“To learn another language is like becoming another person,” says Karim Murcia, Principal and CEO of GEMS Al Barsha National School. A linguist himself, with a degree in French and Arabic, Murcia is driven in his role to encourage students to become bilingual and biliterate so that they become well-rounded global citizens with deep respect and understanding of their culture and heritage.
With a high percentage of Emirati students, the school supports a bilingual curriculum and believes that language is the primary vehicle for thought, action and change. The cultural ethos of the school instils sound values in students who aim to become innovative global leaders with a sense of national pride.
The GEMS Al Barsha National School is dedicated to developing bilingual and bi-literate Emirati and Arab leaders. Does the mandate help to inspire loyalty and pride in students?
Our vision is to create a world-class, innovative and inclusive national school, dedicated to developing bilingual, biliterate Emirati and Arab leaders who are responsible global citizens. We groom our students to be respectful and creative lifelong learners with a strong national identity and a sense of pride in their culture and heritage. Although we are fully inclusive, more than 75 per cent of our students are Emirati. By making them bilingual and biliterate we want to inspire loyalty and pride in the UAE and make them confident in communicating to all global citizens both in and outside the UAE.
To help in this endeavor, do you have skilled and experienced native English speaking and native Arabic- speaking teachers trained in contemporary methodology?
Being part of GEMS Education, we are in a position to recruit some of the best teachers from around the world. All our English teachers are UK-trained highly qualified teachers, while we have the best Arabic-medium teachers from the Arab world. We invest heavily in professional development, both at the company level (with the Tellal Institute) and at the school level, so that when we recruit teachers, they understand our methodology, curriculum and approach.
What is the appropriate age to begin a new language?
The journey starts when students enter the school at 3 years, in the foundation stage. Our Foundation Stage is taught in an entirely bilingual model – 50 per cent of their time students are in an English-medium curriculum and 50 per cent in an Arabic-medium curriculum. As they progress, we devote more curriculum time to the Arabic medium subjects, but bilingualism and biliteracy is ingrained in the culture of the school. We have an ongoing stream of community collaborative initiatives that promote this and much of our student-led activities are delivered bilingually.
Talking about role models, do you provide your students with mentors by introducing them to Emirati leaders and innovators locally and internationally?
We have strong links between the school and the local community and engage many of our Emirati parents who are powerful role models. We are constantly using the feedback from parents to develop our bilingual and biliterate programmes to see how we can support our students further.
Our rich external speaker programme is also hugely beneficial for our students as it links them with Emirati leaders, such as Sheikh Juma Bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, as well as successful individuals such as Mohammed Al Harmi, Director, Space Operations at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, and UAE astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan AlNeyadi who inspire our students. Our senior students are also part of mentorship programmes with leading companies in the UAE that help hone their skills and broaden the outlook.
Being a British curriculum school, how do you facilitate biliteracy?
The school teaches the National Curriculum for England from Foundation Stage 1 through to A Levels. We place specific emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy skills in both Arabic and English, through a unique equal bilingual language instruction programme in the Foundation years. In Key Stages 2 and 3 (years 3-9) students have an enriched programme for Arabic, Islamic Education and UAE Social Studies that helps them to understand the ethos, culture and heritage of the region.
Our teachers are trained to understand language development, focusing on listening and reading skills in the first instance that become the building blocks for the productive skills of speaking and writing. Stimulating and vibrant learning displays and the support of bilingual staff members including teachers, teaching assistants and administrative staff all help to reinforce language development in an immersive environment.
Biliteracy is likely to be challenging because of the linguistic distance between Arabic and English. Do you agree with that? How did you address the challenges during the pandemic?
As part of our professional development programme, teachers learn to understand the needs of students, understand the importance of visual cues, and understand the benefits and challenges posed by local Arabic as opposed to a more standard form of Arabic.
During Covid-19 our teachers have done an amazing job of developing the programmes. For example, our Arabic teachers have developed the skills of offering hybrid models of education – in school and home. We offer high quality live lessons during remote learning, and they make sure that students are active learners in terms of acquisition of language. The way our teachers have adapted to the change has helped accelerate opportunities for children to develop their language skills
How has bilingual and biliteracy helped your students?
With 77 per cent of our students being UAE Nationals, it is very important for us to engage and understand the needs of the community and we have been fortunate to see that our methodology has delivered encouraging results. Our Year 11 students last year were the first cohort to take the IGCSE exams. We use a programme called ALPS to track students’ progress and were delighted that last year’s results generated an ALPS score of 1, the highest possible score, suggesting they were in the top 5 per cent of results internationally.