Beech Hall Riyadh: Reimagining Education in Saudi

Clemmie Stewart, the new Executive Principal at Beech Hall School Riyadh, talks to WhichSchoolAdvisor about developing inclusive, international and future-ready education within Saudi Arabia.
Beech Hall Riyadh: Reimagining Education in Saudi
By Carli Allan
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“You can't simply impose the blueprint of a UK school model on Saudi Arabia and expect to build a successful international school. It’s about combining the strengths of the UK education system with the very best of what’s already on the ground in Saudi, and then aligning it with goals of the Saudi Vision 2030.”

Clemmie Stewart, the new Executive Principal at Beech Hall School Riyadh, is moving into a new role, a new school, and a new country with a very clear vision. It’s all about developing a school to meet the needs of students in Riyadh while supporting national goals and aspirations – and offering what she describes as a “reimagined international education in Saudi” that focuses on being inclusive, international and future-ready.

As Saudi Arabia continues to make significant strides in education, there has been a wave of international schools opening across the country. One of the most recent openings has been Beech Hall School Riyadh, which opened in September 2022 as a co-ed primary school for students aged 3-11 (KG to Grade 6), together with Grades 7 and 8 for girls only. In September 2023, the school will open its Grade 9 classes for girls and a new lower secondary boys’ section (Grades 7 to 9).

Founded by the UK-based Chatsworth Schools group, Beech Hall School Riyadh is a branch of Beech Hall School in the UK. Currently Director of Learning and Teaching at Chatsworth Schools, Ms Stewart is joining Beech Hall School Riyadh to help lead the school into its next period of expansion. 

Since joining the Chatsworth Group in 2021 Ms Stewart has been responsible for supporting schools in the UK and abroad, including Citizens School Dubai and Beech Hall School Riyadh. She has also played a key role in designing Chatsworth’s bespoke curriculum, the Chatsworth Tapestry, which focuses on future-ready skills including entrepreneurship and innovation.

As Ms Stewart tells, her attention is now focused on developing a unique and inclusive learning experience for all students in Saudi…

Beech Hall School Riyadh is offering an inclusive education that supports children with diagnosed mild and moderate needs, as well as those who are neurotypical, ambitious, and have gifted abilities.

Chatsworth’s success is built on developing schools that offer an inclusive, non-selective education. How does this model work in Saudi Arabia?

“The school is licensed to enrol 25% of our student population with diagnosed mild and moderate needs. However, we recognise that children learn in different ways and possess different talents, strengths and barriers, whether diagnosed or not.

“The goal is to replicate our inclusive model throughout the entire school. At Beech Hall in the UK for example, where we have a 70%-30% split, it is not immediately apparent when you walk into any of our classrooms which children have diagnosed needs – our approach integrates all students. We have a fantastic team of specialists, including speech and language therapists, counsellors and occupational therapists, who support the learning of all children, not just those with defined needs. 

It’s crucial to emphasise the mainstream element of our school. We provide an education to children who are neurotypical, ambitious, and have particular strengths or gifted abilities. Our goal is to meet the needs of all children, not just the 25% with diagnosed needs. We are a truly inclusive school where all children can learn and thrive.”

What do you see as the key differences between the education sectors in Saudi and the UK?  

“I think the biggest difference is innovation. In my previous roles as head of independent girls’ and boys’ schools, the focus was primarily on preparing children to go on to excellent universities. This was seen as the measure of success – and it’s a fantastic ambition to have.

Our ambition for children in Riyadh is very different. It recognises the importance of providing a broader range of opportunities for our children. Our goal is to support various pathways including university, vocational routes, and entrepreneurship. We are committed to meeting the full spectrum of needs and aspirations for all of our children. 

“The other big difference is the international context. At Beech Hall School Riyadh, we are embracing Saudi tradition and values, while supporting the progressive and innovative ideas within Saudi at the moment. You cannot simply impose the blueprint of a UK school model on Saudi Arabia and expect to build a successful international school. It’s about combining the strengths of the UK education system with the very best of what’s already on the ground in Saudi, and then aligning it with the goals of the Saudi Vision 2030.” 

You’re taking the lead at a school which has seen rapid growth since opening last August and, most recently, has been approved as a member of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City’s international schools’ programme. What will you be focusing on in this next phase of growth for Beech Hall School Riyadh?

For me, the primary responsibility lies in proving that inclusion works within mainstream education – and that it can work in a country where inclusion has not always been as prevalent. I am committed to rolling up my sleeves to prove that inclusive education works, and to developing a team of staff who can make it work brilliantly. 

“I fundamentally believe in inclusive education and therefore I want to create a model of excellence that others can observe and consider implementing in their own schools and settings. We’ve seen inclusive education work across all our schools in the UK and now it’s a case of helping to prove that it works elsewhere.”

How has Beech Hall School Riyadh’s fully inclusive, mainstream education been welcomed by parents in Riyadh?

“When we opened our doors last year in August, there was a very positive response from parents. Many parents, whether they heard about us or simply walked in off the street, were initially surprised that their child could be considered to join the school because they had a special need.

"Contrary to expectations, parents have been very transparent and open about their children's needs. I think this is because we've been very clear from the beginning that our school is dedicated to meeting the needs of all children, and we can only do that in partnership with parents. The more information they provide us with, the better equipped we are to support their child's development.

