Dubai: Last month, a private school in Dubai, The Indian High School (IHS), made front-page news for reducing the normal five-day school week to 3.5 days.

The move will apply to grades 11 and 12 starting from April, when the new academic year starts for Indian schools.

The extra time out of school will be spent by students to pursue anything productive and worthwhile that fulfils their passions, skills and goals — be it painting, learning a new language, volunteering, internships, sport classes, or even more intense academic learning.

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It is a big departure from the “normal”. But that is the point of IHS and Dubai’s education regulator, which is overseeing the school’s programme and other “disruptions” in the education sector in Dubai.

The Indian High School (IHS) has reduced the normal five-day school week to 3.5 days in a move that seeks to ‘enhance the emotional quotient’ of young minds. Image Credit: Atiq-ur-Rehman/Gulf News Archives

What IHS, and other schools under the ‘Rahhal’ programme of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), are trying to do fits with ‘Dubai 10X’, the government’s ambitious plan to accomplish 10 years’ worth of progress in two years or less.

The plan includes shaking up the education system so that schools not only align themselves with UAE national agenda targets — the academic ones — but also place student well-being, happiness and interest above the old way of thinking — like a five-day school week.

Why go 3.5?

Ashok Kumar, CEO of IHS, told Gulf News the current school system, in general, is “too academic” and does not leave enough room and time to “enhance the emotional quotient” of young minds.

Kumar started thinking about what must be done to ensure high-school graduates are not lacking in “emotional intelligence” or “life skills” which many leading global universities and employers expect now.

The best way would be to give students more time during the week to focus on what inspires them outside the classroom.

But would that interfere with their studies?

“Instead of thinking ‘number of days’, we started thinking ‘number of hours’. Thirty hours in five days or 30 hours in 3.5 days is the same thing — it is 30 hours. This way, out of the seven days, students would get 3.5 days for themselves and 3.5 days for academics,” Kumar said.

Thirty hours is the minimum number of hours schools such as IHS, which are affiliated with India’s Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), must dedicate for academic teaching per week.

How will it work?

The specifics of the 3.5-day system are being finalised at the moment, but the basic idea is to compensate for the 1.5 days outside the classroom by extending the normal school day by two-and-a-half hours. In order to meet the 30-hour requirement, the new school timings will “most probably” be from 7.30am-3.30pm (with the half-day two hours shorter).

Boys will have a different 3.5-day cycle than girls. In total, there are some 1,200 students in grades 11 and 12. Image Credit: Gulf News

As the school is not coeducational, boys will have a different 3.5-day cycle than girls. In total, there are some 1,200 students in grades 11 and 12.

Kumar said it is possible that the 3.5-day system will be extended to grades 9 and 10 after gathering the experiences of the higher grades.

Each student will choose what he or she wants to pursue in the 1.5 days, subject to a few conditions, Kumar said.

If a student decides to join another institute, the institute has to be KHDA-recognised; attendance will be taken; and the partnership between IHS, parents and the institute will be in writing, lasting for the school year.

Every new academic year, grades 11 and 12 (possibly others) will follow the “ongoing and permanent” option at IHS for the shorter school week.

The origins

The latest IHS disruptor follows the school’s first programme under the KHDA, launched last April, in which three students were away from class most of the school year to pursue sports and advanced computer sciences.

Rahhal means traveller in Arabic – the idea is that learning is a journey that is not restricted to a place (the classroom) or time (the school week). But more importantly, Rahhal emphasises that “all learning counts”.

In the first Rahhal, the three IHS students were Tanisha Crasto (Grade 10), Tanish George Mathew (Grade 9) and Kushagra Srivastava (Grade 11).

Success stories

Tanisha Crasto (Grade 10)

She is currently the badminton champion in the UAE, GCC and India in the junior category.

“I knew early on I needed to take badminton as my career. I had talks with my parents and I told them I either I can do my studies or pursue badminton. That’s when Rahhal was introduced and it came at just the right time for me,” she said.

Going for Rahhal wasn’t easy, but it was totally worth it as I got the best of both worlds

- Tanisha Crasto

Now that Crasto is back at IHS, after practising and competing in India and other countries, she has to catch up with studies. Like with the other Rahhal phase one students, her classmates have been taking extra study notes for her and she is receiving one-to-one personalised tutoring at school for each subject.

“Going for Rahhal wasn’t easy, but it was totally worth it as I got the best of both worlds,” Crasto said.

George Mathew (Grade 9)

He was able to use the time off from school to chase his swimming goals — he is currently number one in India in the under-17 category.

My swimming dreams, my studies — has been possible because of Rahhal

- George Mathew

Earlier, when he was in grade eight, he had to miss some exams because he went for training in India. That experience was stressful, Mathew said, but this year Rahhal was at his side.

“All this — my swimming dreams, my studies — has been possible because of Rahhal,” he said.

Kushagra Srivastava
 (Grade 11)

He wanted to increase his skills and subjects in Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and other computer sciences. He also wanted to prepare for challenging entrance exams for Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), which he plans to take after high school.

