For many of us, packing your kids off to school at three is a scary thought, but in the UAE, unlike a lot of countries in Europe, that’s exactly what happens as many children enter the school system at Foundation Stage 1, around their third birthday. While FS1 isn’t compulsory, kids already in school are automatically guaranteed a place in FS2, so there could be fewer places up for grabs if you delay until your child turns four. But, with almost 20 schools opening up in Dubai alone in 2017, there’s far less competition for spaces than there used to be, and many parents choose to keep their kids at nursery or home a little longer.

“Quite often there is a lot of pressure from the schools for parents to accept a place when their child is three so as to guarantee the place,” says Sophie Oakes of Gabbitas. “In an ideal world it would be great if the schools were just schools (and not nurseries as well). There is much to be said for keeping a child in the small, nurturing environment of a nursery school until they are ready for the next step. Every child is different, and while one may rise to the challenge of a larger environment, many need a little more time to grow.”

The facts 

Compulsory education in the UAE begins from grade 1 (age 6), and the academic year runs from sept to June, except for Indian, Pakistani and Japanese curriculum schools, which run from April to march. For English, us and IB curriculums, where the school year starts in September, your child has to turn 3 by 31 December of that year; for Japanese, Indian and Pakistani curriculums, which start in April, your child has to turn 3 by 31 July of that year. 

Here's a guide: 

The right choice

Joanne Jewell is a counsellor and founder of the Mindful Parenting service. She says: 

"I think there are a variety of reasons why parents make this choice and it’s a discussion which regularly happens on my Toddler courses as parents look for advice and suggestions as to what is right for them and their child.  Many families have 2 parents working so going to school is a practical issue for them and I do think there is a lot of pressure on parents to send children to school in FS1 as they are concerned if they don’t then their child won’t get a place in FS2 at their school of choice.  I have seen in the last few years, many nurseries and particularly the Montessori nurseries offering places up to FS2 which I feel is a positive additional choice for parents.  It’s a personal choice and I think can be different from child to child also based on their birthday and whether they are the oldest or youngest in their year at school.  I would encourage parents to make a conscious choice about what is right for them and their child and not feel pressured to make a decision based on either what other families do or from the school - this can feel hard and it will be the first of many hard decisions you will make for your children all through their years at school." 

Read more from Baby & Child:  

7 steps to choosing your child’s school in Dubai 

Nursery nerves: How to prepare your child to start pre-school 

5 Ways to encourage a love of reading in your child 

Shyness, Separation Anxiety and Morning Tears: How to deal with the most common back-to-school issues