By Kai Vacher- Principal, British School Muscat and British School Salalah.
A letter arrived at my school inviting both my Chair of Governors and me to meet with Oman’s Ministry of Education (MOE). Over the ten years that I had been in post as Principal of British School Muscat, I had been to many meetings with the Director of International Schools at the MOE; but never with my Chair of Governors, Dominic Myers. Dominic was equally intrigued by this unexpected request. We had no idea what to expect.
A typically sunny morning in March 2019 found us standing outside the handsome and imposing Ministry of Education building. Our minds motored into overdrive as we entered the reception foyer. Excitement, anticipation and trepidation coursed through us in equal measure as we attempted to figure out why we were there. Once in the meeting room, our jangled thoughts settled. We had our answer. The reason for this important meeting lay in the far south of Oman, in Salalah, 1000 km from Muscat.
For a number of years we had been conscious of another not for profit school in Oman bearing a similar name to our own: British School Salalah (BSS). This school now needed support. The Ministry explained that from this moment on, British School Salalah would be regarded as a branch of British School Muscat. BSS was our responsibility. Armed with a clear answer as to why we had attended this unique meeting, our feelings of excitement, anticipation and trepidation returned. What would this adoption entail?
Located on the remote, beautiful southern coast of Oman, in the Dhofar region, BSS had only 130 students in 2019. Meanwhile, BSM, a leading British international school in the bustling city of Muscat, catered for around 1250 students, aged between 3-18. Although both schools had been set up fifty years ago, as not-for-profit organisations, the schools had operated as separate entities. Our landmark meeting at the Ministry of Education in 2019 saw the amalgamation of the two schools, resulting in a highly successful partnership. Three years later, BSS is now a thriving school, COBIS accredited with 300 students projected for August 2023. How did this rapid growth occur?
Prior to our partnership, BSS was only able to offer an education to students up to Year 9. With a limited number of students in the Senior School (at the time only 15 students attended Years 7, 8 and 9 combined) it was clearly not financially viable to support learning past this age. Consequently, as children approached Year 9, their families would either leave Salalah, accept a place at another community school in the region or opt for home education.
In November 2019, I travelled to Salalah to visit staff and parents at BSS. At the time, I was unsure of how to meet the needs of this unique community. The overriding challenge was clear: to provide a secure education for all BSS students but how could this be achieved? Was it possible to design a model of affordable and quality schooling for only 15 students in KS3? There was a simple straightforward solution that came to mind: close the Senior School at BSS and focus instead on growing the Primary School. Once we had generated enough Y7 students to re-establish a viable Senior School we could expand the provision to cater for an older intake. Of course, as the first strategic move of our partnership, this proposal would not sit well with the close knit community of BSS.
Arriving at BSS, I was greeted by a range of parents at the school coffee morning. I was enjoying the initial introductions when a parent cut straight to the chase: ‘What are you going to do for our children next year as they start their GCSE years?’ I was taken aback. A GCSE programme had not crossed my mind. We could ill afford the current KS3 programme for 15 students, let alone a GCSE programme for a mere 5 students. The parents were polite but remained persistent. It became apparent that rather than closing down the senior school, another more creative approach was required.
I was forced to rethink the problem. Instead of closing down the senior school, perhaps we could extend provision to embrace GCSEs? After all, we had 5 students whose parents were desperately keen for their education to continue at BSS. At the time of the Coffee morning, the Senior School was staffed by two full-time teachers; a Maths teacher and an English teacher who, between them, taught most of the KS3 curriculum. What could a creative solution for offering 9 or 10 GCSE subjects with just two specialist teachers for 5 students possibly look like?
FlexEd provides the solution
Working closely with Les Jonson, our Director of Digital Technology, we eventually came up with the idea of ‘FlexEd’ – a unique mix of face-to-face and online learning:
- Students attend BSS, full time, five days a week.
- Students have face-to-face teaching from BSS teachers for iGCSEs in English and Mathematics and non assessed courses in Arabic, Art, PSHE, Music and PE.
- iGCSEs in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computing and French are taught via online lessons from teachers at British School Muscat
- Students study independently for some of the time using Century, an independent learning platform powered by artificial intelligence.
As FlexEd requires far fewer teachers to be employed on site, costs are significantly reduced. Tuition fees for FlexEd in KS4 are only slightly higher than for KS3.
Resistance to online learning
When FlexEd was first proposed to parents they were very clear that all learning, including online elements, had to take place in school, not at home.
By the time we launched FlexEd in August 2020, there were many similarities to the student online learning taking place all over the world due to COVID. Whether this helped with the introduction of FlexEd we will never know, but we had no resistance whatsoever from students, staff or parents.
By the end of Term 1, parents were positive about the new arrangements, agreeing that their children were making good progress and that they were more than happy to recommend the programme:
“FlexEd is the best of both worlds; face-to-face AND online learning”.
Our first cohort of FlexEd students sat their GCSEs in 2022 and achieved excellent results. Students and their parents were keen for us to extend FlexEd to cover A-Levels for this pioneering group of students and we are delighted that we have been able to do this for their children.
The success of FlexEd has fuelled growth across the school. BSS has grown from 130 to 250 students in just 3 years with a roll of 300 students projected for September 2023.
The design principles of FlexEd can be adapted to schools who want to improve education provision in remote areas, maybe where teacher recruitment is a challenge or where there is a desire to rethink the 14-19 curriculum.
FlexEd has challenged some fundamental assumptions we make about curriculum design including how many iGCSE students need to study and how blended learning can work when supported by online independent learning platforms such as Century.
We need to continue exploring ways in which we can redesign the delivery of our curriculum as the demand for more flexible ways of learning and working increases amongst our students, colleagues and communities.
To connect with Kai on LinkedIn click here:
May 17 2023