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UAE's school rebuilding programmeSeptember 2010

Despite the demise of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, not everyone is reconsidering school rebuilding programmes. BSRIA's Roderic Bunn reports back from the UAE, where millions are being pumped into their new schools, despite the recent recession.

While the effects of class size, teacher quality and leadership models have often been studied, there's been little research into the relationship between capital resources and academic performance. PWC, who conducted an evaluation of BSF schools, says any such studies tend to lack statistical rigour. So what about other parts of the world where money is being pumped into new schools? Do they give any clues?

Despite the recession in United Arab Emirates (UAE), millions of Dirhams are being pumped into a schools building programme. There's no state funding on offer here. In Dubai, schools are a pure business proposition: designed, built and run through private finance. The demand is so high that schools are often the first structures to be built on the city's ever expanding outskirts - like the ISS International School: isolated in the vast expanse of the desert sand, waiting for the housing developers to catch up.

Build it and they will come. ISS International School waiting for the housing to follow. The pupils are bussed in to schools here en masse.

GEMS Education is one of the leading providers of private schools in Dubai, designing and building schools via partnering joint ventures with public and private investors, and leasing out the school management. What gets built depends almost wholly on what parents are prepared to pay in tuition fees.

GEMS segregates its schools designs into three packages: Standard, mid-market, and premium. All the schools are of middle to secondary size, and cater for all ages of children from pre-kindergarten to A-level, which means each school can be home to over 2,000 pupils and staff. GEMS has built 24 secondary and middle schools catering for British, American and Indian nationalities.

GEMS senior programme manager Richard Stone works on the design and delivery team. "A typical mid-market school would deliver around 4 m2/pupil in terms of total floor area, with a mid market-plus school going up to 6 - 7.5 m2/pupil," he says. "The premium model gives far greater flexibility with design: bigger classrooms, more break-out spaces, more general activity rooms and more facilities."

Tennis courts need to be cleared of desert sand every day using cleaning machines. Microfine granules prevent the use of solar panels and photvoltaics.

The GEMS World Academy (GWA) is a good example of what Stone's team delivers: a 400 m running track, 620-seat auditorium, planetarium, robotics studio, an astroturf football pitch and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. "If they pay top dollar to send their childen to school, these facilities are very important," says Stone. "It's almost a marketing thing to match the expectations of the parents when they come to this region."

Stone agrees that there's an interesting debate to be had about analysing the performance of the GEMS schools, particularly on educational outcomes related to facilities.

"Interestingly, some of our mid-market schools are the best performing schools in UAE," he says. "Around 96 percent of students get five A-Cs in English and Maths. The 2009 GEMS English National Curriculum results, using the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, were 22 percent above UK averages."

For the premium schools, areas such as engineering and vocational studies are themed: performing arts, sports, music suites, recording studios - even an IMAX cinema at GWA. "The World Academy is like 20 UK academies rolled into one," says Stone. And having seen it, I can say he's right. It's pretty awesome stuff.

GEMS schools separate the year groups by floor. This is a typical example of private study areas located in circulation zones. Lights on, blinds down.

Awesome is not the word that springs to mind in terms of design flair, however. Dubai schools tend to be very traditional in design (even a pastiche of Repton School is being constructed out in the desert). "It's similar to what the UK has moved away from," says Stone: "cellular construction and corridors, with zones and floors based on year groups."

Construction times are extremely rapid: a two-storey academy-sized school can be built in nine months. Putting that into a UK context, a BSF school won't have got as far as preferred bidder stage.

As a UK ex-pat engineer, Richard Stone says that building a school in Dubai is like "going back 30 years". The client appoints the consultant, which means the client provides a design to the contractor. Any risks or design errors fall to the client. "That solves the problem of the consultant saying 'it's a workmanship error' when it's a design error, and vice versa. The consultant does everything from feasibility to full detailed design," says Stone.

Most schools are fully air-conditioned using variable-refrigerant flow systems, not always optimally arranged. Some schools can have a great many separate packaged air-conditioning systems rather than a single chiller pumping chilled water around the site.

The architectural style may be somewhat random, but there's no denying the GEMS schools in Dubai have the trappings of high class hotels. This is the entrance foyer to GEMA Word Academy.

Energy efficiency has not been high on the design agenda. For example, Dubai Modern High School, catering exclusively for Indian nationalities, is running at just over 5 MW. Stone calls this "a serious amount of power", even for a school that operates 365 days a year, with no summer shutdown period.

That said, staff at the 21 000 m2, 1800-pupil Wellington International School have set up a competition between schools to monitor energy bills. The primary years have monitors to turn off lights and smartboards.

While all the schools have copious amounts of daylight, it tends to come in where the architect has chosen to put the windows. There's no obvious attempt at daylight optimisation (and in any case the electric lighting seems to be on everywhere, all the time). As one teacher put it: "We're so used to it being sunny that the one day when it's cloudy the school looks really dark..."

Dubai schools are going up in a part of the world where speed of build is paramount. There's only a certain amount that can be done in the time available. As one engineer said, "if you tried to tick every box here, you'd still be building it. Or, being Dubai, built, torn down and built again."

"As long as you're moving forward here, you're doing well. As soon as you find a solution, you grab it, because if you don't, you'll be six months behind schedule immediately."

BSRIA thanks GEMS Education for its help in researching this article.


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