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GEMS Founders School, Al Barsha South

GEMS Founders School, Al Barsha South

by June 23, 2016

• The promise of outstanding value for money
• GEMS credibility and backing
• Minimisation of teething issues given the experience behind the school
• GEMS has set the bar high for parental expectation and it will want to deliver
• GEMS has a proven history of delivering exceptionally good schools at this price point


• No swimming pool
• (Very) large school role
• The risks of buying on a promise
• Compromises will be made at this fee level, even if they are not clearly visible
• The devil is in the detail of a school up and running over its first year
• Some staff turnover is inevitable with a school dependent on NQTs to balance the books and make the fees stack up
• The degree and scale of eventual investment required in SEND and EAL will take time to be determined - and then effectively delivered

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If GEMS commits, it delivers. That will be, and has been, enough for most parents to sign on the dotted line. Potentially a beacon school for the mid-tier English National Curriculum sector. Time will tell.

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Updated January 2017

GEMS Founders School(GFS) was established as an international UK curriculum school in September 2016, promising a “reasonably priced world-class education” meeting “the high standard of education that GEMS Education embodies.”

Founders offers an all-through English National Curriculum to IGCSE and A Level for students from FS1 to Year 13, between 3 and 19 years.

In build, GEMS advised us, and our sister site, whichschooladvisor, that Founders was being modeled on its family of Winchester schools. This, however, we felt in practice, told us little as the “Winchester” brand covers a multitude of very different schools from the fabulous, Winchester School Jebel Ali, to the previously troubled GEMS school, GEMS Winchester School Oud Metha.

Given that GEMS was promising a “world class education” our best guess at that time was that Founders was going to be a definitive attempt to resolve the age old trade-off between quality and fees – in favour of quality. It remains the case that if it fully achieves this, Founders promises to send ripples through the educational sector and could re-define what can be delivered to a price. In this context, Founders is a very important school. With the school now open, and working through the inevitable challenges of any new school, independent feedback, from both parents and teachers, as of January 2017, has been overall positive, but also reflects some arguably predictable challenges.

Our sister site,, provided a very considered analysis of the stakes as it tried to identify for parents the original compromises that had to be struck to deliver a GEMS UK curriculum school to a price.


Trade Offs

It identifies that there are two fundamental ones thus far. The first is a lack of swimming facilities (swimming will be offered by E-sports – parents will sign up for classes off-site and pay E-Sports directly.) Many parents will bear this; options for swimming in Dubai are legion.

The second is the likely choice to both employ higher numbers of less expensive newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) – and source them (predominantly) from outside the UK.

Some of the most extraordinary teachers can be those that have just graduated. Educated to absolutely current best practice, and driven in the early years by vocation and passion for making a difference, they can be exceptional. There are good and bad teachers, whether NQTS or experienced, and no teacher can deliver perfectly for all children. Chemistry and skills have their inevitable role in the classroom as in everyday life. This said, NQTs soon become experienced. Losing teachers impacts heavily on children and teacher turnover is a blight on education. The pressure in this situation is on GEMS – can it recruit the very best, very best, to a budget? How will it keep them on a budget?

As of January 17 feedback on teachers has been very positive, although one trade off with the recruitment of UK and Irish NQTs to the Emirates inevitably, given the challenges of relocation, is always some degree of retention. In the case of Founders, GEMS has been building a strong predominantly Irish base for its faculty but prospective parents should be aware that there will be a period of transition as faculty bed-in and the school stabilises recruitment of teachers who find a natural fit for life overseas.

We would add a third trade-off to those identified by our sister site. Expect Founders to be a (very) large school – by our calculations with a likely capacity on launch of all through provision of well in excess of 3,500 students. Big schools are not for all students.

