UAE schools opt for design and facilities to woo parents and pupils

Gone are grey, lightless buildings, replaced by state-of-the-art facilities designed to attract pupils as competition stiffens.

The Swiss International School has opened a primary section, with secondary and boarding sections to follow. Sarah Dea / The National
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DUBAI // From professional recording studios to outlandish campus designs, schools are looking at new ways to attract pupils.

As thousands of children returned to school this week, new buildings were opened across Dubai.

And as fees continue to rise and places in the highest-achieving schools quickly fill up, many schools are trying to stand out from the competition.

The Swiss International Scientific School Dubai opened its doors last Sunday and new arrivals were treated to a reception area with giant pencil designs and artificial grass.

“It is more important than ever to try to stand out in some way from the crowd, not just academically, but also in the environment that we provide to our pupils,” said Beat Sommer, head of the school.

“The days where children are taught in grey buildings that let in very little light are gone, because by providing a comfortable environment for learning, you also improve the experience for pupils.”

Education is big business. A report by the International School Consultancy Group last year said that US$2.5 billion (Dh9.2bn) a year was generated in tuition fees in the UAE.

There are more than 440 international schools with 389,000 pupils – more than anywhere else in the world.

The Swiss International School has opened a primary section, with secondary and boarding sections to be added over the next two to three years.

“School fees are increasing but in the end, the market will decide,” Mr Sommer said. “We are confident it will translate into successful exam results.”

Among the school’s facilities are a 50-metre swimming pool, two basketball courts, three tennis courts, a football pitch and indoor and outdoor running tracks. It also has a 650-seat auditorium and a modern media centre. The entire campus was developed with the Swiss “Minergie” energy-efficiency standard in mind.

Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications for schools operator Taaleem, however, said it was important that schools did not lose sight of their primary goal – education.

“The number one factor that influences a parent’s decision is reputation,” Mr Pierrepont said. “This past year has been a game changer, with more seats than students in some age groups.”

No amount of money spent on facilities and architecture can make up for a poor reputation, he said. “A school’s uniqueness does not come from the Jumeirah Beach Hotel-style reception, the grand piano in the foyer, or the rarely used Planetarium. It comes from its teachers, parents and students, and what they do and achieve.

“Some of the UAE’s most sought-after schools still thrive in relatively modest accommodations.”

Taaleem added a new school to its network last week, the Dh200 million Dubai British School Jumeirah Park.

“Up to 70 per cent of referrals that come to our schools are by word of mouth – from friends, family and work colleagues,” Mr Pierrepont said.

“It is therefore imperative that schools build their reputations as good and outstanding institutions, and create positive relationships with their communities, who will become their best ‘marketeers’.”