“In fact, we have seen a high number of applications from parents of children with special needs, more than we can cater for. If we were solely a special educational needs (SEN) school, we would be full tomorrow. This really highlights the demand for inclusive education here.”

How is the school aligned with the Saudi Vision 2030?

As Executive Principal Clemmie Stewart explains, the school's curriculum framework, the Chatsworth Tapestry, aligns with the Saudi Vision 2030.

“We worked closely with our regional partners to co-construct the vision of our school, aligning it with the principles of the Saudi Vision 2030. Several core strands of our vision tie in seamlessly with the national identity and national pride emphasised in the Vision 2030. 

We're very proud of our Arabic and Islamic Studies programme; this goes beyond the minimum requirements as we know this really matters to our parents. Our staff who deliver this programme collaborate with homeroom teachers and subject specialists to ensure there is a connected and thematic approach throughout the curriculum. 

"Some of the core foci in our curriculum framework, the Chatsworth Tapestry, align with the Saudi Vision 2030. These include physical wellbeing, character-building, and enterprise and innovation.

"We have implemented a formal curriculum dedicated to teaching enterprise and innovation from Grade 1 and we are collaborating with 8Billionideas to ensure our students are learning these skills, knowledge, and behaviours throughout their time here.

“It really ignites something in our students, whether it's a passion for selling, pitching, advertising, or problem-solving. These skills are critical for success in the modern world.”

Like most Saudi international schools, Beech Hall School Riyadh has a cohort of predominantly Saudi nationals. What are parents here looking for in an international school like Beech Hall?

“I think they're looking for a combination of traditional British teaching methods, which emphasise high standards and strong subject knowledge, with a broad and holistic curriculum that goes beyond the specialist subjects. At Beech Hall School Riyadh, we're not just teaching our children a body of knowledge that they can regurgitate; we're focused on teaching students the skills they need to utilise their knowledge, and also how to find the answers to the things they don't know.

“Parents are really excited about this approach, especially considering the young population in Riyadh who want their children to excel in the modern workplace. We're keeping the exceptional aspects of a British education, while modernising the curriculum to meet the needs of the 21st and, indeed, the 22nd centuries.”

Beech Hall School Riyadh has a no homework policy.

There’s a ‘no homework policy’ at Beech Hall School Riyadh. What are the benefits of moving away from what many parents will view as a traditional part of education?

“It's really important that parents understand the reasoning behind our approach to homework. We believe in maintaining a balance for students, where they work hard, are stretched, and challenged during school hours. We encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, try new concepts, and learn from failures. If we've done our job properly, they're exhausted by the time they come home.

“Family time is important. Students benefit from sitting down together for supper, discussing their day, enjoying activities like reading books or playing football. These experiences contribute to their overall character development.

"Also, as they grow older, if we've inspired and taught them well, they may continue their studies at home, or work on extended projects. The traditional idea of only learning from nine to three and then going home has passed.

“We encourage teachers to set homework only if they can justify it. If homework is a justifiable extension of learning or has a clear purpose, it is useful. However, we want to ensure that homework is not given simply for the sake of it. That said, I do want every student to read every night!”

How is Beech Hall School Riyadh creating and maintaining a close-knit, family-oriented school community – and how important is parent involvement in the school?

“I had the opportunity to co-author a book with Dr Emma Kell, focusing on engaging parents and carers. During our research, we discovered a significant gap between teachers recognizing the importance of parental involvement and knowing how to effectively engage with parents. It was concerning to learn that only 3% of staff felt adequately prepared by their initial teacher training to work with parents, leaving 97% feeling ill-equipped.

“To address this, parents need to have all the necessary information to hand. There's never too much information to share with parents regarding what their children are learning, how they are learning it, and the approaches employed within the school. Our aim is to organise a series of parent master classes throughout the year that parents can actively participate in, not only in terms of curriculum delivery but also in wider topics that may excite and interest them.

“We're currently developing a beautiful parent cafe on campus, which we want to be a real hub of the school. Parents can drop off their children, grab a coffee, and even work for a while. There may the opportunity for an informal catch-up with a teacher, where parents can have a conversation over a coffee instead of being called into the school. 

“I live by the law of no surprises. If parents reach the end of the year and suddenly discover that it hasn't been a good year or their child hasn't made expected progress, we have failed them. These conversations about progress and concerns should start now.

"Also, when it comes to children with specific needs, talents, or gifts, it’s crucial that we inform families about the strategies and approaches to use at home. And, by involving parents in areas such as managing transition, we are creating a united team that can work together for the benefit of the child.”

Students who join the school in the 2023-24 academic year will benefit from 2023-24 fee reductions. Reduced fees for KG1 and KG2 are 48,000 SAR in 2023-24; KG3 fees are 50,000 SAR; Grades 1 and 2 are 55,000 SAR, whilst those for Grades 3 to 6 are 65,000 SAR. 

The new girls-only classes in Grades 7 and 8 will have fees of 70,000 SAR, and the boys-only classes in Grades 7-9 are the same.

For information on how to apply to Beech Hall School Riyadh, click here.

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