New UK-curriculum school in Dubai is a class apart

Students from Gems Founders School practicing the culture of 'mindfulness' in the their class. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

GEMS Founders in Dubai is not your typical school — there is no homework or grades. It is, however, weighty on ‘mindfulness’, meditation-like practices that student imbibe for positivity at school, and even at home.

The new UK-curriculum school, which opened this academic year, does not confine itself to traditional ways of teaching or exams. There is no final report card with letter grades or marks deciding who gets to move on to the next year. Instead, students earn an overall ‘green’, ‘amber’ or ‘red’ standing against key Age-Related Expectations, which lets teachers know their strengths and weaknesses.

And every now and then, bursts of happy music fill the hallways at the school, located in Al Barsha.

Matthew Burfield, the school’s principal, showed Gulf News around recently.

In one class, students sat silently, eyes closed, tuned in to whatever sounds they could hear — the hum of the air-conditioner, a sigh here and a whisper there. It was one of many mindfulness practices, held in class or at the beginning of the school day, before they hit the books.

At the end of the day, the students — and parents — don’t think about homework, as is usually the case in most schools. Burfield explained how GEMS Founders instead has “project-based home learning”.

The study material or project is uploaded online, set over the course of, say, half a term (around two months). The students work on it at their own pace, in their own time.

“The project has a final point because, of course, they need to present something in the end. But nobody is ticking the box every day or every week of what they’ve achieved … We really want to develop students to know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re going to do it, and not just enforce it on them in that very dictatorial way that schools can be sometimes,” Burfield said.

While students “loved it” from the start, parents were “scared” initially, he added.

“Parents were like ‘how do we follow up, how do we know?’ I just keep telling them how clear the distinction is between a parent and a teacher. Children, in their life, need a parent and a teacher, but they need both to be quite distinct. When parents become teachers, when they chase them on homework, it just develops [into] so many confrontations, so much conflict at home.

“We wanted to withdraw that, and now they are so much more comfortable with [home learning] , because they realise that they no longer are fighting with their children about when they’re doing their homework.”

The school also has a different approach on how it assesses student performance.

“We don’t do grades or levels. What we look for is ‘end of key stage objectives’ in the English National Curriculum, called AREs [Age-Related Expectations] . So we would expect a child to be able to do x, y, and z, which are very, very clear in the National Curriculum. We have those expectations of them to reach at that point and we’re constantly assessing them,” Burfield said.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on mindfulness, which is catching on in schools in the West, is paying dividends at GEMS Founders, said Janet Foley, vice-principal and head of primary school.

“We wanted to not only help the students to cope with any stressful situations that they might have, but the actual research is showing mindfulness has benefits outside school. Students are using it as a connection with their parents, and parents are practising it,” she added.

“The benefits are that educational outcomes are better, parental relationships are better, and so is behaviour around the school … We are looking at the National Agenda as well for the UAE, and lining it with student happiness because we are looking at positive education …”

The school is not yet rated under the inspection system of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority as it is a new school that has not completed three academic years.

The annual tuition fees at the school for the 2017-18 academic year range from Dh22,000 for Foundation Stage 1 to Dh29,000 for Year 9.

Students on home learning and mindfulness

Julianne Leigh Sigua, Year 5 (the Philippines)
Home learning is very creative and easy to do … I get into my mindfulness when I colour pictures because I focus a lot when I colour pictures.

Jade Karen Beckx, Year 7 (South Africa)
It is much easier to go to the computer and log in for home learning … In our class, [for mindfulness] what we do sometimes is close our eyes and think about all the sounds around us.

Syed Feras Jamshed, Year 5 (Pakistan)
Home learning is really easy and helpful. It’s better to type it down than just write all the time … Mindfulness really helps you relax and get into the zone.

Samreen Ali, Year 7 (Canadian-Indian)
If you’re absent, you don’t have to get stressed about what you’ve missed at school because our teachers will upload what we’ve learnt …. We do mindfulness in the mornings. It helps me study easier in the mornings.

Marwan Mahmoud, Year 7 (Jordan)
I had never experienced home learning before; it’s a really good idea … With mindfulness, we focus about the present and forget about what happened yesterday.

Juhi Saxena, Year 7 (India)
With home learning, it’s easier to check and submit work online and it’s more fun than writing everything down … Mindfulness is, basically, staying deeply in touch with our present without thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

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