In the fortnight since WhichSchoolAdvisor.com published the 2015 UAE schools exam results, the discussions we've generated between parents and schools have almost entirely centered around either the results or a school's value-add. Whether that's the percentage of students with EAL, SEN, or even the selection process (or lack thereof) on entry, and yet to date, there's been very little discussion on the shortcomings of the actual GCSE exams themselves.
Recently the Guardian highlighted three unique UK Independent schools, who ,fed up with what they saw as limitations with traditional GCSEs, set about creating their own custom-made equivalents.
This summer, 16.9 percent of students of Bedales School in Hampshire England, achieved A* in their A-Levels, and were accepted into Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, London School of Economics, University College London, Edinburgh, Bristol, Durham, Glasgow and more.
Of even more interest is the fact that none of these students had sat GCSEs prior to these A-Level results. In fact, Bedales dropped GCSE exams over a decade ago, choosing instead to create their very own Bedales Assessed Courses (or BACs) which have been running successfully since 2001.
Head teacher Keith Budge says, "I started here in 2001. What became clear was that it was an unusual school with a history of educational innovation, but a very ordinary curriculum.”
As Budge set about researching options he says he was amazed to discover during various discussions with universities that as long as the core subjects were adequately covered, (English, maths, science, modern languages etc) innovation was positively encouraged, so he and his team wasted no time in designing something a whole lot more inspiring.
Budge says of the BACs, "there's a heavy emphasis on research, extended writing, discussion and – above all – the development of inquisitiveness and independent thought."
During the 14 years since their inception the BACs have become recognised by UCAS, are externally moderated and offered in 11 subjects, including English literature, classical music and outdoor work.
Six years ago, Tim Jones, deputy head academic of Sevenoaks devised and launched their own Sevenoaks School Certificates (SSCs). Much like the BACs, the SSCs also focus on developing independent investigation skills, and are now offered in seven subjects, including pioneering technology and robotics courses.
Jones says, “it’s a chance for students and staff to unleash their creativity. If you’re concentrating on an external assessment, the temptation is to spend too long preparing for the exam and not enough on the actual course. Also, if you’ve got bright and well-motivated teenagers, they can dip in years 9 and 10 because they know they can get A*s. Letting them get their teeth into some quite challenging material and explore projects of their own devising keeps the intellectual excitement going.”
Another school choosing the same route, however introducing the concept to younger students is Haileybury School also in Herefordshire. Starting in year nine 'Haileybury Horizons' covers a range of diverse topics such as current affairs, culture, debating, ethics, leadership, and global studies and risk.
To balance the academics the school has also implemented a positive psychology study programme focusing on mindfulness, wellbeing, growth mindset and other useful theories for mental health.
Simon Smith deputy head academics says the courses have been popular with pupils and parents. “This is one of the benefits of being an independent school, free schools and academies should be looking at this sort of thing as well," notes Smith.
Until now, primary focus in the UAE has been on brand name schools, the likes of Repton and Cranleigh already here, while we await North London Collegiate and Kent. However, it would seem there has been little or no discussion as yet on implementing 'branded' exam equivalents.
No stranger to the BACs system is Mike Lambert, headmaster at Dubai College and former head of classics at Bedales. Lambert believes that while the BACs are both effective and necessary, possibly the current UAE educational environment is not yet quite ready for an independent GCSE equivalent.
He says of the concept," with the market being what it is in Dubai, I suspect that our parent body is naturally more conservative than in the UK and consequently I think we would have to be cautious about introducing subjects which are not recognised in place of the globally recognised brands GCSE and IGCSE. I may be wrong, but we would need to do some detailed market research before moving in that direction."
However, interestingly Lambert does note that Dubai College school is considering creating its own sixth form diploma- the DC Diploma. He says the option would, "on the surface of things help differentiate the two students who come out of two schools each with three A levels and look like comparable candidates."
"At Dubai College and many other leading independent schools within the HMC students come away with infinitely more in term of public speaking, leadership as well as creative, sporting and philanthropic achievements, much like the CAS within IB. As such we are currently looking at how we can create a DC Diploma which will be ratified by a UK university (much like the courses at Bedales and Tonbridge)," he says.
Lambert goes on to note, "it is misleading for schools to be ranked in league tables when some schools only focus on the academic, whereas others (like DC) achieve stellar academic results in addition to a whole host of other skills and achievements which will serve them long after they have forgotten about their exams results. Equally A Level students are not currently achieving the same recognition as those doing the IB who can get much higher UCAS points on account of CAS and the Extended Essay when our students are doing the same if more but are not receiving the acknowledgement for this."