As of January 2017, the school is already running at 2000+ capacity and in simple scaling it has been a considerable success. Prospective parents will not find a school that has any of the airy spaces and sense of a school waiting to be filled that we have seen with a number of other newly opened schools. Given the value proposition on offer, the fact that the school has filled places so quickly should not be surprising. It does, however, mean in practice that the different challenges that face any new school launching with an established school capacity will face – namely that it has none of the luxuries of building a school slowly over time and being able to respond to teething issues with reduced pressures that come from a slowly building role. As above, this, according to our feedback, has meant in practice some turnover of staff. Whilst this should not unduly concern prospective parents, it should nevertheless be weighed in the balance in considering the school and we will monitor how this stabilises over the next academic year.

If it was always inevitable that the trade-off would have to impact on teaching (given that up to 70% of on-going costs of any school are invested in teacher’s salaries), facilities are of a high standard and good breadth. They include a fully digital campus; individual medical facilities for boys and girls; libraries targeted to phases, a multi-purpose sports/theatre auditorium with full production facilities and basketball court; multiple arts and crafts/music rooms, medical centre; ICT labs by phase; Canteen; FS play areas; a bookshop; fully-equipped science laboratories by Science; and, technology rooms.

Sports facilities, in absence of swimming pools, do include sports fields; a rooftop 11 aside football pitch; extensive athletic provision including running tracks; and covered outdoor recreation areas.

As we advised in our launch review, the devil in every case of facilities provision, however, is in the detail. An auditorium can be basic, or extraordinary. Founders, as expected, has launched with facilities that fall somewhere between the two – but certainly of a very good standard offering excellent ROI for a GEMS school. Arguably, at least in the attractive combination of GEMS brand, quality facility provision and UK curriculum, GEMS may well face some “cannibalisation” as some parents trade down from more expensive GEMS schools to Founders. We know of one family for whom this has been the case. What we would say, however, is that all parents should weigh the benefits that come from more established schools, and particularly those which have very low levels of teacher turnover and more experienced faculty (this the key differentiator of GEMS more expensive UK schools) in the balance.

The popularity of Founders became clear at a very early stage. The decision facing parents was, even in planning, less of a choice than a necessary jump in the dark. FS2 was already full and FS1 on the point of capacity in June 2016 prior to the school opening. Parents had no choice but to register to have had any chance of securing a place for their child(ren). Decisions were ultimately based, we believe, on the credibility of the GEMS promise of a “world-class education”, to counter the lack of detail that only comes from a completed, functioning school.

It is the same choice all parents face with new schools, and we conjecture that many have been encouraged, finally, by the balance of mid-tier fees and the integrity of GEMS. The promise of a “world class education” sets the benchmark, and accountability to parents, very high.

GEMS, it must be said, is the most experienced of any education provider in launching news schools and teething issues, always inevitable, have certainly been more limited than we have noted in many other launching schools, and are, our feedback suggest, being dealt with swiftly.

We have not provided detailed scoring. As a new school bedding in, there are just too many variables.

Key issues remain for us recruitment; how the nationality balance of the role will shape the school – and the depth of English as an Additional Language (EAL) and Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision. In all these areas, Founders will need time to bed in provision. Our feedback thus far suggests the school has drawn considerable student numbers from Egyptian families, that expectations from all parents are very high and that demands for both SEND and EAL support are significant.

What will the eventual balance of teaching staff be? How well will GEMS meet its launch commitments? What sort of atmosphere will the school eventually have? Our view is that we must give the school 12 months to find its feet before coming to a meaningful verdict.


Our bottom line, as of January 2017 , is that mid-tier schools are needed. The majority of parents, with all good intentions and stretching of family finances, simply cannot afford premium fees. Parents too, all parents, want the absolute best for their children – and many parents identify “best” and “GEMS” in the same breath. On this basis, GEMS deserves considerable credit for investing in mid-tier opportunities for children who would otherwise not have the chance of a GEMS Education. It will, however, have to deliver over the next 12 months– and part of that will be either managing expectations – or at least meeting them. If it can exceed them that will be the icing on the cake.

