There have been a lot of changes at GEMS Firstpoint School since it opened in September 2014.

Firstly and most evidently, student numbers have grown significantly – from 340 to 850. The expectation is that this number will grow to approximately 1,400 students by 2016/17, especially now the school has permission to extend from FS1 to Year 12. The school has a much more lived-in feel a year on from our first visit, with plentiful work on display from students and a stronger sense of identity in place. This is reflected at the main reception area, where a list of desired attributes is a feature of one wall (underneath which sits a Happy Couch, covered in graffiti explanations of what makes the contributors happy). These attributes include – Innovative leader, Critical Thinker, Entrepreneur, Creative, Digital Learner, Team Player and Enterprising.

The other obvious major change is that the Performing Arts and Sports block is now complete. This houses a 500 seater Auditorium with full acoustic sound-proofing, a Black box theatre room, a recording studio, Mac Lab, 7 Music practice rooms and a music classroom for year 1 upwards. The GEMS Music Academy is based here and students can choose to learn a range of instruments during private lessons (for an additional fee). Instruments include Saxophone, Clarinet, Violin, Guitar, Drums and Piano (among others). The Sports facilities are equally impressive with a full size multi-sports hall which includes a climbing wall and an array of trampolines in addition to the usual equipment, a learner pool for FS2 to year 2 students and an outdoor 25m shaded pool for older students.

Another development has been in the Secondary school which is now open to year 9 and which will offer a mix IGCSE and GCSE for years 10 and 11 and A levels for years 12 and 13. In particular, the enterprise and technology programme which was a clear focus of the school at the outset, has been further developed with cross curricular links between Maths, Science and IT being built into the curriculum and a focus on programming for all students from year 1. The Enterprise classrooms have been further extended to include Graphics, Textiles, Electronics, Resistant Materials, Food Technology and a workshop with full time Woodwork and Science technicians.

The other less evident, but certainly more significant change, has been that of the Principal. This is now the former Head of Secondary of GEMS Wellington Academy Dubai Silicon Oasis. There is no doubt that his influence (and his visibility) is very evident around the school. One of his most important contributions has been to put in place a range of measures to engage with parents and with the community at large. Access to the Villa project via a walk way has now been opened, enabling students to cycle to school. A Parent Council has been set up which consists of 15 positions which have been filled by parents. 55 parents were put forward to fill these positions which were chosen via secret vote. Parents will have a direct say in policy decisions (such as operating hours) and will lead think tanks on a range of subjects. Student class reps will also be involved in these discussions. The engagement with parents is clearly working – in the most recent GEMS parent survey, GEMS Firstpoint averaged a score of 8.8/10 – the highest scoring school in the GEMS network.

There has been a clear effort to ensure that the education being delivered is also of the highest quality. The majority of staff are from the UK with a sprinkling of Canadian and US teachers. Arabic and Islamic staff are on full international salary packages. The make-up of student population means that there is a strong demand for particularly expert staff, with over 80 nationalities in the school. The UK population of 18% is the highest, with expat Arab and Emirati students making up 12% and over 50% of students being non-native English speakers. This is addressed in Primary school through dedicated Teaching assistants working with EAL students and by an intensive programme in Secondary. Additional after school programmes are offered free of charge.

The school also appointed an SEN coordinator early in 2015 who is responsible for coordinating the EAL and SEN programmes. Students requiring 1-1 support are assisted by a team of 13 Learning Support assistants currently. Approximately 200 students (of which something over 100 require EAL support) are being assisted by a dedicated team working in small groups or with class teachers. The school is not academically selective and does not entrance test children as such. Students are screened (via cognitive testing) to establish what support, if any, they may need, but the school aims to be fully inclusive provided that it has the resources.

The Principal’s aim is to ensure that all students make great progress, be they A* students, students with additional learning needs or those in the middle ground. He feels that it is the latter who are often overlooked in schools and wants to ensure that GEMS Firstpoint measures its success based on the added value that it provides to its students and not just the academic grades that they achieve.

There is no doubt that this is a large school and that numbers will continue to grow. The benefit of this is evident in the facilities and curriculum range that is offered. Some families may feel that it is simply too large for them, but certainly at the present time, GEMS Firstpoint is a school with clear focus, a sense of industry and ambitious goals which aims to become an integral part of the community and for families living in the area, it is definitely one to consider.