I had the interest [in computer sciences] but I didn’t know how to prepare for, say, the IIT exams, or do internships, because I couldn’t leave school long enough to learn all that. I got there through Rahhal

- Kushagra Srivastava


“So I joined Rahhal and went to India. I travelled a lot between India and Dubai so I could take my school term exams. I had the interest [in computer sciences] but I didn’t know how to prepare for, say, the IIT exams, or do internships, because I couldn’t leave school long enough to learn all that. I got there through Rahhal,” said Srivastava.

What schools say:

Michael Worth, Director of business links and IBCP and BTEC Coordinator at Greenfield Community School, IB-curriculum school in Dubai

“We offer a unique programme which combines academic study with a career-related focus. All grade 11 and 12 students complete internships or work placements during a two-year course under the IBCP (International Baccalaureate Career-Related Programme). This experience is invaluable as it gives them an opportunity to work in a professional environment to help confirm their intended career pathway.”

We offer a unique programme which combines academic study with a career-related focus.

- Michael Worth

At Greenfield Community School, students can choose between career pathways in business, art, graphics, media, web design, 3D product design, fashion and textiles, and photography, and then merge these with academic subjects they enjoy.”

Jaya Bhavnani, executive director of Dwight Global Online and Middle Years Programme Coordinator at Dwight School Dubai.

At Dwight School Dubai, a new IB school in Al Barsha, some students are taking classes outside the classroom through Dwight Global Online, which combines real-time online video conferencing seminars, Oxford-style tutorials, and a college-style schedule to provide students with the “intimacy of an independent school coupled with the freedom to pursue their passions.

We envisioned a Dwight campus without borders.

- Jaya Bhavnani, executive director of Dwight Global Online

“We envisioned a Dwight campus without borders. We’re pleased to offer this not only to current students at Dwight School Dubai but also externally to those in need of a flexible IB learning experience. We have around 100 students enrolled in Dwight Global with the majority in different parts of the United States.”

Michael Wilson, Principal, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

“The ethos that was brought over from Cranleigh, UK, was that we embed the extra-curricular programme as part of our wider curriculum, which results in an extended day. At Cranleigh, we build from a central ‘well’ of confidence and as the child gets older, we drag the skills across the disciplines by employing teachers who teach a subject, mentor and also get involved in the extracurricular programme that the school offers. Rather than shorten the day/week, we have therefore lengthened it.

Staff training, dare I say it ‘parent training’ and forums to allow the three parts of the triangle – parents, staff and children – to talk, exchange ideas and work out the way forward must be part of any modern school.

- Michael Wilson, Principal, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

“What works for a 3-year-old is very different from what an 18-year-old needs. If we, parents and staff, are asking children to learn new things, we must keep learning ourselves. Staff training, dare I say it ‘parent training’ and forums to allow the three parts of the triangle – parents, staff and children – to talk, exchange ideas and work out the way forward must be part of any modern school.”

Rajendran Padmanabhan, Head of Operations, Global Indian International School and ex-chairman of Abu Dhabi Principals Association

“Children are most productive when they follow a routine, and this includes a five-day week. Switching them to a new week format might mean that a lot of children fail to use the time productively, especially in the early stages. In my opinion, there are other means of allowing children to pursue their interests.

Children are most productive when they follow a routine, and this includes a five-day week.

- Rajendran Padmanabhan, Global Indian International School

"For instance, at our school, we dedicate two hours a week to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math workshops from Grade 1 onwards. While the workshops enhance the understanding of academic concepts, these are actually extra-curricular. We also organise Weekends of Wonder, including culinary, musical, meditative and sport activities, for children and their parents. In this way, we not only implement innovative approaches to learning but also ensure that our students receive the guidance they need while pursuing their interests.”

What do parents say

The 3.5-day school week initiative gives time and space for children to do what they like. Think about the time when you were young, about all the things you missed out on because studies left no time for anything else. Also, such programmes will allow children to interact with experts and mentors in so many fields outside the class. As long the system is rolled out with checks and balances, it has my full support.

- Hamdy Bahnasy, Egyptian father of two children in primary school in Dubai

You can teach all the definitions of robotics to a student in class, but nothing will be built unless you let students build robots in the lab. The point is, learning is not just theoretical. There’s too much time devoted to school and homework. Curriculums around the world are trying to advance further and this is the future of schooling – out-of-class learning.

- Sadia Abbasi, Pakistani mother of student enrolled at IB school in Dubai

As a parent, one of the most important criteria when selecting a school for your children is ensuring that it offers the right balance between academic and extracurricular activities. If this means that a school ‘shortens’ its week for students, I would be all for it, as long as students can pursue their interests at school. Otherwise, a lot of other factors can complicate matters. For instance, parents will have to look for, and enrol, children in institutions that offer sport or art activities. This will mean additional expenses.

- Candida Miranda, 42, mother-of-three from India and entrepreneur hopeful

My four-year-old son is enrolled at a school that places a lot of importance on academics. I would personally advocate for a greater balance between academics and extracurricular activities, but many schools that offer a better mix also have higher fees. I would be all for a school that practices a 3.5-day week, especially if children were allowed to use the remaining time pursuing activities of their interest within the school premises.

- Murad Younus, 33, supply manager from Jordan