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Why Accept a Second Best, Copycat, Education in the UAE when you can Have the Real Thing? Sending Children Home to Boarding School. A SchoolsCompared Special Report.

by Melanie SwanDecember 13, 2020
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Why Accept a Second Best, Copycat, Education in the UAE when you can Have the Real Thing? Sending Children Home to Boarding School. A SchoolsCompared Special Report.
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Background. Why Accept a Second Best Copycat Education in the UAE when you can Have the Real Thing by Sending Children Home to Boarding School? 

The idea of choosing “the real thing” gave rise to arguably the most powerful marketing campaign in history by the Coca Cola company. More on this can be found here. The campaign, some forty plus years later, appears in Coca Cola ads even today.

Whether Pepsi, or any number of own brands, taste better or not, most of us still see them as pretenders; less premium, not the best, a compromise (“cheaper, almost as good”) and well …. just not the real thing.

You simply cannot make a mistake with Coke, cannot … let yourself or others down.

It even somehow earns the right to be part of Xmas and our holidays.

Chasing the real thing seems to strike a deep chord in human beings. Little wonder that most of us who have vexed with sending our children home to board will have heard it said as part of the pitch of shortlisted boarding schools at home.

Whether the issue of where to educate our children is framed in how to ensure the highest quality of their education; cost; or, even which type of educational choice will guarantee our children’s well-being, the perennial dilemma facing us all, as expatriate parents, is so often presented as a choice:

  • Whether we should educate our children close to us – but in a second-best, make-do replica of schools at home in a foreign land; or,
  • To send them thousands of miles away from us back to their home country nestled in the alien family of a boarding school – but one that is, at least, the “real thing.”

The best thing…..

The debate in part is always framed in exactly the same, manipulative, arrow to our hearts and gut way: why give our children second best when they can have the real thing at home.

It is not an easy debate, and one which every year gives rise to huge anguish.

As debates go in education this is one of the most divisive.

As parents we wrestle with irretrievably competing claims. At it’s cruellest the issue is brutal, stark and emotive:

What is the point of having children if you send them away from you (“Mummy, Daddy, why did you send me away? Didn’t you want me”)? 


I have made a decision to have children – now it is my responsibility to give them the best possible chance in life. 

On both sides the long term and crushing weight of the responsibility comes with wondering just how our children will judge the decision we made – and whether later we will even be forgiven.

But have we been taken in by the very idea of a “real thing”?

Simon O’Connor, Director at Deira International School, says in the last 25 years, these debates have become easier to address.

“Boarding is just not what it used to be,” he told us.  The days of cold showers, tough love bordering on torture (“to toughen children up”) and, let’s say it directly, bullying, are simply no longer part of the equation for those parents who do choose to send children home to board.

The horror stories of old, thank goodness, have no place in modern boarding schools.

“The students that I know who have taken such a route have enjoyed their time boarding and been successful,” Mr O’ Connor told SchoolsCompared.

At the least, we do not as parents have to weigh the brutality of boarding school into our decision making today. Quite the opposite. Dorms as we knew them, for example, have all but disappeared in schools which today much more approximate to hotels than hostels.

However, in the vastly modernised education system across the UAE, one in which we have a choice from more than 13 curricular ranging from French to Chinese, and across over 600 schools at every budget – and with schools now competing, genuinely, with the best in the world, the options we have are also infinitely broader and more compelling than they were even five years ago.

“Academic research has shown that children staying with parents rather than being shipped off overseas to board is advantageous at all ages,” says Mr O’Connor. Bluntly, what we now know is that parental engagement in our children’s education has as much weight as that of the school in ensuring that children are successful.

An effective education for children is not about dropping children at the school gates (if ever it was) and much more about the joined up picture that intricately weaves home and school in each child’s learning journey.

But is Mr O’ Connor correct – or simply spinning the story?

Research conducted by the Arts & Science Group of Baltimore, here, for The Association of Boarding Schools, for example, claims the opposite – that students are more likely to earn an advanced degree and achieve faster career advancement by boarding. Legion examples of just this sort of paid-for research finds that boarding schools will always have the edge.

Mr O’Connor is forthright in his response:

“Delegating the responsibility of educating children to a remote school, however good, is very unlikely to be as effective.

On a less forensic basis, and as a parent myself, the opportunity to have children at home is all too brief and schooling in Dubai means parents can have a much more involved role in their children’s lives for longer.”

Simon O’Connor. Director. Deira International School.

