Abu Dhabi school praises plan to overhaul A-levels under UK proposals

Government proposal to overhaul A-levels includes requirement to study more subjects after age of 16

The proposed reforms aim to overhaul A-levels, transforming the education system in England and many schools overseas, including dozens in the UAE. Getty Images
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Studying English and maths at school could become compulsory until the age of 18 in England, under proposals to create a new British baccalaureate.

Pupils would be required to study more subjects after the age of 16 under the plans put forward by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The reforms aim to overhaul A-levels that will transform the education system in England and for many schools overseas, including dozens in the UAE which follow British exams.

The news has been welcomed by some schools, which say the overhaul is "much needed".

Damien Ward, the head of the senior school at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, the UAE branch of the Surrey-based Cranleigh School, told The National the current A-level system was no longer relevant.

He said the reform was necessary, adding: "It’s not so much around the standard and A-levels not being a high standard. It’s are A-levels relevant? And is it a relevant standard?

"And I think the consensus is overwhelmingly no, it’s not a relevant standard in the sense that what you were preparing kids for 20 years ago, 25 years ago is not what we are preparing kids for now."

He said because of this Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, like some schools in the UK, has started moving away from some traditional assessments.

"You have got schools in the UK that have ditched GCSEs, you have got schools in the UK that are putting together their own courses to study in recognition of this," he said.

"At Cranleigh Abu Dhabi we are the same. We have streamed down our GCSEs and we have supplemented GCSE and A-level study with other forms of, in some cases, qualifications and in others internal modules of study."

But he warned although the changes are needed, they could end up widening the divide between schools, particularly private and public in the UK, where there is already a gulf in attainment among pupils.

"So while it is the right thing in theory, the practice and the introduction of that will be heavily problematic," Mr Ward said.

"There’s no doubt private schools and some of the more independent state schools will be much more ahead of the curve. And that unfortunately will amplify the problem rather than bridge the gap."

Gems Al Barsha National School in Dubai also follows the British curriculum, and like Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, has introduced other assessments alongside A-levels.

Karim Murcia, the school's principal and chief executive, said the system needed to change.

"A more balanced and multifaceted evaluation system could better prepare students for the complexities of the real world," said Mr Murcia.

A-levels primarily emphasise academic subjects and standardised exams, he said, which may not cater to all pupils.

"In our school, the introduction of BTEC courses in business and media studies alongside A-levels is seen as an opportunity to diversify the educational landscape in the UAE.

"While A-levels remain respected, the demand for practical vocational education is growing among Emirati families. BTEC courses emphasise hands-on learning, teamwork and real-world skills, enhancing students' readiness for specific careers."

The announcement comes after Mr Sunak this week watered down a host of pledges designed to help the UK achieve net zero in 2050.

Both announcements are believed to be an attempt to draw a clear line between his ruling Conservative Party and the main opposition Labour Party, before a probable general election next year.

Mr Sunak has previously said all pupils in England should study some form of maths until the age of 18, criticising a "cultural sense that it's OK to be bad at maths".

Rebecca Coulter, the principal of Dubai British School Jumeirah Park, welcomed the extension of compulsory maths and English tuition.

“I think that when given everyday relevance and context, these core subjects form the bedrock of a comprehensive education, preparing students for the diverse demands of the modern world," she said.

"The proposal to extend studies in communication, critical thinking and numerical literacy is indeed a step in the right direction. Furthermore, expanding subject offerings for those above 16 suggests a shift towards a more holistic academic experience.

"As educational frameworks continue to evolve, it's imperative for us, the international community, to reflect on these shifts and gauge their broader implications. The true potential of these reforms will be realised through their meticulous implementation, ensuring students worldwide reap the benefits of such progressive measures.”

In a statement, the UK Department for Education said it has made "huge progress in driving up school standards" since 2010, with record funding for schools and more full-time teachers than ever before.

"We have already taken steps to reform the post-16 qualifications landscape, including reforming technical education and delivering millions of new high-quality apprenticeships," it added.

"Alongside this, we have set out bold plans to ensure that every young person studies some form of maths up to the age of 18 to give them the skills they need to succeed in the jobs of the future."

Shadow secretary of state for education Bridget Phillipson criticised the education reforms.

"This is just the latest undeliverable gimmick from a weak Prime Minister and a dying Conservative government with no serious plan for improving standards of education for young people," she told BBC's Newsnight.

"Rishi Sunak should be focusing on long-term plans to improve literacy and numeracy in younger children, not pursuing short term headlines with this unworkable policy, which will do nothing to raise standards."

Updated: September 23, 2023, 12:41 PM