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Learning Today for a Better Tomorrow

by Belinda Breeze

West Yas Academy is a remarkable learning community that values and respects the person and the educational experience at all levels. Gifted and dedicated students, a progressive and expert staff, loving and supportive parents, and community partners all work together to create a place that embodies all that is possible in a modern school environment.

The campus at West Yas Academy is recognised as one of the most striking around. This goes way beyond just kerb appeal, instead underlining the resources and effort it has put into demonstrating a correlation between campus aesthetics, superior facilities and academic performance. It is a commitment that is paying off handsomely, with two 25-metre swimming pools, an Astroturf sports field, eye-catching auditoria, up-to-the-minute libraries and state-of-the-art science laboratories just a few examples of the amenities available.

Serving all ages, from kindergarten to year 12, West Yas Academy currently has in the region of 1,000 students – approximately 70% UAE nationals and then a mixture of all sorts of other nationalities – and follows the Massachusetts State curriculum, which is particularly strong in things like science and technology. Indeed, it was recently ranked the number-one curriculum in the United States. In addition, West Yas Academy has secured accreditation from The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the oldest and most prestigious regional accrediting body in the country.

At West Yas Academy, they provide a structured learning environment for all ages and phases

At West Yas Academy, they provide a structured learning environment for all ages and phases, and, as Principal Chris Nourse explains: “It is a school that believes every child is special and has a path to travel, so we’re not into limiting potential.” Moreover, because of the chosen curriculum, there is far more flexibility than many other curricula, allowing teachers to adapt the educational material to better suit the needs of the students. “There isn’t, for instance, an A-level as in the British curriculum, that you sit and you pass,” Chris continues. “A lot of the work can be project-based, group tasks, and there are lots of electives where students can choose things that they actually care about and would like to learn more about, such as sustainability and the planet, fashion, and robotics, rather than simply have to do set subjects.”

From Water Polo to National Service

A shared sense of belonging and inclusion is encouraged at West Yas Academy, with inclusion extending beyond special needs to things such as English as an additional language – there is a big push on literacy across the school. In fact, there are a number of initiatives underway, some of which are being fuelled by the revamping of certain facilities. There is a new secondary library coming on stream shortly, for example, while one of the swimming pools is being upgraded so that activities such as water polo and scuba experiences can be introduced.

“A further initiative we are researching,” Chris says, “revolves around the fact that in the UAE young people have to do National Service, so we are looking into the idea of something like a ‘cadet force’ to help bridge the gap between the school and the military, teaching skills that include leadership, teamwork and perseverance. We are working on this currently and hope to make an announcement in the not-too-distant future.”

“We want to move away from Minecraft and games to use the idea of gamification as a wrapper for learning”

Embracing a New Era of Education

We heard a lot about the role of technology in education during the pandemic, with digital solutions helping school communities to continue learning in the face of uncertainty and disruption that none of us could have predicted. And we now have the opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to usher in a new era of education, one that is powered to a significant extent by technology while remaining focused on human connection, and one that rejects the false choice between stimulating software and an outstanding teacher.

“We have just opened an e-sports hub, which is kind of a posh computer gaming space where we’ve partnered with Lenovo Computers and Microsoft,” Chris says. “We want to move away from Minecraft and games to use the idea of gamification as a wrapper for learning. I believe the education world is still slightly out of step with the reality of the workplace and, while there is still a very important place for a library with real books where you can sit down and leaf through the pages and share with other people, at West Yas Academy we’ve invested in STEM and STEAM, electronics labs, robotics, virtual reality goggles – we have all of the bells and whistles that are so vital in the modern world, allowing us to provide flexible access to instructional content”

Technology alone will not usher in education’s new era. It is critical that we leverage digital solutions with a community-oriented, connected and human approach. At West Yas Academy, they are achieving this by fusing ‘high-tech’ with ‘high-touch’.