Mr O’Connor is impassioned and genuine when he speak with us. “The quality of education has improved massively in Dubai in the eight years since I have been in the emirate,” he tells us. Its more rigorous inspections under the regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), and competition in the sector has raised standards to an extraordinarily high level:

“In the UK, schools will be inspected every 5-7 years, whereas in Dubai schools are inspected annually. The overall quality is evidenced by the fact that many non-selective Dubai schools outperform even highly selective schools in the UK in terms of results.”

Simon O’Connor. Director. Deira International School.

Mr O’Connor says this is not marketing fluff, but statistically backed fact:

“Some schools in Dubai perform in the top 5% of schools worldwide.”

Simon O’Connor. Director. Deira International School.

Mr O’Connor is not alone in his conviction that choosing to educate our children in the UAE is absolutely not a compromise.

Louise McGeever, Vice Principal of Primary at Safa British School, told

“Schools here encompass the best of those in the UK or other home countries – and improve on them.

We have the autonomy to adapt and develop our curriculum to suit the changing needs of children, individually and collectively, in a way that schools abroad cannot.

This makes a huge difference.

Look at the effects of the more rigid, nationally controlled UK curriculum for a strong example of this. In the UAE we have been able to respond to the crisis of the pandemic so much more ambitiously, with the needs of children and their education centre stage, compared with schools in the UK.”

We spoke with a well known boarding school in the UK who asked not to be named. They told us:

“Ultimately the decision will be a matter of taste and personality. Some children are simply not suited to leaving home and being away from the family for long periods of time while many others will thrive in the supportive environment of their peers that can only come from the real education found in boarding.”

Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, will have none of this, pointing out that that one of the best ways to understand just how good the education available to families is in the UAE today is to look at the decisions made by those parents whose fees are paid by their employers who have the freedom to choose where they wish to educate their children.  They are not choosing to send their children away. It is simply no longer necessary.

Mr Lambert also stresses that the depth and breadth of choice, and the quality of education now available in Dubai, means that even the most ambitious parents can educate children in Dubai “at a standard far and above that which they could afford or access in the UK.”

Again, Mr Lambert makes the point that this is not marketing fluff. Parents can now see the achievements in UAE schools, achievements that in many cases are not replicated, not even close, even in top schools at home:

“Having previously worked in exceptional independent schools in the UK, I can honestly say that the quality of depth of support we offer to our students as they apply to university is also second-to-none.

This may explain why over 50% of our leavers attend the top 1% of universities worldwide, with up to 30 students achieving Oxbridge and Ivy League offers per year.”

Michael Lambert. Headmaster. Dubai College.

Mr O’Connor agrees and points out, further, that many UAE private schools offer teaching packages which are much better than those in the UK. The UAE, today, is attracting the very best teachers in the world, not losing them. We are seen as a super highway for amazing teachers who want the freedom and calibre of schools that will support their vocation to deliver an outstanding education for children and not be bound up in budgetary constraints, endless bureaucracy and red tape. The world’s best teachers, those who actually want to teach and transform the lives of children with an outstanding education, are coming here.

Proportionately too, Mr O’Connor argues that private schools in Dubai are still significantly cheaper than those of equal standards in the UK, where prices have “risen massively in the last 15 years:”

“…[to] move a student from a Dubai day school to a UK boarding school, you can expect the cost to at least double, and that’s conservative.”

Simon O’Connor. Director. Deira International School.

Both Mr O’Connor and Mr Lambert claim Dubai’s schools are also far more innovative than their UK counterparts, not least in the ways technology is blended into the curriculum and broader school life:

“Innovation has been an absolute focus for Dubai schools. As a result, schools use technology in their teaching as the norm, and certainly far more than is the case in the UK.

It still surprises me how little UK based teachers use technology at all.”

Simon O’Connor. Director. Deira International School.s

This has been witnessed this year more than ever, as schools had to transition to online or blended learning.

“This is not the experience in the UK, where schools and children have been painfully left behind.

Furthermore, these are the skills that students will need in their future. UAE schools are preparing students much better for the modern world.”

Michael Lambert. Headmaster. Dubai College.

Mr Lambert and Mr O’Connor both stress the many advantages for children growing up, too, in a foreign country with the access this affords to learn from so many different cultures around them.

From beach visits for extra-curricular activities to excursions around the region, the UAE is ripe for learning in ways that home schools, wherever they may be, simply cannot match.

Ms McGeever agrees.

