notwithstanding its latest name change, has, it should be stated, been muddled – and parents would probably be better advised to confine their view of the school to the last three years, during which GEMS has significantly invested.
GEMS formally only took over the running of the school in 2013 and the first five years of the school’s life, under different owners and management, were defined by considerable confusion over curriculum, a lack of engagement with parents, severe problems with Arabic subject provision (see below), poor governance and a spectrum of other issues that do not shed a fairly reflective light on GEMS United School as it is today. Prior to GEMS getting a grip on the school it is probably best summarised as one that ran on looks, bells and whistles rather than substance.
It’s probably as well to get out of the way, first, then, the current official rating of GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy.
The Dubai Inspectorate of Schools rates this as a “Good” school only – and for many parents this will flash a warning sign across the boughs for a GEMS school – and not least one that claims to follow in the footsteps and modelling of GEMS flagship KHDA “Outstanding” Dubai American Academy. So too, 2017 was the first year the school has met even this basic minimum grading expected of all schools operating in the UAE; prior to this GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy had achieved an “Acceptable” grading only since 2009 when the school opened.
In 2018 the school was rated Good with Very Good and Outstanding features by the KHDA – and importantly with many significantly improved rankings.
So is GEMS United School a school to avoid?
We think, on the basis of most recent visit, and ongoing independent feedback from parents, teachers and students, that GEMS United School is, in practice, a school that performs exceptionally well – and at odds with its rating. It is worth noting too that our visit took place after the Dubai Inspectorate of School’s visit and much is taking place to build on the improvements of the last year.
So why is GEMS United School still getting this limited “Good” rating? It’s really important for parents to understand the context of the rating – and then take a view on why the school is not achieving a “Very Good” or “Outstanding” rating that in many other ways we feel the school deserves or has the clear potential to achieve.
The Arabic Curriculum issue …
The over-arching remaining issue faced by GEMS United school is in the Arabic language subjects – and that includes broader integration of Arabic culture within the broader school curriculum. This is a serious issue. It has not been addressed effectively for some eight years. But, two points. The Arabic curriculum, and particularly the language element, are a problem for the majority of British and US schools. It’s a tough subject for second learners and native speakers. Second, there are improvements in IE.
What had taken place at Bradenton, and so upset and frustrated the KHDA historically, is that, the whole subject area was perceived to have been downgraded in importance….. at least until now.
Some parents may take the view that Arabic subjects and culture are not important. For those parents, the rating for GEMS United School would almost certainly rise to “Very Good.”
But, we think the school continues to miss a very important trick.
Arabic subjects, in a global economy, give US students an edge that home US students do not have. In our view these subjects should be celebrated and put centre-stage not only because of the school’s location and the questionable ethics of operating in a vacuum – but because studying in the UAE is major advantage and differentiator of students looking to work and study outside the UAE. UK and US universities in particular welcome students who have been educated overseas because of the cultural richness they can bring to their universities.
We are no long in a global economy where having a degree is an exception and a passport to well-paid employment. Degrees are becoming an expectation. What is today far more important are the differentiating “extra” skills graduate can bring to the table.
Future employers looking to place their executives in the Arabic world are going to favour those who can speak the language. It seems utterly ludicrous to deny children the opportunity of immersing themselves in local culture and language given the career benefits it will deliver later.
A potential GEMS United Academy applicant to Yale or Oxbridge is going to be asked at interview what they have learned from their studies in the UAE? It is absolutely certain they will be asked this. There will be genuine interest – and an expectation that their intellectual curiosity will have resulted in no small amount of cultural inspiration and immersion in the Arabic language. A student that responds to this question by saying they have learned “absolutely nothing” about the Arabic world because “my school did not think it was important in an American school” is not going to be top of the list for a place at a top international university. So, we believe, GEMS United School must address this.
