Repton School Abu Dhabi. The ‘Repton Virtual Media Roundtable’ discussed current education issues in the UAE. Image Credit: Courtesy: Repton School

Dubai: A positive spinoff of the COVID-19 pandemic is that parents’ engagement with their children’s schooling has risen because of distance learning, a UAE school group’s virtual roundtable heard on Tuesday.

David Cook

David Cook, chief education officer, Repton Family of Schools, said: “Parents have become much more directly involved. Parents used to leave their children at the school gates, and if it wasn’t their Parents Evening or Parent Session, they would then usually defer and hand over the child to the school. But, of course, with remote learning that’s completely changed ... Parents have become, immediately, classroom assistants, usually at the kitchen table, and they can see directly what their children are getting up to live or in asynchronous learning.”

He added: “I don’t think that will ever change. Parents are not going to accept the old way of handing over children to schools. They are going to want much more engagement in the lives of their school and in the learning of their children.”

His comments came during the ‘Repton Virtual Media Roundtable’ on current education issues in the UAE. Cook is also Headmaster, Repton School Dubai. The family of schools includes Repton School Al Barsha and Repton School Abu Dhabi, who also participated in the roundtable.

‘Wellbeing on top of agenda’

Another recent development has been “a new focus on wellbeing”, Cook said. “Dubai was already leading the world with the happiness agenda and the focus on wellbeing. The Dubai Student Wellbeing Census is still one of the best pieces of data... And who would have thought, when that was set out, that wellbeing would jump front and centre in all our lives. If a child isn’t happy or isn’t coping with the coronavirus pandemic through anxiety or something else, well, how on earth can they learn?”

He added that wellbeing “has jumped to the top of the education agenda, when perhaps in the past we would have discussed Maths or Science or Arabic first. Once that’s [wellbeing] in place, we can then talk about learning, teaching and progress”.

‘Teachers not in danger’

The sudden shift to full distance learning last March in the UAE, and the blended learning model in place now, has also shown that “teachers are not in danger of being completely replaced by technology, or being replaced by avatars”. Teachers have been holding both face-to-face and online classes, sometimes simultaneously, in the pandemic era.

‘Learning gaps’

However, there have been some “learning gaps” because of online classes, such as less practical work in science and arts, and not enough exercise like swimming and other activities, Cook said. “Yes, you can do practical work if you work really hard on the health and safety protocols, but you can’t do as much practical work and some learning is hands-on learning, and therefore there is a gap in hands-on learning.” He also mentioned that some pupils — be they students of determination or those with vulnerable family members at home — have not been able to come to school since last March.

What is the future of exams?

Gillian Hammond

Responding to a question about the future of exams in a post-pandemic world, Gillian Hammond, Principal, Repton School Abu Dhabi, said: “I think we’ll go back to exams, I think there is a place for exams.” Major school-leaving exams under A-Levels or IB, and other boards, have been cancelled in the UAE and elsewhere this summer. Schools will provide evidence for teacher-assessed grades for students in lieu of exam results.

Cook said: “The debate between trusting teacher-assessed grades and external exams will never end… [However] these are internationally-renowned assessments so I agree there will always be a place for terminal assessment. But there is also the feeling that what’s happened over the last 13 months, is that students themselves have become more independent and can show evidence of progress. If you think about universities now, there’s no such thing really as ‘Finals’ in university; they’re all semesters, end-of-term exams. I think education will be forced to adopt some of the internal assessments whilst recognising there will be the need for what Gillian says: a rite of passage, a terminal exam, which is internationally benchmarked.”

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Mental health support

Zoe Woolley

Zoe Woolley, Headmistress, Repton School Al Barsha, said the school worked on several fronts to reduce anxiety of students and staff returning physically to school when schools reopened last August. She added: “We also place a lot of importance on physical wellbeing and mental health. That’s really important to balance out the academic pillar with the pastoral and wellbeing pillar. So there have been lots of outside sessions, there’s been lots of PE sessions, continuing over the holiday breaks. We’ve been able to provide holiday clubs to provide that continuity for our children… The other thing which has been incredibly important in a pandemic situation is the medical care, and across the group, our medical provision has been exceptional.”