I seem to be quoting Whitney a lot these days. I have no idea why, she was only ever relevant to me during a particularly terrible set of Modern dance lessons I had in the mid-80s, when our teacher choreographed ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ so badly it shall forever be remembered as ‘the step-ball-change dance’. The next time I paid any attention she was dead (Whitney, not my dance teacher, although she might be too for all I know) and it was Glee season 3, and now suddenly I’m full of big ballads and bad disco dancing.
Anyway, I digress: what I really wanted to write about today was on a slightly more serious topic. We have just made some huge decisions on my son’s schooling, and the weight of the responsibility sits heavier on my shoulders than I ever imagined it would. The worry that you will somehow fail your child because you didn’t give them the best start in life they could possibly have is, I suspect, a pretty universal one. However I do think that expats have it particularly hard when it comes to deciding where and when to send their children to school.
When we came to Dubai we were a newly wed couple with absolutely no responsibilities to anyone except ourselves. It didn’t occur to me for a second that I would be here long enough to a)have a child and b) have to send him/her to nursery, never mind school. So I didn’t really pay a lot of attention, even when I got pregnant, and even though I was actually a teacher for crying out loud.
But now, as my son approaches his third birthday, it is crunch time. Schools here generally start accepting students from aged three, a full year before the UK equivalent of Reception class (if you’re from the US, it’s the equivalent of a Pre-KG class). They are fee-paying and predominantly run for profit and there is a severe shortage of places at the popular ones. And so the problem is, if you don’t put them into these schools at aged three, you may well miss the boat.
People here seem to enjoy having lots of babies. The city is teeming with toddlers. The population naturally seems to thin out as children get older but many schools in Dubai are ridiculously over-subscribed at Foundation stage level. To get into the top ones you have to register them at birth or be married to an Emirates pilot. It is horrendously competitive and nerve wracking to say the least, that you may have to take your second, third or even fourth choice of school because you waited until their first birthday to think about it. Schools can get pretty pushy about things too and over the years it has become the norm to assume that you must pack your child off to school as early as possible in order that they succeed in life. One particularly cunning plan recently employed by a very reputable school here has been to open a nursery, and then send an email to all the parents who are on the wait list for future academic years indicating that it doesn’t matter when you applied, priority will be given to the children who attend the nursery. So if you can send your child to school shortly after the umbilical chord is cut, you should probably get a place.
Which is why we have gone against the crowds and instead chosen an American school in the rural backwaters of Sports city. Despite a plan to accept students from aged three all the way up to 18, the school is relatively new and still undersubscribed, giving it a more local feel than the other giant behemoths that operate here. It is three minutes from our house versus the half hour commute I would have to undertake four times a day to take him anywhere else. It doesn’t come with the usual snobberies nor does it subscribe to the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos that frankly seems a little harsh to be putting on a child barely out of nappies. Instead it appears to genuinely embrace individuality, and childhood, and the sheer enjoyment of learning. To top it all off, it is the nicest, cleanest, friendliest school I have visited, with some of the best facilities. It might not enjoy the ‘Outstanding’ status of some of the more popular schools but I’m pretty sure my son will benefit in other ways from a cosy class of 15 for the first two years of his academic career – and at the same time absorb an American culture and education that, being of dual nationality, is important to us that he have, and not something that he would get from an English school in Dubai (or one in England, for that matter).
I am pretty confident we have made the right choice and now my attentions turn to the UK, to look at securing him a place somewhere that I am equally sure of. The conundrum for many expats is you never know how long you’re staying or when you’re going to leave. So you have to plan properly for a future in two different places and ensure that your child receives the best potential possible start in life on opposite sides of the world. You need to believe that the chosen expat school provides an educational experience equal in all measures to that of one at home, and you need to ensure the school you choose if or when you return home is going to be the right environment to help your child cope with a huge and often overwhelming change in circumstance. We have chosen to apply to private schools particularly to try and avoid potential issues that relying on screaming into the state school system at the 11th hour may throw up. But private schools in the UK come with the same personality disorders as they do here. I am already put off by a couple of them because they display precisely the same kind of horrid, faintly sit-com-esque middle class snobbery I have seen in Dubai. However, I have high hopes that the others I am visiting will prove to be just right. I really hope so, because if he is happy at his Dubai school, one of the most vital and potentially traumatic decisions we will face making in the future will be transplanting him to a new one in a place he is completely unfamiliar with.
It’s another thing no-one mentioned when we moved to Dubai. And they didn’t mention it when we became parents either for that matter. The responsibility to ‘get it right’ is always huge, but extends further – much further – when your child is an expat. It’s so confusing to know what to do. Our son was born and raised (to date) in the Middle East, and we (his parents) come from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Where will he call home in the future? How will he identify himself? Which education system should he follow? Will it even matter to him or to anyone else? How will it affect him, when we eventually do pull him away from everything familiar to him, from everything that he calls ‘home’, because it is categorically not our ‘home’? I guess only time will tell. In the meantime, we hope that the decisions we make are the right ones, and do what all parents do: Our very best.
- Starting school at seven ‘can boost pupils’ reading skills’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- You know you’re an expat mom when… (iwasanexpatwife.com)
- Parents must learn to stop meddling, author urges (ctv.ca)