What subjects are taught by each curriculum at the Primary phase, and how? When are students assessed? What are the learning objectives and which type of child does each curriculum ideally suit? Are all questions regularly asked by confused UAE parents.
To gain a better understanding of how each system works at primary level, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to top UAE school principals; Brendon Fulton, Principal at Dubai British School (rated Very Good by the KHDA in 2015/16) and Iain Colledge, principal at Raha International School (rated Outstanding by ADEC in the 2015/16 inspection cycle), to learn more about their school's chosen curriculum.
Are there any main points you think parents should bear in mind when considering which curricula/school to choose for their child?
Brendon: People often confuse the quality of a curriculum with the quality of a school. Having worked across multiple curricula – South African IEB, Indian CBSE, the IB and the UK curriculum – I can attest to the fact that there is no quantifiable way to measure the quality of a curriculum without including extraneous factors, such as the quality of provision within a school.”
In the Primary years, the UK curriculum relies on subjective assessment standards to measure student progress. Outstanding schools will moderate this judgment against external measures, such as SATs, benchmark tests, or sample moderations of student work.
Whilst the UK curriculum provides a certain amount of structure, both curricula are focused entirely on developing skills, knowledge and understanding, within topical learning areas, or themes. In terms of challenge and expectation, I have found no difference between age-related learning outcomes. However, there would be a significant difference between a very good school and a not-so-good school, regardless of curriculum.
Parents should be focusing on the quality of the school, rather than just the curriculum. For some parents a UK curriculum is their choice, because that’s what they understand, but for others the IB may be more appropriate in an international setting. In all cases, however, parents should be looking at the quality assurance processes in Primary schools to ensure that their children will have every opportunity to succeed. The curriculum merely provides a framework from which to deliver, the real magic is in the classroom and I am confident that parents would see excellent student engagement, outstanding learning skills and inspired and curious students regardless of whether they walked into a DBS classroom or a Raha classroom.”
Iain: I have inspected and led British and IB schools and great (Outstanding, if you want to use inspection terminology!) schools in both curricula will have a child-centred, topic based approach, where enquiry and elements of the IB learner profile are well integrated.
The main difference is that great British schools will have to work harder to ensure they plan and adapt their curriculum and teaching to achieve this but so many British schools do, whereas an enquiry based approach is inherent in all IB schools. Though, as Brendon points out, this doesn’t always mean that schools will be the highest quality expected just because of curricula.
Ultimately, many of the learning outcomes at primary level are similar in both schools and it is about how well the school implements these into an integrated, challenging and fun environment.
What is the age range of children on your programme?
Iain: At Raha International School the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) is taught from EY1 (4-5 year old) to Grade 5 (10-11 year olds), however, in some IB schools the programme extends from 3-12 year olds.
Brendon: The age range at DBS is 5yrs (Year 1) to 11yrs (Year 6).
Is the primary curriculum broken down into further segments within the Primary level? If so, can you explain these further please?
Iain: The IB does not break the Primary Years Programme down into further segments. The curriculum identifies developmental phases through which students’ progress and development can be tracked. There is a recognition that students within the same grade may be working at different developmental phases and teachers use this information to inform differentiated teaching.
Brendon: Yes, Key Stage 1 (Years 1 & 2) and Key Stage 2 (Years 3 to 6) – this allows us to measure progress across an entire phase of school rather than just year-on-year. In terms of curriculum specifically, it is broken down into the core areas of English, Maths, Science, Arabic & Islamic Studies and then what we have labelled the WOW curriculum at DBS, which incorporates Scientific Thinking, Humanities & Social Studies.
Can you explain how these segments are taught/assessed/monitored?
Brendon: The core areas are taught in blocks throughout the day, with ongoing formative and summative assessment that allows the teacher to use all available evidence to determine at what level a student is working, and what their next steps should be. They are taught in the context of practical application, rather than simply as content, so very much a skills focus. The WOW curriculum is thematic, and uses project-style learning to develop skills in the respective areas, allowing students to develop understanding in a practical and meaningful way.
What are the main subjects covered in your primary curriculum?
Iain: Language, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, The Arts, PSPE- Personal, Social, Physical Education.
Brendon: English, Maths, Science, Arabic & Islamic Studies, our DBS' WOW curriculum, (Scientific Thinking, Humanities & Social Studies), plus Physical Education, Music and Art, as well as Moral and Social education.
How is assessment carried out and when?
Iain: Assessment is integral to the teaching and learning in the PYP. It identifies what students, know, understand, can do, and how they feel at different stages of the learning process. We pre-assess students at the start of units to ascertain prior knowledge understanding and skills and this informs differentiated planning.
Throughout a unit teachers will conduct formative assessments, providing feedback and refine teaching and learning as needed. Summative assessments at the end of units give students a chance to demonstrate what they have learned.
Students in a PYP school are actively engaged in the assessment process, students help to set their learning goals and regularly self and peer-assess. Success criteria is always shared with students and often they are involved in developing the criteria with their teachers.
The IB advocates the use of a range and balance of assessment tools and strategies. Summative tasks are often open-ended, allowing for a range of responses and approaches.
Brendon: Assessment is generally ongoing, rather than standalone formal testing. Teachers work with students and regularly assess their progress towards set objectives and outcomes. Standardised tests at the end of phases are used to moderate teacher judgments and to provide a benchmark for further learning.