To be fair it is starting too. It is worth quoting from the last two KHDA reports to understand just how bad things became – and why the school, prior to 2017, achieved only an “Acceptable” rating:
“GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy failed to make the necessary improvements in Arabic that were recommended in previous inspection reports. There were some instances, notably in Arabic, where appraisal was too positive. Areas had been neglected, notably Arabic. Student attainment and progress in Arabic as a first language had declined …. due to inappropriate application of the curriculum, inconsistent quality of teaching and ineffective assessment.
[Despite our] recommendation in the previous two inspection reports, the governing board had failed to take action to address this. Arabic classrooms lacked resources beyond the basic curriculum documents.
The lack of attention to Arabic, a national priority, continued to jeopardize the school’s overall quality.”
GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy Inspection. KHDA. 2016
“The key subject not showing adequate growth in the last three years has been Arabic. [We have] a long-standing concern about students’ performance in Arabic.
Governors and leaders should take steps to monitor regularly and improve the attainment and progress in Arabic by ensuring that the Arabic curriculum is planned and modified to allow students to develop their language skills from their existing starting points; modifying the teaching practices to ensure the planned curriculum is effectively implemented, with a focus on students’ learning; developing accurate assessment processes linked to the curriculum standards, and using these to monitor and evaluate students’ progress; providing specialist expertise to support and develop the teaching faculty, with the goal of high quality [Arabic] provision and raising student outcomes.
GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy must systematically include aspects of Emirati history and culture and the UAE national priorities in the wider curriculum in all phases.
Attainment and progress in Arabic as a first language are acceptable in the elementary phase and weak elsewhere. In Arabic as an additional language, attainment in the middle school is weak.
At Elementary phase, In Arabic as a first language, less than three–quarters of students attain the expected levels of the MoE curriculum. Progress over time is minimal. Students do not extend their current skills sufficiently, which restricts the rate of their overall progress. Consequently, their speaking, reading and writing skills are below the expected levels.
In Arabic as an additional language, less than three-quarters of students attain the levels of language skills expected for their years of study. In lessons, students make better progress. Overall, however, students’ reading and decoding skills are not developing at the pace or depth that is required. The quality of writing is weaker than other skills.
At Middle School phase, In Arabic as a first language, less than three–quarters of students attain the expected levels of the MoE curriculum. Progress over time is minimal. Students do not extend their current skills sufficiently, which restricts the rate of their overall progress. Consequently, their speaking, reading and writing skills are below the expected levels.
In Arabic as an additional language, less than three-quarters of students attain the levels of language skills expected for their years of study. Overall, students’ reading and decoding skills are not developing at the pace or depth that is required. The quality of writing is weaker than other skills.
Older students are not benefiting from curricular adaptations to the same extent [as other areas of the curriculum] – and high school students in particular have many missed opportunities.”
GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy Inspection. KHDA. 2017
If this picture looks bleak, it must be stated that the school’s provision in the Arabic curriculum subjects is improving. We saw evidence that today GEMS United School is recognising that this is an important an area. It is certainly not adopting, at least any more, the approach of at least one other well-known American school which in practice deliberately refuses to teach any Arabic subjects at all. In 2017, for the first time, the KHDA recorded that:
“The KG integrates the UAE culture and society successfully into the curriculum and includes age appropriate Arabic lessons. Some good practice is also evident in elementary school classes.
The measures taken to improve students’ performance in Arabic as an additional language have had a (positive) impact …. in the high school where attainment has improved.”
GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy Inspection. KHDA. 2017
In the school’s latest report there are none of the frustrations of previous reports. Positive change is afoot – and the re-branding of the school is there in no small part as a statement that this is now a very different school.
The Parents’ View
We spoke directly and independently during our visit with two parents at the school and much of the discussion focused on Arabic.
Both parents spoke at length of the warmth, tolerance and accommodating approach of the school, from the registration process to daily interactions.
Both parents felt that the teachers were passionate and invested on a very personal level with all of the children and that the school provided a hugely warm education for their children.
