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Education in the UAE
A Comprehensive Guide about the Education System and International Schools
For expats relocating with children, it is important to know about education and international schools in the UAE. Expat children are able to attend both public and private schools in the UAE but must pay fees for both as government schools are only free for Emirati nationals.
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Before the oil boom in the 1960s, there were few formal schools in the UAE. Now, the Gulf country has some of the best schools and higher education opportunities in the Middle East. In Dubai alone there are nearly 200 private schools servicing around 300,000 Emirati and expat students. In Abu Dhabi there are 296 public schools.
The UAE places great importance on its education system as a means of progressing its economy and business sector. Although government schools still separate male and female students, and even have different school hours for both, the quality of education for both genders is comparable. About 40% of pupils in the UAE attend private schools. Some of these offer foreign language education geared towards expatriate communities, typically preserving the culture and following the curricula of the students’ countries of origin.
The Education System in the UAE
The Ministry of Education (MoE) oversees the UAE education system at the federal level, including K – 12 and higher education. In addition to the MoE, the emirates also have their own, local governing bodies:
- Abu Dhabi: the Department of Education and Knowledge
- Dubai: the Dubai Education Council and Knowledge and Human Development Authority
- Sharjah: Sharjah Private Education Authority (created by the Sharjah government in 2018)
School is mandatory for all kids aged 6–18. This mandate includes expat children as well. Government schools are free for Emirati nationals, but expats will have to pay a fee for both public and private schools. Public schools offer courses in Arabic and place emphasis on English as a second language. Parents wishing to have their kids educated in the school system of their home country will have their choice of country-specific institutions as well as many international schools.
UAE Education Facts
- As of 2018, the UAE has allowed mixed gender classes in government schools for kindergarten and Grade 1. Grades 2 to 4 will eventually introduce mixed gender classes over the coming years.
- Whether in public or private school, all students must wear a school uniform.
- Although education systems from across the globe are present in the UAE, most schools in the emirates follow the UK education system.
- Most schools offer primary and secondary instruction. Students will not need to transfer to a separate school to graduate from primary to secondary.
What Is the School System Like in the UAE?
If you want to know what the school year is in the UAE, there are two answers. For most UAE schools, the school year starts in September and ends June. Indian, Pakistani, and Japanese schools start in April and end in March. School hours start between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. and go until about 14:00 to 15:00. The specific time differs between the grade level and, for public schools, divided male and female classes. Kindergarten and primary school students have shorter days than secondary school students.
In government schools, the language of instruction is Arabic for all subjects. English is taught as a second language and is used for teaching technical or scientific subjects. As of 2017, the UAE mandated that more core subjects be taught in English as a way to improve the English language proficiency of their student body.
The UAE education system is divided into four tiers:
|Kindergarten||KG 1 and KG 2||4–5 years old|
|Primary School||Grade 1–6||6–11 years old|
|Preparatory Stage||Grade 7–9||12–14 years old|
|Secondary School||Grade 9–12||15–17 years old|
The age breakdown of the UAE school system is thus:
|KG 1/FS 2||4–5|
|KG 2/Year 1||5–6|
|Grade 1/Year 2||6–8|
|Grade 2/Year 3||7–9|
|Grade 3/Year 4||8–10|
|Grade 4/Year 5||9–11|
|Grade 5/Year 6||10–12|
|Grade 6/Year 7||11–13|
|Grade 7/Year 8||12–14|
|Grade 8/Year 9||13–15|
|Grade 9/Year 10||14–17|
|Grade 10/Year 11||15–18|
|Grade 11/Year 12||16–19|
|Grade 12/Year 13||17–20|
For students wanting to be admitted into a particular grade for a school beginning in April, the must meet the minimum age requirement by July 31st. For schools starting in December, students must meet the minimum age by December 31st.
UAE Grading System
Although it can vary from school to school, the standard grading system in the UAE is based on the American grading system.
What is Education Like in the UAE?
Prior to 2015, the UAE required students to choose a scientific or literary stream. Now, the UAE has imposed a new system of four streams:
- General stream: All students start their education in this stream. The stream includes a balance of arts, math, and sciences courses. When students leave this stream, they receive greater emphasis on math and sciences.
- Professional stream: This can also be called the Vocational stream. Students can choose this stream in Grade 9. Upon completion of Grade 12 they will obtain an applied high school certificate which is equivalent to technical high school certificate. Learning in this track is based on applying knowledge and developing students’ practical skills.
