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“UAE school start times are too early!” Dubai parents urge reform to aid tired kids. KHDA responds. Exclusive
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“UAE school start times are too early!” Dubai parents urge reform to aid tired kids. KHDA responds. Exclusive

by Tabitha BardaJanuary 4, 2024

UAE school start times are too early and are leading to tired children and frazzled families, argue some UAE parents. With the Winter Break now over, UAE families are struggling to get back into the often-punishing routine of extremely early rises, with some parents saying that their kids need to wake up at 5.30am simply to get to school on time.

In a social media poll of more than 5,000 parents, SchoolsCompared.com asked ‘Would a later school start time benefit your child?’. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ for most families:

  • 77% said ‘Yes – they’re so tired and rushed in the morning’
  • 8% said ‘Yes – if it meant the traffic would be less’
  • 12% said ‘No – we manage fine with the timing we have’
  • 2% said ‘Maybe – but I need the early start to fit in with my work’

The majority of UAE students leave the house for school between 6am and 7.30am, according to a survey of more than 1,000 parents on the community group Parents United UAEwith 42% leaving at 6.30am and 40% leaving from 7am. Some parents cited extra-curricular sports activities that mean they need to be at school by 6.30am, while others mentioned long commute times and school bus journeys, or a need to avoid school-run traffic, as reasons for their daybreak rises.

UAE-based mother Vishranti Shah told SchoolsCompared.com:

“School start times are way too early, the KHDA [the Dubai private school regulator] should revise school times please. We don’t get much time to spend with the kids at home. Please do something.”

Meanwhile another UAE-based mother, Lynne in Dubai, commented:

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that everyone feels better and less exhausted during Ramadan [when the school day is shorter and usually delayed by 30 minutes to an hour as a result]. It’s not healthy for kids to wake up at 5.30am every day despite going to bed at a decent hour the night before. The school starting hours should definitely be looked into.”

Lara, another UAE parent, added:

GEMS_INARTICLE  

“It’s not children’s bedtime that’s the problem, it’s the early start times. Some kids start ECAs at 6.30 in the morning. It’s ridiculous. They shouldn’t start school before 8.30am.”

It is true that many UAE schools open earlier than their counterparts across the globe. The majority of private and public UAE schools start from around 7.30am, with arrival times from 7am not uncommon. Compare that to parts of Scandinavia such as Finland – frequently described as one of the most successful education systems in the world – where classes tend to start between 9am and 9.45am; or the UK, US, India and Australia – where classes often start between 8am and 9am.

The state of California in the US went so far as to implement a law in 2022, in response to a groundbreaking report by The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), requiring high schools to start no earlier than 8.30am and Middle Schools no earlier than 8am to accommodate children’s sleep needs.

The AAP report that inspired the Californian law highlights a damning link between early school start times and sleep-deprivation-related health problems in children – particularly adolescents – stating:

“The evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (ie, before 8:30 am) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption in [middle and high school students].

“Furthermore, a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”

Early in the morning, even very small amounts of time can make a big difference to the impact on young people’s health, the report continues:

“Studies comparing high schools with start times as little as 30 minutes earlier versus those with later start times demonstrate such adverse consequences as shorter sleep duration, increased sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, behaviour problems, and absenteeism.”

Teens in particular are not equipped for the very early rises required of many UAE schools – and it can have a deleterious effect. When children enter puberty, physiological changes delay the onset of sleep and make it more difficult to wake up early in the morning, says Dr Catherine Musa, clinical psychologist at Aspris Wellbeing Centre in Dubai:

“By the end of middle school, there is a large disconnection between biological sleep patterns and early-morning school schedules. As a result, early school start times can conflict with the natural sleep-wake cycle of teenagers, leading to a chronic sleep insufficiency.”

Common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, mood swings, and negative thought patterns can all be linked to long-term sleep deprivation in people of all ages.

Does this mean that school regulators in the UAE such as the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai should require later start times for schools, as suggested by the Dubai-based parent above?

Every school community is unique and it is up to the individual schools to determine what is best for their families in terms of school start times, the KHDA told SchoolsCompared.com.

