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When Can My Child Start School?

When Can My Child Start School?

by Lis ONealMarch 28, 2017

Choosing and sending your child off to school for the first time, or to a new school, is likely to be one of the most emotionally challenging and nerve-wracking decisions that any parent makes. After all, you are choosing what you hope will be the best school, the best education and the best future for your child, often based on a fairly subjective decision.

Our Guide, of which this is the first in a series about choosing and applying to schools in the UAE, is designed to assist you through this process.

Schools in the UAE operate to two distinct Academic calendars. There is supposed to be a unified calendar that applies to all schools throughout the UAE, but in reality, variations still exist between different Emirates and individual schools. The following is therefore indicative.

For Indian/Pakistani and Japanese curriculum schools, the academic year is similar to the home countries, with the new academic year starting in April. There is a summer break from late June to late August, a further two week break at the end of the calendar year; school ends mid-March. There is a further two week break before the start of the new academic year.

All other international curricula schools follow the Western calendar, with the academic year starting in September, a short (two week) break at the end of the calendar year, a two-week Spring break in April and the end of the academic year at the end of June. Most schools have a short mid-term break in the first and second terms, but not all. US curriculum schools, which tend to close for the summer earlier, tend also to have little or no mid-term break periods.

You will need to bear in mind the curriculum you plan your child to follow in order to make sure that you start the research process and making applications in good time.

The next question is more about timing – when is the right time for your child start school in the UAE – both from a legal perspective on the one hand, and in terms of your child’s individual development on the other?

School starting ages vary considerably from country to country, with some children starting their education in “big school” from as young as 3 years, to others only moving into this environment at the age of 7. In the UAE, children are legally obliged to start school in the academic year in which they turn 6. So your child will be 5 years of age when s/he is obliged to start school.

In order to ensure that children are of an appropriate age to start school, the Ministry of Education has set out specific age by date criteria (so called cut-off dates), which vary depending on the curriculum and Academic calendar followed by the schools. To make life a little more complicated, schools in the UAE have different grading structures depending on the curriculum. This chart shows the most common curricula, grade structure and age (cut-off) requirements.


Turning Age Age at 31 Aug American curriculum IB curriculum* Age at 31 Aug British Curriculum Age at 31 Mar Indian curriculum
3-4 3.8 None Pre-K 3 FS1 3.8 KG1
4-5 4.8 KG1 KG1 4 FS2 4.8 KG2
5-6 5.8 KG2 KG2 5 Year 1 5.8 Grade I
6-7 6.8 Grade 1 Grade 1 6 Year 2 6.8 Grade II
7-8 7.8 Grade 2 Grade 2 7 Year 3 7.8 Grade III
8-9 8.8 Grade 3 Grade 3 8 Year 4 8.8 Grade IV
9-10 9.8 Grade 4 Grade 4 9 Year 5 9.8 Grade V
10-11 10.8 Grade 5 Grade 5 10 Year 6 10.8 Grade VI
11-12 11.8 Grade 6 Grade 6 11 Year 7 11.8 Grade VII
12-13 12.8 Grade 7 Grade 7 12 Year 8 12.8 Grade VIII
13-14 13.8 Grade 8 Grade 8 13 Year 9 13.8 Grade IX
14-15 14.8 Grade 9 Grade 9 14 Year 10 14.8 Grade X
15-16 15.8 Grade 10 Grade 10 15 Year 11 15.8 Standard XI
16-17 16.8 Grade 11 Grade 11 16 Year 12 16.8 Standard XII
17-18 17.8 Grade 12 Grade 12 17 Year 13 17.8

* Some IB curriculum schools follow the UK curriculum structure

Most schools in the UAE start to offer formal education in the year in which children turn 4. Historically, families have chosen to send their children to school at the earliest possible age, in large part because they fear that there will be no places available if they wait until a year or two later for entry to year 1 or KG2. Unfortunately, it is still the case in many Indian schools that later entry is extremely difficult. However, in other international schools – particularly the UK curriculum – a later start is often an option.

Whilst nurseries are increasingly losing children of 3-4 years to schools and are no longer permitted to offer UK curriculum FS classes, the introduction in Dubai of Early Learning Centres (ELCs), which combine both Nursery and the Foundation/KG units of established curricula, mean that there has been a small, but growing, alternative to “big school” for 3 and 4 year olds. These centres are regulated by the KHDA (the Dubai-based schools regulator) which means that children are registered with them, ensuring a smooth transition to school at a later stage.

Unfortunately, recent changes at the Regulatory level have placed this development on hold for the moment, but it is expected that a UAE-wide framework for ELC’s will be developed and rolled out in the coming months.

In Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates, the Regulators are responsible for children only from KG1 to grade 12 (5-18 years). As a result, Foundation 1/pre-KG classes are being phased out in some schools and more nurseries are offering these options.

If you feel that you would prefer to keep your child in a smaller, less formal school environment, legally you are permitted to do so. However, before you make this decision, do check with your preferred schools whether you can apply for later entry, at what point in time, and what the likelihood is of a place being available. In the past, schools often added places in these year groups/grades, but with the tendency for families to place their children in school as early as possible, this is no longer the norm.

Given this situation, we suggest that you think carefully about whether you want to keep your child in a Nursery/ELC environment or have a greater chance of assuring them of a place in your chosen school by applying for the first year group or grade offered. Some schools will offer the possibility of deferring an offered place to the following academic year and guaranteeing that the place is held for your child, but again, this is increasingly unusual.

The ELC’s are often choosing to associate themselves with local schools that will offer places to the ELC’s students (subject to assessment), and this may well be the happy medium. There are also nurseries that have links with Primary Schools and, again, it’s worth asking nurseries and schools about such links before making your decision.

As you can see, there is a definite answer to when your child can start school, but a rather more flexible one in terms of when s/he should – to a large extent in the period between the age of 3 and 5, parents have a choice. We advise you to be aware of the possible constraints of enrolling your child later than the commonly accepted start dates for FS/KG – particularly in longer-established and more popular schools.

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Lis ONeal

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