One of the parents had returned to the school having briefly relocated to the US and, on their return, they were greeted with open arms and a genuine welcome back.
It was felt that teacher recruitment was rigorous and the teachers expressed a real love for the children as well as being relatable and approachable.
Both families had a shared Arabic / US heritage and, with other parents, had pushed for improvements to the teaching of Arabic. Partially as a result, Arabic, they explained, has now been introduced for KG classes and they stated much greater investment is being made in the way Arabic is brought to life in the school.
Both parents stated that teaching in Arabic is no longer, as it had historically been, simply dull text book delivery. This improvement has extended to Grade 1 and Grade 2 and they hoped it would now extend throughout the school.
Both parents stated that this year they had seen significant efforts throughout the school to integrate technology and the teaching of Arabic and to create a more relevant curriculum.
The Bigger Picture outside Arabic subjects
Outside the Arabic subjects, GEMS United School has, in our view, an awful lot to recommend it to parents.
Facilities are premium (there is nothing missing – and much of the offer exceeds that you would expect even at this premium fee level). Provision includes Full-court indoor gymnasium; as above, a new 25M swimming pool and second pool for younger learners; multi-purpose, covered, courts for basketball, tennis and badminton; an Astroturf pitch; landmark Auditorium; independent science laboratories by subject (Physics, Chemistry and Biology); multiple Art rooms; central (and significantly improved) Library (with 14,000 plus books, specialist foreign language section and extended on-line resources); and access to the spectrum of sporting infrastructure within Dubai Sports City (track and field, soccer….). Future investment is likely to focus on developing in-house sports provision even further.
Organisation too is excellent. The school operates through 4 main buildings, each housing the different age ranges (KG, Early Years, Middle Years, High School.) An additional Facility Building houses the Art Department, spectrum of Science and Technology labs and a dedicated library for use by Middle and High school years students. The overall impact is education targeted to the different needs of children at each phase of their development.
On our visit we particularly liked the Auditorium which is a good space – and one supported with a very active events programme including the spectrum of talent show, performing arts and broader thematic events. Music teaching is a strength of the school.
The Music teaching is strong and it’s telling that it was a GEMS United music teacher, Heather Massaqoi, that won this year’s Mariamma Varkey Top Teacher Award for Most Inspirational Teacher.
Teaching is at least good in all phases, and at KG very good. SEND provision and curriculum adaptation is very good. Following the mapping of students which is conducted 3 times per year RTI support is offered and whilst not as intense as SEN, does help bridge the gap when students underachieve in areas of the mapping process. Both parents we spoke with on our visit liked the approach and felt it was positive and motivated children with an attitude that .. “you’re not there yet but we can get you there with a little help.”
Teachers are in many cases outstanding (the biggest cost of any school at Bradenton sees very high investment) – and teacher commitment and passion runs high. The curriculum is finally getting stability and cohesion with alignment to Washington structure and full – and serious commitment to all three of the now accepted standards of premium Tier 1 US provision, AERO Common Core, Next Generation science and Advanced Placement (see below).
Stand-out for us, and absolutely critical for a US school, is this provision of Advanced Placement. Twelve Advanced Placement (AP) subjects are now offered by GEMS United School (increasing from 4 subjects in 2016). Too few US schools offer Advanced Placement at all. Why is it important? A High School Diploma alone is broadly equivalent to the level of qualification offered at other schools at 16 years. In, for example a British school, the High School Diploma is broadly equivalent to IGCSE.
The High School Diploma is a qualification, in both depth and breadth of study, that is some two years behind what is expected by “serious” universities internationally. Yes, the High School Diploma is accepted in local universities – and yes, in a limited number of lesser UK universities, for example, it may be accepted – but only if studied with an extra conversion year of study (and that comes with no guarantee that a student will afterwards be accepted onto a degree proper). In American schools, without an IB Diploma post-16 alternative, Advanced Placement is critical.