In an exclusive comment, Shamma Al Mansouri, Director of Permits at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, told SchoolsCompared.com:

“Private schools in Dubai can set their start and end times after consulting with parents and the school community. Any change in start and end times must be approved by KHDA before the beginning of the academic year and reflected in the Parent-School Contract.”

Early bird catches the worm

However, not everyone agrees that schools in the UAE start too early.

Some parents prefer the earlier opening hours, since it means they can get into the office for an 8am start – which may be more commonly required in UAE-based offices than in global offices where school start times are traditionally later.

The hot weather during the UAE’s summer months is another consideration, since the first few hours of the day may allow for outdoor activities for children that would become uncomfortably hot later in the day.

Mark Ford, Principal of The English College Dubai – which provides a British curriculum education to students from FS1 to Year 13 – says:

“While this research on Circadian rhythms is valuable, it’s just one of several factors we consider when shaping our school policies. A balanced approach is essential, considering the needs of students of all ages, parents’ working hours, and local weather conditions. We aim to create a schedule that maximises learning opportunities while providing flexibility when possible.”

Mark Ford, Principal, The English College

Patrick Affley, Director of Ajman Academy – which offers the IB curriculum to students from primary through to secondary stage – agrees:

“Schools do start earlier in the UAE and this was something that I wasn’t used to when I first came here as a Headteacher from the UK.

“However, I find as an educator and as a parent of four children that starting earlier is a good thing…

“The traffic in the UAE gets much worse at about 9am. The school day finishes earlier so the children and teachers can enjoy light evenings to enjoy the outdoors. Going to bed one hour earlier still means that you get in your 8 hours of sleep.

“It is light at 8am in the morning in the UAE, compared to European countries when it is still dark for most of the year at that time, which is probably the reason why school in countries like the UK start at 9am.”

Mr Affley also questions the difference that later school starts would make for teenagers’ sleep in practice:

“From my point of view as a Principal and father of four teenage children, if you start the school day later, the children stay up even later and wake up later, so it makes no real difference at all.

“Getting up and leaving for school at 7am is a good thing for them as they see other people up and working, which promotes a good work ethic in them.”

Photograph of Patrick Affley, Director, Ajman Academy as part of the SchoolsCompared review of the school in June 2023

Patrick Affley, Director, Ajman Academy

Steve Giles, School Principal of all-through British-curriculum Raffles International School – points to the practical requirements of the curriculum as a reason for the early start times:

“I see an early start as a good thing. I realise that this may go against the current rhetoric and paraphernalia of late starts, but in the adult world we need to be organised, on time and fast starters.

“In the UAE we have less allotted timetable time for the UK curriculum than in other parts of the world. There, the students do not have opportunity to learn, Arabic, Islamic, Moral, Social & Cultural studies.

“So an early start and full days not only ensure we keep to the requirements of UAE specific subjects but we also need to adhere to the specific required teaching hours. The early bird catches the worm so to speak!”

Photograph of Steven Giles, Principal of Raffles International School in Dubai

Steven Giles, Principal of Raffles International School in Dubai

Meanwhile Timothy Roberts, School Principal of IB school Raffles World Academy, says that its all part of preparing children for the sort of accountability they will encounter in later life:

“In the vast majority of cultures there are certain standards of behaviour that are expected and in reality rewarded during childhood that persist into adult life. One of these is most certainly the notion of punctuality.

“The pandemic taught us that despite the increase in remote working, more flexible hours, unsupervised work routines, that deadlines were still deadlines.  People are still held to account for completing a given task within a particular time frame.”

Photograph of Timothy Roberts, Principle, Raffles World Academy Dubai

Timothy Roberts, Principal, Raffles World Academy Dubai

Could flexible timings be the answer?