“The opportunities for children educated in the UAE are extraordinary. Being educated here instils a mindset that living and working abroad is a positive experience. It transforms children and broadens their horizons for the rest of their lives.

A UAE education undoubtedly gives students increased opportunities for living and working in the future.

Students too, learn and celebrate other cultures and religions and make valuable global friends, and networks, for life.”

Louise McGeever, Vice Principal of Primary at Safa British School


Bottom Line? The Verdict on Sending Children Home to Boarding School.

Are boarding schools really the bst option for parents in Dubai, Abu Dhabi the UAE? Don't believe the hype.

There was a time, not so long ago, in the UAE when parents faced genuinely heart wrenching decisions.

Faced with less than half a handful of exceptional schools (that were always over subscribed), little choice elsewhere except schools that clearly did not deliver to the same standards as schools at home, and ever escalating fees driven by lack of choice and an under supply of places, parents could often do little else than send children home for their education.

Then, it was less than anything to do with the real thing than not having a choice at all.

As parents we are, today, a world away from having to face these sorts of choices.

As we reported only yesterday, here, private schools in Dubai are ranked top ten in the world for Science. Some of our schools have significant grounds to argue that the education they offer children, cannot be matched by any school, anywhere in the world.

For those of us lucky enough to have had families who worked overseas during our childhoods, the story is almost universally the same. It made us the people we are today. Our worldview is just …. different to those of our peers who barely registered, growing up, a world outside the walls of their home country. And, even when they did, it was, often, no more than than one of limited to deckchairs on a beach in Spain or Greece.

As parents we should, surely, today have the confidence to recognise that our children, by having the opportunity of being educated here, are having opportunities that children at home can only dream of….

More than this, they can have all of this extraordinary experience growing up overseas with an education that tears strips off home grown schools.

We leave the last words to Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, who captures this perfectly. His message? Our children and their education have absolutely nothing to do with the trivia of bottles of coke – and we must do all we can not be taken in by the hype:

“Parents could end up shelling out an awful lot more, for an awful lot less, if they send their children back to the UK.

The rarefied atmosphere of a UK boarding school has today, in so many cases, become completely detached from the values of the 21st century family.

The demographic of the students at UK boarding schools have, too, become so far removed from the plurality and diversity of the 21st century workplace that students risk being inducted into a world that is quite simply unreal.

Public schools in the UK were once the domain of the sons and daughters of the professional middle classes, the children of doctors, teachers, civil servants, diplomats, stockbrokers and solicitors.

No longer.

Today many offer children and their families little more than a type of cliquey freemasonry.

It is all a matter of taste –  but to call these overseas boarding schools ‘the real thing’?

Get real.

© All rights reserved. 2020.

About The Author
Melanie Swan
Special Projects Reporter on, Melanie Swan is an accomplished news and features journalist, bringing to her role more than two decade's experience of reporting on what really matters at the coal face of human lives. She began her career at the News of The World, part of News International, in London in 2002, before moving to the Sunday People in 2005. Hired to join the launch team of The National in Abu Dhabi, Ms Swan came to the UAE in 2008, and stayed with The National for 9.5 years. "Where there is an important story in Education that needs reporting,"she told us, "I am there to ensure that readers get it first."
  • December 13, 2020 at 10:32 pm

    What a fabulous article to celebrate the holidays with. We so *** DO *** have an amazing education system in the UAE. Amazing schools. Amazing teachers. Amazing students. Amazing Principals. Amazing regulator. Amazing Parents. Amazing….. everything! Happy holidays one and all…

  • Clyde Mulder
    December 14, 2020 at 9:58 am

    A very one sided view of the rosy side of UAE schooling. The schools in Dubai are excellent and education standards and grades are exceptional. I have been very impressed with both my children at top Dubai schools, but a child needs more than just education at the important age of GCSE/A-level exams. Life lessons, independence, strong social skills and not being in a bubble are key to ensure they develop as roundly and independent. We are lucky, but need to push the kids to ensure they can handle the ‘re-entry’ to the real world when they arrive at University.

  • davidwestley
    December 14, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Great quote to end it from Mr Lambert, and great insights from Mr O’Connor as well. A very interesting story. I do think there is something, however, not here, and that is acclimatising young people into life in Europe or the US. It is different, and tougher in many ways, than life in the UAE. Going to a UK boarding school can give students the foundation, strength and network to make more of a success (perhaps just giving them the desire), to stay in the UK (or wherever) to live and wok post tertiary studies. You do see a lot of young people schooled in the UAE rushing to get back after university… Sometimes even before…

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