What would you say is the broad teaching style/objectives of your curriculum?
Iain: The IB aims to develop internationally-minded people, who will help to create a better and more peaceful world. To this end it has developed a set of Learning Attributes for the 21st Century, known collectively as the ‘Learner Profile’. Throughout the PYP students are learning to be: Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-minded, Caring Risk-takers, Balanced, Reflective.
The PYP identifies structured, purposeful inquiry as the main approach to teaching and learning.
A culture of collaboration is developed in PYP classrooms. Students have regular opportunities to work independently and in a variety of groups, which may be organised by ability, interest or learning style. Rather than a separate subject, IT is integrated throughout the programme with understand and skills developed and used to enhance learning in meaningful contexts.
Brendon: Overwhelmingly skills based, set to deliver understanding and practical application ability over knowledge. Teachers work with the curriculum, but focus on developing learning skills within the students – the ability to think critically, problem solve, work collaboratively, communicate, etc…, so that students develop an ability to learn outside of the curriculum as well.
What significant testing if any is undertaken prior to leaving the primary phase?
Iain: The IB does not administer or encourage standardised achievement tests in its Primary Years Programme. In the final year of the PYP students engage in a culminating project called the Exhibition. This requires that students conduct an in depth collaborative inquiry into an area of personal or shared interest. Students are assessed throughout the process on their engagement with all 5 essential elements of the programme – Knowledge, Concepts, Skills, Attitudes and Action. The Exhibition provides a holistic picture of how a student has grown as a learner - so many aspects of which cannot be measured in a paper and pencil written test.
Brendon: Standardised testing is done, however this serves to moderate teacher judgment rather than as a standalone indicator of ability and progress. As we are a through-school (FS, Primary & Secondary), we also use Secondary School teachers to moderate and assess student’s work in Year 6, so that there is a continuity of standards and expectations when student move through from Primary to Secondary.
What do you think are the main personal/character attributes/traits a student leaves your primary curriculum with?
Iain: Students leave the Primary Years Programme as confident, independent learners, with the skills and courage to tackle problems in a variety of ways. They are able to work effectively with others and have learnt to take into consideration different perspectives. They can ask significant questions and use a range of sources to find their answers. They are open-minded, caring and compassionate world citizens, who understand their responsibility in helping create a better more peaceful world.
Brendon: Excellent learning skills, with an ability to thrive in any curriculum; strong social empathy and understanding; a genuine respect for others; strong self-awareness.
Can you explain broadly the role/frequency/expectations of homework in your curriculum?
Iain: Homework is not a requirement of the IB PYP curriculum. At Raha International School we share the view of P.R Wildman that ‘Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation and creative activities and whenever it usurps time devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children.’ At Raha International School, we encourage daily reading at home with parents and students from Grade 1 upwards have 20-40mins of homework most nights. A lot of this homework extends inquiries begun in class.
Brendon: We use the term home-learning to emphasise the fact that homework provides additional learning opportunities, outside of the classroom, to develop skills and understanding. Tasks are generally clearly defined, with enough time for students to make a meaningful connection to the real world – for example, when doing measurement in Maths, students may be tasked with measuring items around the home, or helping in the kitchen to measure ingredients; when doing time, they may be asked to keep a diary of the times when they eat dinner, have a bath, go to bed, etc…
What in your view makes your curriculum unique?
Iain: The PYP is unique in providing a truly international education for its students. The PYP Curriculum Framework provided by the IB, provides consistent elements across PYP schools but at the same time provides schools with the flexibility in content to develop Units of Inquiry that are engaging, meaningful and significant to students in a particular location.
Rather than topic titles, units in a PYP school are developed around a conceptually driven ‘Central Idea’. For example, rather than studying a unit titled ‘Water’ our Grade 3s inquire into the Central Idea. ‘Water is an essential resource that is not equally available to all.’ Engagement with this central idea will require students to ask questions and consider real world issues surrounding the availability of water - Why is water not equally available? Where are their water shortages? How can we conserve water? This conceptual approach is how the PYP fosters inquiring minds and develops critical thinking such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation in students.
One of the 5 Essential Elements of the PYP is ‘Action’. The PYP believes that education musty extend beyond the classroom. An explicit expectation of the PYP is that successful inquiry will lead to responsible action, initiated by the student as a result of their learning. For example, a student who has learnt about the importance of conserving water, may make choices at home e.g. using a bucket rather than hose when helping wash the car.
Brendon: The UK curriculum is unique in the fact that it provides a solid framework, built on tried-and-tested structures, but also allows schools the flexibility to deliver in a way that is meaningful for their students. So checks-and-balances exist within the defined structure of the curriculum, but there is no restriction on how schools interpret, deliver and assess – very good schools do this very well, as the student experience is at the heart of their processes.
What type of child do you think your curriculum is best suited for?
Iain: The PYP is designed to be an inclusive programme. Children are born with natural curiosity, so the PYP is a good fit for all. However, if we teach students that there is only one way to approach a problem or that there can only be one right answer we may stifle their creativity and inquisitive tendencies. Students transferring into the PYP from heavily structured programmes sometimes take time to adjust to an inquiry based approach to teaching and learning.
Brendon: All types – parents generally understand the UK curriculum and so have expectations that can be managed well. However, there is no cultural or personal bias within the curriculum that makes it more or less suited to any group or individual.