Listen and then Act

Parental engagement has a large and positive effect on children’s learning, and at West Yas Academy they utilise a variety of ways to stay connected. There is a monthly ‘Meet the Principle’ coffee morning, where anything and everything can be broached, plus a governing group of parents who join the school at a more strategic level to help look at its development. There is a parent-teacher group too, for events like International Day and World Book Day, and, of course, parents are invited to events like school productions, parents’ evenings and curriculum evenings, where the school explains what it is teaching and how it is teaching it.

There are plenty of sustainability options within the extra-curricular activities

Naturally, problems and concerns from parents arise, but as Chris explains, whatever feedback you receive, the answer to the problem is invariably in there somewhere. “If you don’t take it personally there is always a truth there, and although it can be uncomfortable and bruising to hear, if you listen and then act, the situation will improve.”

Principals vary in strategy, temperament and leadership style, but West Yas Academy is lucky to have a Principal who believes that empathy is very high on the list of what is required for a position that can, at times, be extremely challenging. “You have to listen carefully and meet people where they are, be they students, teachers or parents. Also, keeping calm and carrying on in stressful situations is crucial in the toolbox of a good principal, but you must always have at the centre of your decision-making a very simple question, which is, what is best for the students?”

CPD and Sustainable Values

Research shows that effective Continuing Professional Development (CPD) helps children succeed and teachers thrive. And at West Yas Academy, CPD opportunities are finely honed; indeed, thanks to parent company Aldar Academies, they are of a higher level than many other schools … which is ultimately great news for the students.

“There are in-house staff meetings and training we do amongst ourselves in the school,” Chris says, “but because we’re part of a group, we have what we call the Aldar Training Academy, offering CPD at all levels for all staff, including both teaching assistants and teachers. In addition, I teach the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NVQH) at Aldar in collaboration with a group called Best Practice Network in the UK, so as far as CPD goes, I would say we normally do pretty well.”

Another area where the school does ‘pretty well’ is sustainability, with looking after the environment being one of its three main values. “There’s a lot of sustainability in the curriculum,” Chris explains, “including field trips to places like the mangroves, and Aldar wants us to be net zero by 2030, so we’re very focused. There are lots of eco-clubs around the school and we are big into recycling and things like low-energy lighting. In some ways, sustainability has become a rather fashionable word, but it’s one that we take very seriously with initiatives such as hydroponics and a water recovery system that recycles moisture from the air.”

An exceptional school is one where students and teachers feel happy, valued and safe

There are plenty of sustainability options within the extra-curricular activities too – as well as lots of sports, art, drama productions, computing, and much more – including an eco-club that looks after things like recycling and the plants around the school.

A School that’s Blessed

An exceptional school is one where students and teachers feel happy, valued and safe. Where staff have the time, support and funding to be able to provide tailored solutions and teaching for young people. West Yas Academy is just such a school, and not only because of its unbelievable facilities, taking in everything from a spinning room with bikes through to IT labs and drama rooms, or its fantastic international team. No, it’s also about a really invested parent body and a community that genuinely cares.

To illustrate this point, Chris Nourse concludes by describing a very special day enjoyed by all at West Yas Academy: “We recently had a community Iftar meal where we invited everyone to come in and break the fast in the evening, bringing a dish to share and having a meal together. It was a very moving experience, with the Islamic Studies teacher singing the call to prayer live. All of the men and the dads went out into the playground where we’d put and big carpet and they all prayed together; all the ladies went off to another room and prayed. And then we gave gifts to our cleaning and security staff that had been donated by the school community, underlining one of the five principles that Muslims believe are compulsory acts ordered by God – charity. We were all certainly blessed on that day.”

West Yas Academy is, then, an inclusive school built around the traditions and ambitions of the UAE, and is committed to providing a top-quality Arabic and Islamic education in tandem with a family of students, parents and educationalists who all work hard to ‘deliver excellence for all’.

To read more from West Yas Academy