“On the morning of March 31 2013, I picked up a copy of The National read an article about souqalmal.com‘s hosted round-table between Dubai schools and parents.  I put the newspaper down, pushed my laptop out of the way, and gently banged my head on the kitchen counter a few times.

The article itself was not upsetting.  It was a fine article.   I was interested in reading about any attempt to provide more transparency to the dark and murky process of applying to schools in Dubai.  It was just one sentence that upset me – “Jonathan Price, head teacher at Jebel Ali Primary School in Dubai, recently offered places for the school’s 2014 FS2 year group.”  Offered.  Past tense.

Yes, you guessed it – my son was one of those 120 hopefuls on the waiting list for that year group.  To make matters worse, we had declined two previous admission offers from good schools and put all our eggs into this basket.

My Dubai School Search

Let’s take a step back.  I arrived in Dubai from Canada in January 2012, heavily pregnant and with a very home-sick two year old son in tow.  We came to join my husband who was already working here and we settled quickly into our apartment in the Dubai Marina.  Before arriving, I had already done some research on the internet for schools and learned that it would be a good idea to register my 2 year old son so that he would be able to start school in FS1 for September 2013.  Coming from a land with public education, I never dreamed that 1.5 years might be insufficiently early to get into some schools.  I did register my son on some waiting lists but I was very lucky.

My favorite tool, Google Maps, was able to help me identify some of the schools nearby, and I narrowed my shortlist down to (what I thought were) the two closest schools: Emirates International School Meadows and Dubai British School.  I went to see the schools – not on scheduled school tours but just popped my head in and looked around.  I liked what I saw at the British School better so I put in an application there.  The receptionist told me cheerfully that my son was 42nd on the waitlist.  I naively took that to mean that he would likely get into FS1 in September 2013.  I didn’t know at the time that I should have probably asked about the number of openings, the number of siblings, the ultimate size of the waitlist before they close it, and the odds of passing the assessment test.  I just passed over my 500AED and thought it was a job well done.

A few weeks later, after reading articles and joining a wonderful facebook group (Dubai Marina Mums,) I began to understand that I should probably apply to more than just one school.  One day, at the park, I met a friendly Australian mum with two beautiful twin girls.

“Which school did I apply to?” she responded to my query, and waved her finger toward the busy freeway known as Sheikh Zayed Road.  “Jebel Ali Primary school.  I put in an application but to be honest, we are likely leaving Dubai before they even get old enough to attend that school.”   That seemed like a fair enough endorsement.  I went home, went online and didn’t find any negative comments about Jebel Ali Primary so I made up the application and went over there to hand in the forms.  The registrar was quite nice, and told me (after I paid my 500AED) that my son was number 150 on the waitlist.  My eyebrows must have hit the ceiling, because she tried to assure me that here in Dubai, you never know. You never know, she repeated.   I was a little too embarrassed to ask for my money back, and figuring that I was 2.5 years early, I resigned to the fact that this was probably a decent long shot.

At this point I was finished spending any more brain cycles and 500 dirham notes on schools.  I had other things to think about such as: having another baby, finding a nursery for my son (another saga for another time), and preparing for a long vacation with the kids.

A Seed of Fear

Fast forward to December 2012, and I started to get worried again.  There were a lot of mums in my facebook group who talked about their difficulties getting into their school of choice.  The frustration and despair started to leak off the facebook posts and I couldn’t help but think that maybe I needed another contingency.  Indeed by now I already had a few.  My son’s nursery offered FS1 up until the age of 5 so that would buy us some time.  My two other backup plans were the American School of Dubai and the GEMS Dubai American Academy, both of which opened up for registration in September 2013 for starting KG1 in September 2014.  Also, the American School would give priority to North American passport holders so there was that going for us.  The downside was the tuition – both of them were nearly double my two first choices.

I decided to apply to one more school.  We chose Jumeirah Baccalaureate School for three reasons.  The age cutoff date for JBS was December rather than September, so my November-born son would start KG1 in September 2013.  Although the location was far away from the Marina, my husband’s company was considering opening an office in that area by the end of 2013.  Lastly, our friends put their kids at that school.  The application for JBS was 1000AED.  The tuition was also very high.  But by this time I was scared enough, so I paid.

Overture, Curtains, Lights!

February 2013 was when the circus started.  JBS and JAPS contacted me by phone to pick a suitable time to bring my son in for an assessment. DBS informed me of the date and time over email and told me it was non-negotiable.  I dutifully brought my 3 year old in for all the assessments.  I will be honest here, I shamelessly bribed my son each time.  I promised him delicious and normally forbidden treats so long as he behaved well during the assessment.  I was not allowed to observe at DBS and JBS, but at the JAPS assessment I was there the whole time and he behaved beautifully.  Try as I might, I was unable to shake my parental bias – I felt certain they would take him.

This is where the system becomes extremely disorganized.  JBS contacted us several days after the assessment and made an offer, good for 10 working days, before he even did an assessment at any of the other schools.  They required a 7000AED deposit by the deadline in order to secure a place at the school.  By this time, my husband’s company had made it clear that they were going to postpone the move to the new office, so there was no incentive to enroll in that school for Sept 2013.  We declined the offer and ask for a 1 year deferral, which they graciously granted, pending another assessment.  The next assessment was at JAPS, but there the sympathetic interviewer explained that we would not know the result until April or May.  I personally thought she was sold, but she definitely would not say.  The final assessment was at DBS, and they miraculously came back with an offer at the end of February, again with an expiry deadline of 10 days hence, and a required 7000AED deposit.  On the 10th day, I finally made a gamble.  I bet that my son would be accepted at JAPS, so I declined DBS and I hoped that I was saving 7000AED instead of closing the door on one of the few schools we wanted that were within our budget.

Then I learned on March 31, from a newspaper article, that offers had been sent for JAPS and we had not received anything.  Bang, bang, bang.

Happy Ending

I nearly wrote a message to the JAPS registrar that day.  It took some effort, but I managed to stop myself.  What was I going to achieve?  It would not change anything.  The registrar was likely inundated with messages from unhappy parents and this would just add to the overall stress of the whole situation.  I decided to focus on the future.  I began to research more schools.

The next day, on April Fool’s day, I received a congratulatory message from the JAPS registrar informing us that my son was accepted.  For a split second I doubted.  But as I started filling out all the paperwork, my doubt disappeared.  Bureaucracy and devilment do not often go hand-in-hand.  I was very, very happy – mostly that the roller coaster ride was finally over!

In hindsight, I never should have taken that gamble.  The JAPS registrar told me that they assessed 120 children for approximately 40 spaces (the rest of the 98 spots going to siblings.)  Many of them were academically sound, she explained, but they simply did not have the space.  So I’m thanking my lucky stars we won this particular lottery, and I feel for all new parents who are going to learn, as I did, what a crazy system they need to navigate.”