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Ghaf Primary School: Jewel at the heart of Jebel Ali

Filed on September 13, 2020

An oasis of learning is being re-established at Al Muntazah, Jebel Ali, just a couple of minutes from the new landmark Festival Plaza and IKEA. Ghaf Primary School (GPS) stands on the site of what used to be Jebel Ali Primary School and restores the venue to what used to be a focus for a growing community of families with young children. The school is named after the Ghaf tree, the national tree of the UAE, nominated as nature's symbol of the UAE's Year of Tolerance, 2019. The symbolism is significant to the ethos of the school. The attributes of tolerance and resilience are two of the values the school seeks to develop as well as an appreciation for the natural environment and our personal responsibility for it.

Exciting learning opportunities in a secure environment

GPS describes itself as a small, family primary school with a big heart. Although the school has a capacity in excess of 340 students from FS1 - Year 6, it is currently limiting class sizes in line with the KHDA directives and in keeping with social distancing of 1.5 metres between students in the classroom. Since its opening the school has doubled its provision for FS2 but is still receiving eager applicants, almost all of whom want to be in school for the full five days each week. Students on roll want to take advantage of the school's commitment to mixed in-school and remote home learning support.

GPS offers a hybrid curriculum comprising of the National Curriculum in England (NCE) and the International Primary Curriculum from Early Years through Key Stages 1 and 2. The academic core includes integrated themed learning through inquiry but covers the key concepts and skills for language and communication in English and Arabic, applied numeracy and math and STEAM, i.e. developing scientific inquiry with technology to solve real world problems.

New teaching approaches to engage students

The programme also extends to Art, Design Technology, Global Perspectives, which is an integrated course in humanities and environmental conservation, performing arts and PE. The school is also committed to the UAE core curriculum and hopes to offer French, Spanish and Mandarin in the upper primary. Principal, Julian Williams, explains: "Our approach is to reveal connections between ideas, concepts, knowledge and transferable skills and adopt a 21st century approach to learning, engaging students by hooking their interest and curiosity. We are less interested in finding answers to questions like 'what, who, and when?', and instead develop investigative approaches to 'why, how, and what if?' These are open-ended invitations to think critically, to enjoy the process of learning, rather than simply the product in getting a right answer. And if there is a right answer, how do we know? Which facts are supported by evidence and which are fake? We want our students to question assumptions, to be independent investigators, to be forensic about their learning. We want our students not only to ask questions, but to debate the answers, understand misconceptions, learn from their mistakes and not to be afraid of making mistakes, but rather to 'reverse engineer', how and why the mistakes occurred. This is the route that leads to deep understanding, application and innovation. We want learning to be rigorous, but we also want it to be fun and relevant to their experience."

Parents comment that they chose GPS because of its highly-developed values. Students are celebrated for resilience and perseverance rather than attainment. Learning is about working through difficulties and overcoming challenges. This is about cultivating a growth mindset, about raising the bar, but always making sure that support is available. Praise is earned for trial and error, for persistence, not just for success. There is an emphasis on students developing 'Emotional Intelligence', communicating effectively, being confident and respecting others, being motivated and resilient, able to cope with emotions like anger and disappointment, dealing with it constructively, having empathy and compassion. The school seeks to develop personal and social responsibility, to make positive lifestyle choices for their health and fitness, to be vigilant of dangers but also to manage risk, to have a hands-on approach to protecting our environment, to be collaborative in tidying up and taking pride in their school environment.

East meets West approach to learning and values education.

One distinguishing feature of GPS is its commitment to East meets West educational thinking. Students and staff, like their counterparts in Japan, perform O-Soji 'the big clean up', where students are responsible for cleaning their classroom, hallways and washrooms as a daily routine. The school includes the seven principles of Bushido, the Japanese Samurai Code, into its values statements: "Righteousness, courage, compassion, respect, integrity, honour and loyalty are key to the development of self-control and discipline," explains the principal. "We have called these the 'Black Belt Principles of Life." Williams admits to a passion for karate and other martial arts for their beneficial impact of developing confidence, perseverance and self-control in students.

Committed to inclusion

Ghaf Primary School is committed to inclusion and welcomes students of determination who can access the curriculum meaningfully. The Inclusion Unit assists teachers, parents and the students themselves to make learning accessible and personalised, through adaptation and modification of tasks and methods of assessment that acknowledge the differing needs of students. Students who are gifted and talented are also identified so that their needs are also supported. "They are not artificially constrained by age-relatedexpectations," explains Christopher Lee, Upper School Coordinator. "They are challenged appropriately and have access to appropriate expertise."

Small but deceptively spacious campus

The campus is architecturally innovative with buildings and facilities based upon a cluster of connected octagonal classrooms with no clear front or back. Learning is in the round and the teacher is comfortable anywhere in the classroom with the students. Classrooms open out onto outside learning and play areas with gardens, sandpit, climbing apparatus and swings. Children can also play in the central multi-purpose hall which is also a gym.

Other facilities include a library, STEAM laboratory and Black Box theatre. There are also small group quiet rooms for students who require 1:1 or small group attention according to their learning needs. The campus is small but deceptively spacious .The school is attached to the Al Muntazah complex and will be able to take advantage of a large swimming pool and tennis courts by arrangement with the property management.

Overcoming the challenge of COVID

Starting a new school during the Covid-19 emergency presented a number of challenges, but GPS received approval from the KHDA for its start-up plan back in July and the teachers are flexible enough to support learning, not only in the classroom but also at home if parents elect to keep their children at home, but still want to avail of the support GPS teacher can provide to busy families. When coming into school, children are assisted in keeping the two-metre social distance through a crowd control zig-zag lane and then every person passes in front of an IR camera calibrated to detect body temperatures about 37.5 C. There are automatic sanitisers in classrooms and floor markings to indicate both two metre and 1.5 metre social distance. The hallway is a one-way system regulating movement around the school.

"We are aware of the realities that will confront us in terms of children seeking to play up close, to huddle and to share," says Robert Turner, head teacher. "This is naturaland we must be careful not to be reactionary. That said, our first couple of weeks are being spent in ensuring students understand as far as they can at such a young age, why it is important to wash hands regularly, to keep their distance and avoid touching their faces - which is probably the hardest thing to remember. We do what we can to build a set of routines and remind the children of the need to develop good hygiene habits.

Commitment to affordability

Ghaf Primary School took the lead at the outset to make the fees inclusive of tuition, books, tablet and software, school trips (when they can happen) and uniform for the first 100 foundation students "We are blessed in having a school tailor inside the community and we are also only too well aware of the pressures upon family finances caused by the current economic constraints. We have generous discounts for siblings of up to 25 per cent and discounted transport," said Williams. "We have an excellent team and it is a privilege to see this little gem of school once again become a focus for the Jebel Ali community. We also welcome families from further afield who want their child avail of the personal attention of being part of a village school community."

This content comes from KT Engage, the brand marketing unit of Khaleej Times.