Although there is ample evidence to show the benefits of later start times for teens, optimal school start time may vary depending on the age and developmental stage of the students, says Dr Catherine Musa from Aspris Wellbeing Centre in Dubai:

“Younger children may benefit from earlier start times, while teenagers may benefit from later start times. A review of research studies on the topic published in the Journal of Sleep Research suggested that younger students, particularly those in elementary school, may benefit from earlier bedtimes and wake times rather than later school start times. This is because younger children tend to have earlier natural sleep-wake cycles, and delaying school start times may disrupt their natural sleep patterns.

“Research systematically shows that later school time has many benefits for teens. For example, a review of 38 studies on school start times and sleep found that delaying school start times by at least 30 minutes was associated with an increase in sleep duration and better academic performance among adolescents.

A recent study has further highlighted how improving sleep quality can significantly improve mental health by leading to a reduction in the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, regardless of their severity.”

Additionally, Dr Musa points out that not all families will welcome later start times, and timings need to work with parents’ schedules too:

“Overall, the scientific evidence suggests that delaying school start times may be particularly beneficial for adolescents, while younger students may benefit more from consistent and early bedtimes and wake times. However optimal school start time may also depend on factors such as the community’s needs and preferences, and logistical considerations.”

Bloom World Academy in Dubai hit headlines when it became the first school in the UAE to adopt an official school start time of 9:00 am – although its flexible model means that parents are, in practice, able to drop their children off any time from 7:00 am if preferredBloom World Academy Principal, John Bell, told SchoolsCompared:

“At Bloom World Academy we are the only school in the UAE to start the official school day at 9am. We believe this is fundamental to rebalancing family life.”

“The early starts at other schools mean children are often tired through the day.”

“The early starts mean even earlier starts for teachers – so their well-being, family life and preparation for their teaching day is affected.”

“That said, at BWA we also acknowledge families need and want flexibility – so the school is open from 7am to 7pm – and families can make bespoke decisions about what works for them.”

John Bell - The Interview 2023. Learn about Bloom World Academy and why it is setting benchmarks in Dubai education.

John Bell, Bloom Worls Academy Principal

The later start time might have seemed like a daring experiment when Bloom World Academy first opened in August 2022, but families at the school say the result has been improved wellbeing not only for the children, but for parents too. Farrah McLean-Reeks Parent of Nikitah and Declan at BWA said: 

“Bloom World Academy’s later school start has been an ultimate game-changer for our family’s morning (and evening) routine. It has ensured a calmer wake-up routine – not only for the children but also for us as parents. The later start allowed our children to prepare their own breakfast and enjoy it at a leisurely pace. Having ample time for dressing guarantees the children leave for their school day in a positive mood. Anxiety is avoided as there has been no mad rush to start the day with”.

Nilufar Yuldash, Parent of Kamronbek Abdugafarov is also a keen advocate of the more flexible start times. She said

“As a working mum, my biggest guilt was not spending enough time on weekdays with my son. He would have to get dressed quickly and just grab a bite as he woke up at 6am and had to catch a school bus at 6:20am, we had no time together at all on weekdays.

“Nowadays we wake up without pressure, enjoy our breakfast together and chit-chat. We also have the luxury of watching TV together after dinner or reading a book before his bedtime, which has moved to 8:30pm.

“Kamron is a happy child, but I feel like he is even happier since we have been able to spend more time That is the unique feature of KIH.  Online learning means that parents can cut out the school noise of the morning which is often a very stressful start to the day for families.  Instead students can have a smooth start to their learning.  Our lesson times start at  8 or 9am Gulf time which is a calm time to start, giving students the restful and healthy sleep they need before joining online.

Increasing numbers of families are choosing to circumnavigate the school run all together, instead opting for the ultimate flexibility of online schooling, says Tahoora Khalil Urehman, Head of Middle East and South East Asia, Kings InterHigh. Kings InterHigh offers the British curriculum and the IB curriculum to students from Year 3 to Year 13, and has seen huge growth in the region since it launched its Middle Eastern programme in 2020 – partly driven by UAE families’ need for greater flexibility, says Ms Urehman:

“Online learning means that parents can cut out the school noise of the morning, which is often a very stressful start to the day for families.  Instead, students can have a smooth start to their learning.  Our lesson times start at 8am or 9am Gulf time, which is a calm time to start, giving students the restful and healthy sleep they need before joining online.