- Advanced stream: The only difference between this stream and the General stream is an increased emphasis on math and science courses.
- Elite stream (Advanced Science Program): For academically outstanding students. This stream admits students from Grade 6 until they finish Grade 12. The curriculum focuses on mathematics and science with particular attention to analysis, reasoning, and problem-solving.
One of the main differences between public and private schools in the UAE is gender segregation. In public schools, boys and girls are taught separately throughout most of the primary, and all of the secondary, levels. Even recess times are staggered so that boys and girls do not mix. This is required by law. Private schools, on the other hand, typically have mixed gender classes throughout all grade levels.
For expats wanting their children to be educated in the school system of their home country, private schools offer curricula that follows British, American, French, German, Indian, Pakistani, or Filipino teachings. In addition to these course offerings, private schools must also offer core programs such as Islamic education, social studies, and Arabic as a second-language.
Required Documents for UAE Private Schools
For students seeking admission into one of the UAE’s private schools, these are the general requirements:
- Emirates ID
- Birth certificate
- Immunization records
- For Grade 2/Year 3 or higher: certificate of last grade/year of enrollment and transfer certificate / school leaving certificate; must be attested by the UAE Embassy in the country from which it is issued
- International level examination if pupil was previously homeschooled or has a gap year in their education history
Any certificates issued within the UAE must be attested by the relevant local authority.
Some schools may allow a student to enroll in classes before acquiring all of these documents. Expect waiting lists for some schools. Be wary of institutions that offer placement on the spot with the promise of a monetary “donation.” These schools may only be trying to increase their numbers.
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Daycare and Kindergarten
In the UAE, neither preschool nor kindergarten are mandatory. However, it is advisable that students attend daycare, preschool, or kindergarten as it will adequately prepare them for introduction into the primary school levels.
At What Age do Children Start Kindergarten?
Children can start kindergarten in the UAE anywhere from 4 to 6 years old. Kindergarten in the UAE is voluntary. It is for children who are not yet old enough to enter Grade 1/Year 2. Kindergarten consists of two levels / two years of mixed-gender classes:
- Kindergarten 1 (KG1)
- Kindergarten 2 (KG2)
The educational approach of KG 1 and 2 is focused on developing social, language, physical, and academic skills.
Daycare and Kindergarten Fees
Daycare and kindergarten fees vary depending on which school you choose. Some school costs can be as low as 7,000 AED (1,905 USD) for one academic term, where the student only attends classes two or three days a week. For five full days a week, some schools can charge up to 50,000 AED (13,610 USD) per year or higher.
Primary and Secondary Schools
Primary and secondary education in the UAE lasts about twelve years. The MoE is constantly modifying the educational strategies within its school system in order to meet international standards. In recent years there has been particular emphasis on catering to the needs of the growing expat student population. Current strides made by the MoE have made the UAE, specifically Abu Dhabi and Dubai, home to some of the best primary and secondary schools in the Middle East.
Primary school, also known as elementary school, lasts about six years. It stretches from Grade 1 to 6 (about 6–11 years old). Courses are offered in both Arabic and English, with Arabic being the primary language and English being secondary. Most schools follow American education standards throughout the primary school years.
In Grade 6 students can apply to enter the elite stream.
Preparatory school compromises Grade 7 through 9. This level of school aims to nurture young students for secondary education, where they will hone their interests and specialty.
Secondary school, also called high school, ranges from Grade 9 to 12. This is the level where students will choose which stream (professional, general, or advanced) they wish to enter.
Upon completion of Grade 12, students will receive a high school certificate, which indicates passing 12 years of compulsory education. Students who attend a technical secondary school will be awarded a technical secondary diploma upon completion.
No matter whether your child attends a public or private school in the UAE, all expats must pay a fee for education. School costs are not cheap in the UAE, and tuition gradually increases with each grade level. However, some emirate states, such as Dubai, have implemented annual tuition caps that forbids schools from increasing their rates by exorbitant amounts.
These are the average school fees in Dubai, the most expensive emirate state:
|School Year||Tuition (AED)||Tuition (USD)|
For expats interested in public schools, fees range around 6,000 AED (1,635 USD) per year for each grade.
With an expat population that is larger than the Emirati population, there are many schools in the UAE for international students. Some of the best international schools in the Middle East can be found in the UAE.
