Solid Foundations

We hear from three teachers as they address some of the issues concerning parents looking for the right early years school for their children, as well what parents should look out for and the questions they should ask.

Choosing the right early years setting for a young child can be extremely daunting for parents as they try to navigate their way through a list of criteria to find the school that will meet their child’s educational and developmental needs.

As an Early Years practitioner with over 16 years’ experience, Jade Peter-Swain, Executive Principal at Little GEMS International, Al Barsha has faced the question of how to make this choice countless times. One main criterion she urges parents to consider is the health, safety and hygiene of the school. She explains that what this means is having high expectations of what good health, safety and hygiene looks like. Parents should consider the cleanliness of the setting, as well the school’s procedures for nappy changes, bottle warming and food preparation. Beyond those considerations parents should also be made aware of the security of the setting, and the policies in place for emergency situations, responding to medical emergencies, illness and injuries.

“At Little GEMS we have a team of dedicated housekeepers with the sole responsibility of keeping our environment clean and sanitised. Staff are trained to change nappies to avoid cross contamination by changing gloves, aprons and nappy mat covers after each change. All staff handling food hold food and hygiene certificates, and all staff are pediatric first-aid qualified. We have round-the- clock security guards and regularly run emergency drills so that everyone in the building, including parents and carers, knows how to respond in the event of an incident,” says Jade.

Jade adds that it is important that parents ascertain the qualifications of the teachers. In Dubai, Early Years teachers should hold a CACHE Level 3 Diploma or equivalent as a minimum and assistants should take part in 100 hours of recognised Early Years training and development.

Another major factor parents must take into consideration when choosing a school is the curriculum, which according to Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) encompasses more than the textbooks or examinations — it refers to everything the school teaches, including subjects and activities inside and outside the classroom, encompassing extracurricular activities, school trips, and visitors to the school.

Each curriculum has its own approach to learning, but they all have public examinations and qualifications. As the UAE is largely populated by expats, parents will have to think about any future requirements for university applications as well as whether they may want their child to integrate back into their home country’s education system at some time in the future. The KHDA also advises parents to find out how the school is structured, whether classes are mixed and/or whether classes are streamed for ability, how transport is arranged, and the arrangements for lunch and breaks, as well as school policies on examinations, assessment, discipline, dealing with bullying, communications with parents, and technology integration, and so forth.

Jennifer Dale, Primary Vice Principal and TELLAL Early Years Network Leader at GEMS Wellington Academy — Al Khail (WEK) says parents are strongly encouraged to consider what added extras they require from their child’s school, since each school will have its own selling points.

“For example, at WEK, we incorporate enrichment and wellbeing into our curriculum, so that our children are able to access and enjoy daily yoga, reflection, and hydroponic farming lessons, to ensure they develop holistically, academically, socially, personally, and emotionally. In addition, inclusive of our FS1 school fees, we provide an excellent extended care programme that allows parents to collect their children at the same time as our other year groups,” says Jennifer.

While a school may seem good on paper, it is essential that parents are happy that the environment will be conducive to their child’s learning, both academically and in developing skills to better engage with the world around them.

Daksha Mehta, Head of Kindergarten at GEMS Modern Academy, emphasises the need for a space that encourages purposeful play, as well as group and individual activities fostering independence and developing social skills including collaborative learning.

“Play is the primary way in which children explore their surroundings. While they are playing, children are also developing cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional skills. While it may appear that the children are just having fun and being kids, it has great value and meaning for the child,” says Daksha.

She elaborates that purposeful play involves intentional planning and facilitation of children’s play to achieve intended learning outcomes. Besides being enjoyable, it allows children to make meaning out of their experiences. When children are thus engaged, they build their imagination, develop reading, language, mathematics, and science skills. They learn to problem solve and build social skills.

“Our inquiry-based approach encourages our children to take ownership of their learning. Rather than being handed information, children are asked what and how would they like to learn. Inquiry-based learning teaches children to seek a deeper understanding of the process and materials presented to them. They are encouraged to let their curiosity and interest drive their learning, to ask questions, gather information, interpret data, and problem solve. Children learn to be responsible learners and to take action. It gives them the opportunity to develop stronger relationships with their peers and improve their communication skills. Most importantly, this approach emphasises the children’s role in the learning process, in which they are encouraged to explore, ask questions, and share ideas,” adds Daksha.

One of the best ways to highlight all the benefits of a school is by arranging a tour during the day so parents can see first-hand how the school operates.

“A school tour is often invaluable to parents, as it provides an opportunity to see ‘real life’ learning, as well as the school’s facilities. At WEK, our leadership team leads parent tours. We do so because we value our families and want to build strong relationships from the very beginning. Parents should book a tour at each of the schools that offer the curriculum and ‘added extras’ they require. Additionally, parents should take the opportunity to compare as many schools as possible to help them make their final decision,” says Jennifer.

Jade adds that when touring an Early Years setting, the best indicator for parents is to observe if the children and staff are happy. They should observe how the staff engages with the children and whether they respond in a caring and nurturing manner and whether the children appear curious and are encouraged to ask questions.

“The healthier the bond between young children and their primary caregivers, the better they develop self-regulation skills, confidence, communication, and language. Even in baby rooms with the very youngest learners, look for staff providing running commentaries when playing alongside a child. Research shows us that the more staff members have a voice in the setting, the higher the quality of verbal exchanges between the caregivers or educators and children,” says Jade.

Daksha adds that it is crucial to prioritise involving parents as partners, because not only are parents enthusiastic participants but they constantly challenge the status quo, playing an integral part in driving changes in the school’s undertakings.

Parents should not only be limited to interacting with the various staff members of the school; Jade insists there is value in encouraging potential parents to interact with existing parents at the school. “This provides potential parents with the right lens into the setting and enables them to ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking a member of staff. At Little GEMS, we operate an open-door policy and invite parents and carers into our classrooms every day for the first 45 minutes to build trust and confidence in our practice. We believe that the more you see us working with your child, the greater your confidence and trust in our ability to meet your child’s needs and deliver an outstanding early learning experience,” she says.

Jennifer adds that this kind of openness alleviates some of the uncertainties parents may have about entry assessments. “At WEK, we fully believe in applying a family-friendly approach to our Early Years assessments, so we have monthly ‘Stay and Play’ days where prospective families are invited into our department to meet our team, hear detailed information about our school and experience firsthand life in our Foundation Stage. We believe that a ‘try before you buy’ approach allows our families to feel at ease and to feel reassured by what we do,” she says. Often, she adds, the hardest part of the day is getting the children to leave after having so much fun.

When looking for an early years school for your child, consider:
• The school’s curriculum
• Staff qualifications
• How staff interact with the children
• Extra selling points of each school
• How involved parents are invited to be