You have got the dream job; you might even have chosen where you want to live. But one of the biggest and most time-consuming decisions facing expatriates arriving in the Gulf with families is choosing a school. Although the number of international schools is growing, finding one that is right for your children - and has places available, especially if you arrive in the country midway through the academic year - is not always easy.
In almost all cases, education in the Gulf countries must be paid for by foreigners (fees can range from $6,000 to $25,000 a year). And, although not-for-profit charitable institutions do exist, schools are generally commercial organisations, which can seem odd to those arriving from certain parts of the world. In fact, education in the Gulf is big business. The growing community of well-paid expatriates has encouraged a number of renowned educational establishments to open satellite schools in the region. The UK's Brighton College and Repton School have opened branches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. Such schools tend to be academically selective as well as at the top-end of the price range.
Generally, most parents will choose a school that offers qualifications, a curriculum and style of teaching based on their home country's, with American, Indian and British schools especially popular. Although very few schools offer boarding - Repton School, Dubai is one - most provide bus transport (for a fee). However, given rush-hour traffic in Dubai and other cities, opting for a school within reach of your home is a consideration if you do not fancy the prospect of exhausted commuter children arriving home every afternoon. Another point to consider is whether the school offers classes all the way through from kindergarten to university entrance. Choosing an integrated establishment will obviously avoid having to find a new school when your child reaches 11 or 15.
© Brighton College Abu Dhabi
An international school provides a multicultural enviroment
Schools in the region are generally free to run their own affairs when it comes to the curriculum - with a few provisos. Although rules differ among the Gulf states and emirates, children are usually taught some Arabic, and religious education - other than for Muslim pupils - is frowned upon. However, the best schools will provide a rounded education, with opportunities for sport, drama, art and music.
There are many benefits to sending your children to school in the Gulf. The curriculum and quality of teaching should be comparable to - and often better than - back home. Other benefits often include new facilities, such as state-of-the-art libraries and swimming pools - none of the draughty classrooms or damp changing rooms that parents might remember from their schooldays - as well as a chance to learn in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment: classmates are likely to be from dozens of different countries and backgrounds.
There is no short cut, however, to finding the right school. Employers and relocation specialists can help, and there are a number of websites and expatriate forums where schools are listed and their relative merits discussed. Most schools have informative and attractive websites. In the end, however, word-of-mouth recommendations from colleagues are probably most helpful, followed by a visit to the school itself. As any parent knows, touring a school and chatting to the teachers and pupils can reveal much more than any website or brochure.
BRIGHTON COLLEGE OPENS ITS TOORS IN ABU DHABI
Brighton College is one of a new breed of top English private - or "public" - schools that have opened branches in the Gulf in recent years. Brighton College Abu Dhabi is a joint venture with a property company, developing a new upscale housing district on Abu Dhabi island where the campus has been constructed. It opened its doors in September last year, but already the new building has a bustling lived-in feel.
It caters for pupils aged from three to 14, although a senior school section will open this September, allowing the current oldest pupils to progress to sixth-form at 18. The school targeted 450 pupils when it began, but took in more than 600, says headmaster Brendan Law. Next academic year, this is expected to rise to more than 850, with the final school roll likely to be 1,200 once the sixth form is in place.
© Brighton College Abu Dhabi
The Abu Dhabi school keeps close to the UK curriculum
Pupils are selected academically, and the school's curriculum and ethos are based on its sister school in Sussex. "We sit as closely as we can to the UK," says Law. "There is a direct transferability between the UK and here." Although Brighton College is one of England's highest-achieving schools, academic excellence at the new school is matched by the hidden curriculum, he says. This includes the "traditional values of discipline, respect and tolerance" as well as high quality teaching in areas such as sport, drama and art.
There are key differences between the schools. While an imposing chapel forms one of the centrepieces of the site in Brighton and religious assemblies are commonplace, there is "no Christian influence" in the curriculum taught to pupils in Abu Dhabi. However, says Law, "spirituality is encouraged" and "we acknowledge and respect all religions represented".
One big advantage is the school's cultural diversity - out of every 20 pupils, eight are Britons, three Emiratis and the rest one of 45 nationalities. "It's very representative of the local populace," says Law. "That sort of diversity is very difficult to achieve in Sussex."