“Our Universal Timetable across three time zones to include the UK, Southeast Asia and Middle East means that we offer a wider flexibility to our families and students when selecting times that best fit their family lifestyles.  All time zones are taught by UK-qualified teachers, or those who have experience of teaching the British curriculum in the UK, so quality is never compromised.”

Tahoora Khalil Urehman, Head of King's Interhigh Middle East, accepting the Top Schools Award for Best Online School.

Tahoora Khalil Urehman receiving the award for Best Online School’ at The Top Schools Awards 2024 for King’s InterHigh

However, for bricks-and-mortar schooling, there is a lot to be said for the discipline that can come from having a set timetable with set timings, argues Ajman Academy’s Patrick Affley:

“I think flexible start times are a bad idea. Set the time and plan to be there 15-20 minutes early, so if there are any traffic issues, the children won’t be late for their very important first lesson of the day. However, providing a before and after school club ( wrap around care) for working parents is a really good thing for schools to do.”

Steven Giles of Raffles International School agrees, highlighting the negative impact that flexible timings – and potentially longer hours for teachers as a result – could have on staff wellbeing:

“Flexibility is good to a point at the start and end of the day, but we also need to think about the wellbeing of our wonderful teachers. Teaching does not stop at 3.00 or 4.00pm. Teachers will reflect on how their lessons went after school and adapt the following lessons based on the analysis. If the school is extended further to around 5.00pm or 6.00pm as suggested in the media, I see teacher burn out. The wellbeing of all the community needs to be taken into account fully before any decision is made and all stakeholders need to be equally considered.

“We are here to educate our children into becoming the best possible version of themselves as an adult. That not only includes timekeeping, but presentation standards in regards to attire, and work produced. We want our students to achieve their potential and attain the highest possible results, yet this is multifaceted. You need to punctual, polite, caring, understanding, tolerant and many other things as well as being on time.”

While early rises might not be the easiest option, there are ways of optimising your approach, says Ajman Academy’s Patrick Affley:

“Getting a family of young children ready for school in the morning isn’t easy. However, it really is all about prepping well the night before, being disciplined on the wake up times, and planning to be at school early. From experience, this doesn’t always work and some mornings don’t go to plan, but the majority do.”

Ultimately it’s not just about the timing of the school day, but also teaching children a sense of timekeeping and timeliness, Mr Affley concludes:

“Children are never late for school – parents are. Schools should work with families to instill the importance of being in school on time. There is nothing worse for a child than to walk in late to a class; often it sets the tone for the day. My advice is to get there early, hand over your children safely, and go for a well earned coffee!”

So, do schools start too early in the UAE?

For those who prefer to follow an evidence-based approach, the scientific research strongly suggests that later timings would be beneficial – at least for teenagers. However, the currently available evidence is based on research conducted in countries outside the UAE, so further scientific research that is localised to the unique climate, socio-economic and cultural conditions of the UAE would be of value.
It is also important to realise that this is a topic that should be looked at holistically; school timings affect the whole family, not only children. If a later school start means that a parent is no longer able to do drop-off because it would make them late for work, there could be a downside to this too. Flexibility in school timings should be mirrored by further flexibility for workers in both the private and public sectors. For as long as UAE workplaces are not offering sufficient flexibility for parents, later school start times could cause as many problems as they solve for working mothers and fathers.

What do you think about school start times in the UAE? We would love to hear your thoughts – please email [email protected].  

