Emirates Education Platform

Are School Based Nurseries the Best Option?

As of 2021, KHDA has eased the path for Dubai schools to open early childhood centres within their premises. The education authority appears to be signalling that applications from schools to open ECCs are welcome and encouraged, and a relatively smooth application process is now reportedly enjoyed by schools. 

Two questions: Firstly, will this move benefit children and parents, and secondly, are schools really the best place for nursery-age children?

Where can children go at each age?

Nurseries, early childhood centres, early years departments… we hear you, it’s getting confusing for the average parent to understand their options. So, let’s break it down…

First of all, it’s important to note that compulsory education in the UAE starts at age six years. Anything prior to this is optional (and there are options a plenty)…

Age RangeNursery/ECCSchool
45 days – 12 monthsProvided by majority of nurseries/ECCsProvided by a minority of school-based nurseries
12 – 24 monthsProvided by majority of nurseries/ECCsProvided by a minority of school-based nurseries
2 – 3 yearsProvided by all nurseries/ECCsProvided by school-based nurseries
3 – 4 yearsFS1/Pre-K classes offered in almost all nurseries/ECCsProvided by school Early Years Departments
4 – 5 yearsFS2/KG1 classes offered in large number of nurseries/ECCsProvided by school Early Years Departments
5 – 6 yearsYear 1/KG2 classes offered in minority of nurseries/ECCsProvided by school Early Years Departments/primary schools
A nursery teacher reads to children at GEMS Wellington Academy (WEK)

Which Dubai schools currently have on-site nurseries?

Currently, Dubai has ten nurseries operating within school campuses:

Why have a nursery within a school?

Undoubtedly, the standard of early childhood education and care provided in nurseries in Dubai is rising. So, with numerous stand-alone nurseries already operating in Dubai (234 to be exact), what need is there for a wave of new school-based nurseries? 

We asked Ami Maclennan, Nursery Director at GEMS Wellington Academy (WSO) Nursery what a school-based nursery can offer over a stand-alone early childhood setting:

“Transitions are very smooth for the children, meaning they are so much more confident and assured when beginning FS1, as they are already familiar with the teachers, environment and routines. FS1 teachers begin the year with a clear understanding of each child as a unique learner, as each child has their own individual education plan from nursery.”

Angela Richter, Nursery Manager at GEMS Wellington Academy (WEK) Nursery added:

“Many parents will have experienced that the settling in period at a nursery and school can take a little time and a few tears. By attending a school-based nursery, children can avoid a second settling in period at ‘big school’.”

Mena Press, Group Academic Lead at Dovecote Nursery, explained that a school-based nursery can ease challenges for parents:

“For parents with students already attending Repton, enrolling their children in Dovecote Nursery provides the convenience of one drop-off in the mornings. Meanwhile, parents have the peace of mind to enjoy priority placement for their child moving to FS1.”

Children playing in an outdoor play area at GEMS Wellington Academy (WSO)

Are standards higher in school-based nurseries?

While many of Dubai’s school-based nurseries are at the higher quality end of the range available, the regulatory requirements they must adhere to are the same as in stand-alone nurseries, in terms of staff qualifications, adult to child ratios, space provided and health and safety provision. In short, enrolling your child in a school-based nursery does not necessarily mean you will experience higher standards. 

In general, Dubai’s school based-nurseries tend to have relatively high-caliber staff and are often well-resourced, while space and environments are often not exceptional, relative to the many stand-alone nurseries available (a reality of being situated within a larger campus). 

While the physical space of school-based nurseries is often not vast, children do often have access to wider school facilities, such as sports facilities, playgrounds and libraries. Additionally, these nurseries often have access to specialist educators and inclusion staff from the wider early years department and primary school.

Angela Richter, Nursery Manager at GEMS Wellington Academy (WEK) Nursery explained:

“We have access to specialised teachers and facilities such as libraries, community spaces and sports fields, which allows us to offer a more well-rounded and stimulating learning experience for children. Our nursery children enjoy weekly music sessions and singing and dancing to Arabic nursery rhymes. Another weekly highlight is the visit to the primary library, where the children can choose from a vast collection of books suitable for a wide range of literacy levels, and they can take books home to read with their parents.”

Are school-based nurseries more ‘academic’? 

In short, no! Dubai’s school-based nurseries are, on the whole, play-based and developmentally appropriate in terms of what is expected of the children. 

We asked Ami Maclennan, Nursery Director at GEMS Wellington Academy (WSO) Nursery, explained:

“We find that, because we’re attached to a school, some parents expect there to be more strict ‘academic learning’ with formal lessons. We explain to them, however, that our expectations are for the children to learn, grow and develop through play as well as the open-ended experiences that we make available for them. It is how we respond as teachers and facilitators to support and extend this learning that makes us unique, always with the main consideration that every child is different.”

What are the down sides?

The main concern cited by parents is the intimidating vastness of the larger school environment. Mena Press, Group Academic Lead at Dovecote Nursery, shared:

“As school campuses are larger than other nursery settings, this can initially be a little intimidating for children.”

She went on to explain, however, that nurseries within schools have their own entrances and remain largely separate to the greater school campus

While not a consideration for parents of children with older siblings attending the same school, school traffic should be a factor in decision making for parents with only nursery-age children. Traffic at school drop off, and an absence of available parking, can be a significant source of frustration for many, while due to being smaller scale, stand-alone nurseries tend not to have this problem. 

Flexibility in terms of timings and non-termtime care may also be an issue, although some school-based nurseries offer the same extended hours and year-round service as stand-alone nurseries. With less flexibility in general though, working parents particularly should consider their care needs and assess what is on offer. 

So, are school-based nurseries a better option?

In short, and much like most child-related decisions, it really depends on the needs of individual families, and the individual child.

There is unlikely to be a significant difference in what is provided to the child between school-based nurseries and quality stand-alone nurseries, but factors such as environment, access to additional expertise, approach, location, flexibility and convenience of drop-off and pick-up should be taken into consideration. 

So, why are KHDA supporting the opening of school-based nurseries? We suspect this is happening for much the same reasons as nurseries being permitted to expand their provision to six year olds; broadening choice for families. In our view, offering more choice, so long as the needs of children and families remain firmly at the centre, can only be a positive move. 

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Are School Based Nurseries the Best Option?
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