Making a Successful Start to Post-16 Education

Those continuing their post-16 studies have perhaps been one of the most impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, with many having lost the chance at their first ‘high stakes’ examinations. How then are schools looking to support these students to make a successful start to their post 16 education? We spoke to four Dubai schools to find out.
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

The UAE is home to schools offering a host of options to students embarking on their post-16 education career. With Term 3 of the current academic year looking very different to all those that have gone before, we asked a number of Dubai teachers and school leaders to explain how they are supporting students about to start the final phase of their school life.

What has been fascinating from our discussions with all of these schools, is that many teachers are now looking at the ‘post study leave’ period of Term 3 as an opportunity to create an even better transition into post 16 education. Many of the new initiatives that have been introduced by schools will be around far longer than just this year. Just as we have seen in all phases of education, the crisis induced by Covid 19 has brought about giant leaps forward in communication, in practice and in the use of technology.

At Dwight School Dubai, Head of School Janecke Aarnaes had a clear vision for the way in which her school would transition to online education,

“We took everything we possibly could of the bricks and mortar school into the virtual space”. This has meant that the established, supportive roles of the schools’ well-being and college counsellors has continued as planned, albeit mostly on Zoom or Teams! Using this technology has, in fact, brought about some unexpected improvements to the way in which the school facilitates the connection between parents, student and school.
“By meeting virtually we can be so much more flexible in terms of timings for meetings, and that has been really helpful to our working parents. It’s also meant that students and parents have an easier option to follow up with more questions or concerns after the meetings. We simply schedule another quick call. This is a time when our students start to make some choices which can really impact their futures, so any way in which we can be better connected to them is fantastic”.

Whilst some might have imagined that this period of school closures would lead to less than purposeful downtime or a dip in energy and commitment from students, our schools were keen to point out that in fact they had found a number of really useful ways in which students can continue to grow and learn at home.

When the news of school closures and subsequent exam cancellations broke, Barry Lomas, Head of Sixth Form at GEMS Wellington Academy, Al Khail told us he was initially concerned for the “achievements and academics” of his students. However, this priority was quickly overtaken by a desire to support the well-being of students who have not only missed the exams for which they have worked so hard, but who were looking ahead at nearly 15 weeks out of their typical routine.

Mr Lomas told us that “our students have actually stepped up a gear, despite their exams being taken away. We are all really proud of them for that!"

"We are now using this time as a moment where our students can undertake some purposeful foundation work for their planned Sixth Form courses. We’re not covering the curriculum content as such, but giving them a really clear idea of what those courses entail and equipping them with some really strong study skills. We are meeting one to one with parents and students, online, to give them guidance and direction so they can make best use of this time and be sure of their choices for September. In fact, one way in which I think this time will really benefit students and the school is in making sure that students are choosing courses which are exactly right for them. I think we will see less ‘chopping and changing’ of courses come September, which will be great”.

At JESS Dubai, Mike Waller, Head of Secondary had shared Mr Lomas’ shared his concerns that this cohort would be missing an important set of exams. “While exam conditions can be replicated” Mr Waller said “that pressure can’t. The lack of external examinations may well prove to be a challenge in the long run. As is the case with any skill, repetition leads to improvement and this group of students won’t have had that chance. We will certainly have this in mind as we prepare our students for their exams in June 2022”.

Exams aside, students at JESS are now undertaking a pre-Sixth Form course and the team are working closely with any students preparing to join JESS from other schools to ensure a fluid transition. Mr Waller also pointed out that study skills will be a priority.

“We will have a real focus on research and analysis skills. In Mathematics for example, our students acquire skills that will be needed on Economics courses. We want to use this time to make sure that lessons learnt in one subject can be applied effectively across the curriculum”.

Rob Gauntlett, Vice Principal at GEMS Wellington Academy, Dubai Silicon Oasis is supporting not only his students but his own son through the transition to Sixth Form. His school offers students five pathways for post-16 education (IB Diploma and Certificate, A Levels, BTEC and a blend of BTEC and A Levels) and have used this period of online learning to engage students in seminars on the many course options as well as new study skills and ‘taster’ courses. Mr Gaunlett’s own son has gained more clarity as to pathways into his planned career and amended his A Level choices as a result of these seminars and introductory sessions. As for his colleague at GEMS Wellington Al Khail, Mr Gaunlett hopes that this cohort of students will enter their next term in education confident and secure in their pathway choices.

So whilst schools are confident that they can help students to make purposeful use of this unique period in time, how can they help students to mark what is for many a significant milestone, the end of secondary school?

At Dwight School Dubai, Ms Aarnaes and her fellow teachers are looking at ways at marking the end of the secondary phase. “We don’t want students to lose the experience and traditions because they are learning online. All our Grade 10 students have recently finalised a significant independent research project that traditionally marks the end of their time in the Middle Years Programme. In any other year, we would host a special exhibition of these projects. This year, we will host a virtual exhibition and we have placed all of the projects on an online platform for visitors to see. It’s important that these students do not miss out on this special recognition of their hard work”.

We were interested to hear from all of the schools that we spoke to that, academic celebrations aside, students have been resistant to virtual proms and end of year celebrations. At GEMS Wellington Academy, Dubai Silicon Oasis, Mr Gauntlett told us that having canvassed student opinion, they may well ‘save’ the graduation ceremony and have a combined ceremony next year. “We’d prefer to wait and get it right, with all the pomp and ceremony!” he said.

Our last question was one for the parents: What advice do teachers have for mums and dads who are anxious to help their child make a successful next step to secondary school? Mr Waller at JESS Dubai has one simple tip. “Reading! Give your teen interesting books, magazines, publications to read and make sure to discuss them together.  Given the current challenges, that connection between you and your child is more important than ever.  Finally, please trust in your school. Schools will be absolutely committed to getting this right for their students”.

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