The provision of Advanced Placement is hugely attractive element of GEMS United School provision – and one that we believe it deserves significant recognition for integrating within its curriculum. More information on this can be found in our High School Diploma Curriculum Guide, here.
Parental communication is now excellent – it has not always been the case. Today the school is committed to, and has invested in, the spectrum of effective communication mechanisms to ensure parents can keep track of their child’s progress – as importantly, the school now effectively celebrates the many achievements of its children.
For a truly American school experience we also cannot find fault – this is a genuinely US (rather than international) school, populated by highly qualified US teachers (around 80% of all teaching faculty are US) and leadership and of GEMS United School shines where the very best American schools always do – in its care for children, warmth of educational experience and a culture that celebrates children as individual personalities with their own ambitions, potential and needs.
The introduction of Pre-K schooling too in 2017 has had a hugely positive effect on the school body.
US Education is expensive. We think that GEMS Bradenton Preparatory Academy offers good value for money, falling at the top of our premium fee category – but offering in some key respects the quality of provision and facilities you would associate with lower to mid-tier premium-plus schooling. It’s also a school that we think offers “hidden value” – GEMS is investing in Bradenton Preparatory and we are seeing a ratcheting up of standards and attainment almost across the board. Even in Arabic subjects, the thorn in the side of Bradenton for so many years, is now evidencing hugely positive change, particularly in the younger years which are so important in delivering higher standards later.
|Annual Tuition 2017-18|| Term 1
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For us there are many positives. Stand-out are the provision of Advanced Placement, high calibre of teaching faculty and leadership, facility provision – and the happiness of children. The parents we spoke with underscored the extraordinary changes afoot at the school – there is a palpable sense that GEMS United School is going places. Everything seems to be now be being put right, even down to the long-awaited inclusion of parents on the school governing body. There is much to be said to be part of a school on an upward flight path towards Outstanding School status rather than one moving in the other direction. Yes, GEMS United School has, in its different namesake, historically disappointed, particularly, and seriously, in its Arabic subjects provision, but the whole school wants to not only put the past behind them – but now shine a light for what the best US education can really be outside the US.
On the basis of what we experienced in our visit this year you would not want to bet against it doing just that. We think GEMS United School is worthy of shortlisting – and is certainly a school with the potential and visible ambition to prove its critics wrong.
GEMS United School was shortlisted for the SchoolsCompared.com Best American Curriculum School in the UAE Award 2019.
Good with Very Good and Outstanding features
Good with Very Good and Outstanding features
Good with Very Good and Outstanding features
YEAR 1: 70,077
YEAR 2: 70,077
YEAR 3: 70,077
YEAR 4: 70,077
YEAR 5: 70,077
YEAR 6: 70,077
YEAR 7: 75,676
YEAR 8: 75,676
YEAR 9: 79,258
YEAR 10: 79,258
YEAR 11: 79,258
YEAR 12: 79,258
(1) (NEASC accreditation under application)
(2) Washington State curriculum
AERO Common Core Plus
Next Generation Science
(1) Capacity: circa 1000
2009 (Taken over by GEMS in 2012)
Dubai Sports Academy, Dubai
US (largest nationality)
(1) SEND: 45
(2) Emirati: 5
(1) hot meals can be ordered on-line
+971 (0) 4 818 3600
• Advanced placement – a genuine credit to Bradenton, a critical qualification for US schools – and a strong indicator of GEMS’ ongoing investment at the school
• School warmth
• Premium facility provision
• Genuine US education and US school cultural dynamics
• School mid-way through fast-track improvement with the aim and ambition to be outstanding
• Good value fees given the offer
• Outstanding investment in teaching faculty and school leadership
• Across-the-board changes for the better
• History of Acceptable schooling caused in no small part by an extremely weak Arabic curriculum offer
• High teacher turnover (>30%) over the last three years (although this is indicative of a school initiating positive change in the context of our visit)