Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

GCSE reforms prompt change in teaching approach at UAE schools

School leaders in UK say difficult GCSEs have detrimentally affected a third of pupils

Pupils sit their GCSE mock exams at Brighton College in Brighton, East Sussex. Getty 
Pupils sit their GCSE mock exams at Brighton College in Brighton, East Sussex. Getty 

School principals in the UAE say GCSE reforms put lower ability pupils at a disadvantage as the “one-size-fits-all approach” to examinations has left many feeling vulnerable.

They said they have had to introduce new learning techniques to better equip pupils, who struggle with academic subjects, on how to tackle challenging exam questions.

Thursday will mark the second year that pupils in the UAE receive their GCSE results under the new 1-9 grading system.

The aim of the 2017 reforms was to make exams more rigorous, with greater focus on theoretical learning.

That had a huge impact on lower ability pupils, James McBlane, deputy head of secondary school at The British School Al Khubairat, told The National.

The new reforms fail to take in to account the needs of a (considerable) amount of children in schools

James McBlane, deputy head at BSAK

“By increasing the amount of content to be covered, learnt and remembered, removing coursework and driving pupils towards more [academic] subjects and away from the arts, it increased the difficulty and challenge of exams and reduced the options for lower ability pupils,” Mr McBlane said.

“It created a one-size-fits-all approach in an increasingly homogenous educational experience.

“The new reforms fail to take in to account the needs of a [considerable] amount of children in schools.”

He said children will do their best when they feel happy, secure and loved, not when they are under severe pressure.

Recent research by the Association of School and College Leaders in the UK found that 80 per cent of school leaders thought the intentional increased difficulty of GCSEs had detrimentally affected lower ability pupils.

Since May, PiXL, an online platform in the UK where schools collaborate to share best practice, has had more than 500 secondary schools sign up to its 'Build Up' programme.

The programme is designed to boost low-attaining pupils' character and performance in English, maths and science, using online learning.

But while booster classes and online learning in the lead up to exams is helpful for pupils, Mr McBlane said the GCSE reforms require a whole new approach to teaching.

“I think booster classes and the like have a place and have some value, but it generally tends to be a case of coming far too late in the day," he said.

“The best support comes from quality educational provision from an early age."

BSAK has a number of children that would be classed as lower ability, but last year all its GCSE pupils received a grade 4 (equivalent to a C) or higher in English. Only four pupils failed to achieve a grade 4 in Maths.

At Dubai British School Jumeirah Park, principal Brendon Fulton, said lower ability pupils have been affected most by the GCSE reforms.

As such, the school has put a huge focus on exam teaching as well as increased efforts on professional development among teaching staff.

“Where students could once balance out their final exam grade by scoring a high percentage in their coursework, that no longer exists,” Mr Fulton said.

“We now run small group analysis workshops to help pupils dissect an exam question to figure out what the question is looking for.

"This works well for students who perform better in experience-led learning."

Because of the reforms, teachers are now more up to scratch on exam preparation too.

“They have almost had to retrain themselves to ensure pupils can tackle these tougher exam questions,” Mr Fulton said.

The addition of peer-to-peer programmes has also worked well for some pupils.

“Our current AS pupils, who have recently completed GCSEs themselves, mentor lower ability Year 11 students,” Mr Fulton said.

In 2018, eight per cent of the 72 pupils who sat GCSEs at DBS achieved a grade 4 or below in maths. All pupils achieved a grade 4 or above in English. This year, with the addition of tailored teaching methods, Mr Fulton said they hoped to achieve even better results.

At Gems Wellington Academy Al Khail in Dubai, five per cent of pupils who sat GCSE English achieved below a grade 4 in 2018, while in maths the figure stood at 12 per cent.

Neil Matthews, principal and chief executive, said the key to making sure lower ability students are not left behind was preparation.

“We sit down with students and parents and give them the right advice when considering what GCSE subjects to study,” he said.

Updated: August 22, 2019 10:45 AM

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