On this note, we have received particularly positive feedback from both teachers and parents on the school’s leadership. Matthew Burfield, Founders Principal and CEO, studied History and Politics at Sussex (it’s recognised as being one of the top universities in the UK for this degree) and brings with him more than a decade’s UK and international teaching experience. He has professional teaching qualifications from both Sussex  and Warwick, the latter focussed on innovation and something that certainly reinforces his credentials as the leader of what is in many ways a radical school for GEMS in its need to traverse the competing demands of value fees and premium delivery. He has been described to us in terms of  his being extremely engaged with parents, passionate about what can be achieved and also very committed to building teaching capacity and investing in their professional development. On that note, feedback has been very positive about how both he and Founders’ Vice Principal and Head of Primary, Janet Foley, are working exceptionally closely to pull the school together – no small challenge given the demands identified above of a school launching at capacity in its phased opening, currently to Year 9.

It is sometimes easy to forget with new schools and all the excitement that comes with them, that buildings are the skin-deep part of the equation. It is children that count, and parents will have invested everything in GEMS to deliver for them. The first year of a school can so often define its course, both in terms of expectation but also culture. Getting the nuts and bolts working together, for any new school is never easy. But there comes extra pressure for GEMS given its reputation and the commitments it has made for Founders.  It’s early days but on balance we think the new school is delivering. It is however too early for us to provide any more than this interim recommendation – and the next 12 months will be decisive.

Details to consider
Type of school

Private, for-profit

Full WSA Review


Average Cost Per Year

FS1: 22,000
FS2: 25,000
YEAR 1: 27,000
YEAR 2: 27,000
YEAR 3: 27,000
YEAR 4: 27,000
YEAR 5: 27,000
YEAR 6: 27,000
YEAR 7: 29,000
YEAR 8: 29,000
YEAR 9: Phased launch
YEAR 10: Phased launch
YEAR 11: Phased launch
YEAR 12: Phased launch
YEAR 13: Phased launch


National Curriculum for England
Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)
International A Level

External Exam Boards

Cambridge International Examinations (CIE)

Number of A Levels offered

Phased launch 2020-21
(1) Projected based on Winchester Jebel Ali: 11

A Levels offered

Phased launch 2020-21
(1) Projected based on Winchester Jebel Ali:
Business Studies
English Literature
Applied ICT

A Level A* to A

Phased launch 2020-21

A Level A* to C

Phased launch 2020-21


Phased launch 2018-19


Phased launch 2018-19

Number of I/GCSEs Offered

Phased launch 2018-19
(1) Projected based on Winchester Jebel Ali: 23

I/GCSEs offered

Phased launch 2018-19
(1) Projected based on Winchester Jebel Ali:
English (Core)
Islamic Education / Personal Social Health & Citizenship Education [PSHCEE] (Core)
Mathematics (Core)
Arabic (Core)
Physical Education (Core)
Biology (Option)
Travel and Tourism (Option)
Economics (Option)
Business Studies (Option)
French (Option)
Geography (Option)
Chemistry (Option)
Sociology (Option)
Physical Education (Option)
Accounting (Option)
Child Development (Option)
Environmental Management (Option)
Physics (Option)
Art (Option)
Computer Science (Option)
Global Perspectives (Option)
Information & Communications Technology [ICT] (Option)
History (Option)



Waiting list

Not published

Value Added

Not published

Number of Students

Capacity 3500+
(1) Current role 2000+ (January 2017)
(2) Significant Egyptian role

Teacher to Student Ratio

FS1-FS2: maximum class size 25 students
Years 1 - 13: maximum class size 30 students

Largest nationality teachers

(1) Significant recruitment from Ireland (January 2017)

Teacher turnover

Phased launch

Year opened

September 2016


Al Barsha South, Dubai

Student composition

Not published


Mixed, co-educational

School canteen



GEMS Education

Admissions Telephone

+971 (0) 4 882 4323

Web Address
About The Author
Jon Westley

Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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