A pre-university experience

Feb 3, 2022

Chris Lowe, Head of Secondary at The British International School of Abu Dhabi, explains the initiative that won them the Pathways to Higher Education Award at the International School Awards 2021.

A pre-university experience

Feb 3, 2022 | Future pathways, ISL Magazine

By Chris lowe

The British International School of Abu Dhabi won the Pathways to Higher Education Award at the International School Awards 2021, which were celebrated last January. Here, Chris Lowe, Head of Secondary, explains the initiative that won them that award.

Following the abrupt end to our year 13 International Baccalaureate course in March 2020, we felt that students had been robbed of their final opportunities to revisit key issues in their learning, and that the gap between the end of the course and the beginning of university courses was too long. We felt a strong moral obligation to continue the education of this cohort even though their ‘formal’ learning had ended so abruptly. As a result, our teachers created a series of ‘pre-university’ learning courses to allow students to continue their preparations for undergraduate study.

Following a survey of the university courses that our students would be following in Autumn 2020, we created six ‘channels’ that students opted into depending upon their undergraduate choices. The six channels were:

  • International Politics, Business and Economics
  • Medicine, Biochemistry and the Sciences
  • Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Graphic Design, Photography and Fine Arts
  • Maths, Engineering and Computer Science
  • European Literature and Culture Studies

Each of these courses had their own channel on our Microsoft Teams system, allowing for online lessons, presentations, discussions and chats between the participants. Students and staff were already familiar with Teams but the lockdown certainly helped everyone improve their online skills!

Experiences and interests

We met with all teachers to talk about how they might prepare for these courses. We hoped that teachers would channel memories of their own undergraduate years and give students an insight into what they can expect when they arrive at their university of choice. There was a real opportunity for teachers to go ‘off-piste’ from the usual curriculum constraints and develop a series of lessons about whatever topics excited them.

In the International Politics course, teachers encouraged discussions regarding the political ideas of Machiavelli, Rousseau, Mill and Marx, in the Maths and Engineering course online resources from Harvard and Yale were used, Science teachers created lessons on pathology and the European Literature and Culture course saw seminars on the continuing impact of the French Revolution in Europe, along with readings on the origins and growth of the European Union.

Lessons were taught in the university style, with readings being provided before lecture-style Teams calls and small group seminars to allow for discussion. We kept the written work to a minimum and there was no formal assessment of the course – students were having a hard enough time being locked down at home without having essays to write too! But we did offer feedback and advice on further readings that we knew would be useful to the students when they arrived at university.

Future planning in lockdown

Whilst the academic elements of this ‘pre-university’ course were crucial to its success, we were conscious of the mental and physical health of our students as they faced the global pandemic growing around them. A simple impact that this initiative had was to keep students talking to each other and to help prevent feelings of isolation in the initial period of the ‘hard lockdown’ that we endured here in Abu Dhabi. The course gave students a routine and helped them maintain contacts outside their own four walls.

Our librarian was involved in the course, organising quizzes and reading groups, our Student Counsellors offered advice on leaving home, financial matters and looking after oneself at university. Every day there was a reason to be online and engaged.

Outreach opportunities

The fact that the course was online allowed us the opportunity to grow it beyond Abu Dhabi. We have wonderful colleagues in the Nord Anglia School of Dubai and we were keen to have them involved in the course too. Like ours, the school in Dubai had been forced to close and their year 13 students were also facing months of isolation before leaving for their chosen universities.

Teachers from Dubai ‘took control’ of the courses to deliver their own interpretations on the themes and they took the wellbeing aspects of the project to another level by organising online cookery lessons – hopefully it has helped student to go beyond beans on toast at university! We have always had a good relationship with our colleagues in Dubai and this course cemented those relationships – this year we have continued the joint work with collaborations around individual assignment marking.

Success in a time of challenge

We finally closed the Teams pages in early June, just after the point at which the year 13 students would ordinarily have completed their IB exams. By that time teachers from Abu Dhabi and Dubai had replaced the hundreds of hours of revision lessons that normally get taught in April and May with hundreds of hours of university-style lectures and seminars on topics that students wouldn’t normally consider until they reached their future alma mater. Crucially, we had provided our year 13 students with a connection to their school, to their teachers, to their passions and to each other – which in March 2020 had been removed from them.

Our students engaged positively with the new material they were faced with which was, of course, slightly more challenging than material that they had seen before and our teachers had been given the sort of curriculum freedom that is rare in our profession where schemes of work and syllabi are all too often handed to us ‘off the shelf’.

As International Baccalaureate students, our year 13 graduates were already incredibly well prepared for the demands of their first year at university. They had completed their 4,000 word extended essays, they had been through the mind-bending rigours of the Theory of Knowledge course and served their communities admirably, all while studying a broad curriculum of six academic subjects. We hope that the pre-university course we provided for them was an opportunity for some low-stakes, intellectually demanding learning, which would give them insight into the academic world they were about to enter.

They are all out there now, at universities across the globe and perhaps their transition has been a little easier thanks to our efforts. And, of course, we really hope they are eating well…!

Chris Lowe is the Head of Secondary at The British International School of Abu Dhabi.


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