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Sixth forms at British schools on the increase

As demand for positions grows, schools debate whether to offer A-level or the International Baccalaureate.

Abu Dhabi// British schools here are creating sixth forms as increasing numbers of families stay longer in the country. Sharjah English School launched a sixth form this term, while in Sept 2009, Jumeirah English Speaking School at Arabian Ranches and Dubai English Speaking College will begin them. Traditionally, many families have moved to the UAE with young children, but with expatriates now permitted to buy property, more appear to be staying longer.

Julie Fantham, head of sixth form at the Jumeirah school, said demand for education for 16- to 18-year-olds was increasing. She said when she came here 19 years ago, "people didn't stay quite as long. Now, with people buying property, they're making more of a commitment." Peter Daly, the head teacher at Dubai English Speaking College, said: "There are more people looking to be here for five or 10 years. Before it was two or three years and then they moved on.

"In the past most students or a lot of students would have gone straight on to boarding school [in the UK] after primary school. They wouldn't have gone to secondary school here at all." While Sharjah English School and the Dubai College teach A-levels, studied by most 16- to 18-year-olds in Britain, the Jumeirah school will teach the International Baccalaureate (IB). Recently Dr Carlo Ferrario, the new head of Dubai College, one of the oldest British schools in the country, said he was interested in introducing the IB alongside the A-level.

He said that with so many British schools offering the IB, teaching it was no longer seen as contrary to its being a British-curriculum school. With the A-level, students typically specialise in three subjects, while the IB diploma involves six subjects in less depth. The reputation of A-levels has been hit, with some commentators claiming that students achieving higher average grades prove the exams have been "dumbed down".

Mrs Fantham at the Jumeirah school, which plans a sixth-form informational meeting on Oct 15, said: "In the UK, there's always talk in the press about more and more students getting high grades [at A-level], so universities are finding it more difficult to distinguish between very strong candidates because so many have straight As." She said the IB had gained "so much acceptance" internationally and was useful for entry to universities worldwide, something that is particularly important for UAE-based students.

Mr Daly said the IB had "a lot going for it" and a comparison between the two schemes was a case of "breadth against depth". "If you have a child who wants to do lots of different subjects, then [take the] IB. If you want to specialise, then [take the] A Level. Some kids at 16 don't want to do a language or mathematics," he said. Even within the A-level system, students can now broaden their education by taking a one-year AS Level, Mr Daly said.

Indeed, Mr. Daly believes many of the good elements of the IB, such as community service or courses in the theory of knowledge, can be incorporated into A-level study. "A-levels have taken a lot of the good practice of the IB," he said. Allan Forbes, headteacher at The English College in Dubai, which continues to offer the A-level, said the IB had "a lot of positive qualities" and described the A-level as "a bit restrictive" in terms of the number of subjects offered.

However he added: "The A-level is the passport into university. [Universities] seem happy to accept it." dbardsley@thenational.ae

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