About The Author
Tabitha Barda
Tabitha Barda is the Senior Editor of SchoolsCompared.com. Oxbridge educated and an award winning journalist in the UAE for more than a decade, Tabitha is one of the region's shining lights in all that is education in the emirates. A mum herself, she is passionate about helping parents - and finding the stories in education that deserve telling. She is responsible for the busy 24x7 News Desk, our Advisory Boards and Specialist Panels - and Parents United's WHICHPlaydates - a regular meeting place for UAE parents to discuss the issues that matter to them, make friends and network with others. You can often find Tabitha too on Parents United - our Facebook community board, discussing the latest schools and education issues with our parent community in the UAE - and beyond.
9 Comments
  • Tanya
    January 5, 2024 at 9:24 pm

    The schools does not start too early..they finish to late… until u reach home its like 4 pm.. and 7 pm kids need to sleep
    The schools should cut from breaks so kids can finish academic year by beginig of june.. so they can have a proper summer vacation.its really hard to go and pick up the kids in july at 3pm when the sun hits 50 degrees

  • Azhar Ahmad
    January 6, 2024 at 10:30 am

    Absolutely right the timing of school
    10.00am
    3.30 pm

    It will give more activities time to child like sports ather come from school and sleep till late .

  • Rakhi
    January 6, 2024 at 7:13 pm

    Kids leave house at 6.30 and reach home at 4 pm . It becomes a very long day for them . My kids go to CIS Dubai school starts at 7.40 and finishes at 3 pm as compared to other schools mostly all schools finishes by 2 or 2.30 . We have been writing again and again to school but SLT team says it’s not in our hands . It’s KHDA who decide the timing of all schools. 2 breaks are given . 50 min of wellbeing in addition everyday mostly goes free for kids . 20 minutes of registration time. I feel if they reduce only 5 minutes from each lesson from 50 to 45 min . Easily 40 minutes early school can close . But school authorities are not ready to listen . They have been rated good on wellbeing so not want to remove that 60 min .

    • January 9, 2024 at 6:32 pm

      Thank you for your comment. As per the KHDA comment published in the article, it is up to individual schools to decide on their timings. The KHDA has to approve them, but the school may decide the timing. If your school is in a particularly school-heavy area though, it may be that timings are less flexible so as to be staggered with other nearby schools.

  • Quennie Chiong
    January 6, 2024 at 7:33 pm

    UAE is not the only country who have early school timings. Others countries have more earlier schedule like in Asia. If you want your child not to wake up early, live near the school so you don’t need to wake up early nor your child. And think in a positive way, that this is the start for disciplining the children. Morning sun is good for children’s body as well. Traffic is also one of the factors to avoid. And some parents are both working. Who will pick up the child then from home when school bus arrive or pick up then up? Not all have nannies or relatives to take them to the bus point. I think the current school timings is the best option.

  • Tabi
    January 6, 2024 at 7:56 pm

    I think it’s great this is being talked about. Iam planning to move uae and the early timings are kind of stressing me out. Iam thinking more for my kids mental and physical well-being to be more rested and more focused

  • Vinod
    January 6, 2024 at 8:14 pm

    Schools should be fun educating not military type

    So schools in uae should start at 900 am
    So kids can have proper breakfast
    Nice sleep
    Proper toilet before school

    It feels like school is a punishment now for kids going early to school it should be fun

  • Gayaz
    January 11, 2024 at 6:35 am

    School bus journey for children should not exceed more then one hour one way. My children are spending 2.5+ hours in school bus daily, This is causing many complications in children health. They are skipping breakfast, holding for toilet for long time, getting tired. Unble to play. KHDA should bring strict control measures for school transportation.

  • January 11, 2024 at 11:52 am

    Totally agree with all the parents that are wanting our kids to start the school later, at 9am. As most mentioned here, this affects many aspects of our and our kids lives. With our family it goes like this every day:
    Struggle waking our 7 yo kids at 6:30 am, creating stressful situations for us parents,
    Sleepy and moody kids who do not want to cooperate in the mornings to get up and get ready for school, which adds up to our stress levels,
    Getting stuck in the heavy traffic with everyone trying to get to schools around the community and others driving to work ,
    Resulting in school day being too long for kids , starting early morning and coming home at around 4 pm. And as a result, the kids don’t have much time to play, rest as they still have to do their homework and then go to bed at 7pm!
    So yes, in all means we are all for starting school at a later timing. In fact we already informed our school that if they don’t change these early starting hours, we will move to another above mentioned school, which did implement the flexible hours successfully , without any problems at all.
    Thank you for bringing that subject up.

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