International schools in the UAE largely follow a western academic calendar. Classes start in September, there is a short two-week break at the end of the calendar year, and classes resume in January, finally commencing in June. Schools will normally follow a US- or UK-based curriculum.
- Aldar Academies, Abu Dhabi
- The British International School, Abu Dhabi
- Cambridge International School, Dubai
- GEMS Wellington School, Dubai
- Al Amana Private School, Sharjah
- Lycée Louis Massignon Ecole Francaise, Abu Dhabi
- Lycée Francais Théodore Monod, Abu Dhabi
- Lycee Francais International Georges Pompidou School, Dubai
- International Concept Education, Dubai
- German International School, Abu Dhabi
- Swiss International Scientific School, Dubai
- German International School Sharjah, Sharjah
Other International Schools
- Canadian International School, Abu Dhabi
- American International School of Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi
- North American International School, Dubai
- Ontario International Canadian School, Dubai
- Sharjah American International School, Dubai and Umm Al Quwain
If you are interested in a comprehensive list of British, German, French, and other international schools, please refer to this database.
Other Religious Schools
Although dominated by Islamic teachings and customs, expats looking for other religious education in the UAE will find a few options, such as St. Mary’s Catholic High Schools in both Dubai and Fujairah.
What Are the Tuition and Fees for International Schools
International school fees range between 13,630 and 21,400 AED per year (3,710–5,830 USD). The price is dependent on the grade level and specific school. On average, international school fees are on par with private school fees. See the above School Chart table for more information.
What Are the Admission Requirements for International Schools?
The admission requirements differ from school to school, but in general this is what you will need to enroll your child:
- Application form
- Registration fee (typically around 500 AED (136 USD)), non-refundable
- Emirates ID for student and parents
- Immunization records
- Student’s birth certificate
- Attested Leaving Certificate from previous school
- School records from the past two years
If there has been a gap in your child’s schooling they may be asked to take an entrance exam and have an in-person interview in order to receive placement. Schools in the UAE are of high quality and thus most entail a waiting list.
Higher education in the UAE first got its footing in 1976 with the establishment of the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU). The university was started by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who founded the school in hopes of furthering the academic excellence, and thus the economic potential, of UAE residents. Today, the UAE is home to some of the top universities in the Middle East.
The most popular higher education programs for international students coming to the UAE are Civil Engineering and Business Administration (specifically, an MBA). Also popular are Architecture and Aviation. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the UAE Ministry of Education, students with an Engineering degree are most in demand in the UAE job market.
Best Universities for International Students in the UAE
- United Arab Emirates University
- American University of Sharjah
- University of Sharjah
- Zayed University
- American University in Dubai
Best Business Schools with International Influence:
- American University (Dubai campus)
- University of Dubai—Dubai Business School
- United Arab Emirates University—College of Business and Economics
- University of Sharjah—College of Business Administration
- School of Business Administration—American University of Sharjah
Best MBA programs in the UAE:
- Hult International Business School
- London Business School (Dubai campus)
- INSEAD (Abu Dhabi campus)
- University of Dubai
- American University (Dubai campus)
Best Engineering Programs in the UAE:
- Khalifa University
- American University of Sharjah
- University of Sharjah
- Heriot-Watt University (Dubai campus)
- Zayed University
How Much does it Cost to Study in the UAE for International Students?
As with most aspects of the Gulf country, university tuition fees in the UAE can be very high. This cost is made even greater when students factor in the cost of living as well. For more, see our section on Housing.
In the UAE’s most expensive city of Dubai, tuition for an undergraduate program ranges between 37,500 to 70,000 AED per year (10,210–19,060 USD). For postgraduate, tuition ranges between 55,000 to 75,000 AED per year (14,970–20,420 USD). Prospective students should be sure to add in an extra 1,200 AED (330 USD) per month for general living expenses.
There are scholarships for international students provided through each university and through the UAE government. Most of these scholarships are based on academic excellence.
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Whether you want to learn Arabic or brush up on English, there are many quality language schools in the UAE. While fluency in Arabic is not mandatory, having a general knowledge of phrases and greetings will go far in making your relocation process complete.
Top Language Schools in the UAE
- Excellence Training Center, Dubai
- Eton Institute, Dubai
- Home Language International, Dubai
- Goethe-Institut, Abu Dhabi
- The Mother Tongue Center, Abu Dhabi
Language School Fees
Language school fees are school dependent. Fees can range anywhere from 1,600 to 4,400 AED (435 to 1,200 USD).
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