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Dubai School Admissions – Secrets Revealed

Dubai School Admissions – Secrets Revealed

Once you have applied for a place (or places) at the schools of your choice, it is understandable to assume that you will be contacted when your child’s name reaches the top of the waiting list. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that…

Rest assured, there is nothing nefarious in what goes on behind the scenes. Schools are simply trying to determine a blend of students that will create the right learning environment for the group as a whole. It may sometimes feel unfair your child has not got a place, but schools are looking to a greater good for all children in a class, and not – unfortunately – always at each individual child. In a world where there is scarcity, this is only practical.

Schools consider a number of factors when selecting students – some more obvious than others, and to some extent also dependent on age-group.

All schools have some form of priority basis on which they select and this is likely to be a mixture of the factors listed here.


1. Corporate debentures/guaranteed seats – a number of UAE schools/school groups have arrangements with major international companies which give priority to children of employees.

In most cases, the company will have “invested in” or “bought” a limited number of seats within the school/school group or even year group/grade, in an effort to ensure priority. However, even with this arrangement, the company is not always guaranteed a place – if the school is full, the debenture/corporate seat may push the child’s application further up the waiting list, but it does not guarantee a place.

There are exceptions to this rule – a guaranteed seat irrespective of waiting list – but this usually applies only where multiple seats have been purchased and this is not a cheap investment. Only where there are specific ‘debenture’ arrangements, is the payment refundable to the company when the child leaves the school.


Check with your employer to ensure that there is no access to this type of arrangement before making multiple applications.

2. Sibling priority – most schools in the UAE give priority to brothers or sisters of existing students, particularly those entering Foundation/KG grades.

Families arriving from abroad often find it is not possible to get all their children into the same school; the key here is to ensure that you register each child with the schools you really want to prioritise – if one is offered a place, there’s a far higher chance of places being offered to siblings…eventually.

It’s important to be aware that whilst this rule applies generally in Primary/Elementary schools, Secondary/High schools are often more concerned about the academic ability of students they admit and may refuse a sibling a place, if they feel that the child will not be able to fully access and succeed with the school curriculum.

3. Families moving from overseas – schools recognise how tough it is to find places from overseas and many will give priority to overseas students – especially part-way through the school year, when they know that most children living locally will have already found a place in another UAE school and probably won’t want or won’t be in a position to move at short notice.

Traditionally, there have also been regulatory constraints on children moving school within the UAE during the academic year.

4. Date of Birth – this is an important factor, particularly for younger children. No Early Years Primary/KG teacher wants a class full of children whose birthdays fall towards the end of the academic year. A child, who is almost 5 on entering school, will probably be more mature and able to cope with school initially, than a child who will not be 5 for nine months or more.

Most schools try to ensure there is a balance of ages across the academic year to take into account different levels of maturity at every level. For older students, most schools believe that a difference in age of more than two years to the peer group is not appropriate from a social perspective.

This can be an issue for children coming from countries where full-time education does not start until the age of 6 or 7.

5. Feeder Nurseries – schools like to have a good mix of children who have already attended nursery or similar before they start school. Particularly in the UAE, where there is no staggered entry to school (children all start school in September, irrespective of birthday), children who have attended nursery will tend to enjoy an easier transition. Many schools have links to the local nurseries and the Early Years/KG team will visit them and see the children and their interaction there, rather than inviting them into school to “assess” them.

6. Boy/Girl mix – schools also want to see a fairly equal mix of boys and girls for reasons of social interaction and balance. In general, for the Early Years, the aim will be a 50:50 split, with the aim of keeping this balance throughout the school, even if individual classes will tend to be more gender-biased during Secondary/High School as a result of student subject choices.

7. Nationality/Religion – in a country as international as the UAE, schools also try to ensure that their classes are a reflection of the society we live in.

Generally, schools will try to ensure that there is a balanced mix of nationalities and religions represented in the school – this again becomes more difficult further up the school, but if it is a choice between two children for a single place, the child who would contribute to the maintenance of the balance is likely to get priority.

8. Native tongue – all schools want to know what the language is that is spoken at home. For the Early Years/KG children, this is an important factor. Young children are like sponges and pick up a second language very quickly – most schools don’t consider any form of EAL support until a child reaches 7-8 years of age.

However, it is important that the majority of children speak the language of instruction (generally English in international schools), so that non-native speakers are surrounded by the second language from the outset. For older children, access to the curriculum is the key, and if the child’s language skills will prevent him/her from doing so, they may struggle if offered a place, unless additional support is available.

9. Reports/Entrance tests – schools vary in terms of their requirements around Entrance testing, but most require a minimum of two years’ school reports from a school of the same curriculum, if an Entrance test is to be avoided. Secondary/High School entry will require Entrance testing, irrespective of reports.

If the child is coming from a different curriculum, testing is almost certain, even for children in the early years. Whilst some schools permit tests to be sent to the Home School, others require that they are sat in the UAE. A few will offer a provisional place, based on reports, with the test to be taken on arrival.

10. Current curriculum – children coming from a different curriculum or academic year also tend to find it harder to access places.

It’s important to apply to schools that are familiar with your child’s current curriculum and will know whether the child will adapt easily. Children coming from the Southern hemisphere (Australia/South Africa) who have a different academic year, will almost certainly require entrance testing to ensure that they enter the correct academic grade, which may not be the age-appropriate one.

You would think, with all these factors to consider, getting your child to the top of the waiting list could be likened to climbing Everest! Always remember School Registrars are human. If they have two children to choose between – and all other factors are equal – the impression that you have made as a parent, could be the decider.

It does no harm to stay in contact; an email to follow-up every so often, a quick call or visit. Not all registrars will or can respond to this personal touch – and it’s important not to become a menace – but it generally does no harm and it may just be the deciding factor.

* Lyn Soppelsa is the Director of Consultancy at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. She has worked for the Dubai Centre for Special Needs, some of the country’s largest real estate developers, as a registrar in some of its most sought after schools, and most latterly as a relocations manager, helping new UAE residents find their feet in the country. She may be contacted at lynsoppelsa@edu2021.com.

1 Comment

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  1. Nanmith says
    February 26, 2014, 11:31 am

    This somehow shows that there is no equality in the world


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