Most expat kids in Dubai enjoy a privileged existence. They meet other cultures, they travel, they get involved in a host of activities and they have experiences that their parents probably had to wait decades for.
But there are downsides – expat kids get shunted from pillar to post, uprooted whenever mum or dad’s job changes, shipped off to a new school and forced to start over again. It’s a trying time, a big challenge for them socially, but can also be a huge academic upheaval.
So, some families consider home schooling. Already popular in the United States, the concept is beginning to take off in Dubai, with online schooling firm, K12 International Academy, seeing a growth in interest since it began classes a year ago. Opening its doors (or, rather, switching on its screens) in April ’08, K12 had 25 students –full time and part time. A year later and that number has increased five fold.
So, what are the attractions? For parents, avoiding the hairy traffic and dodgy school buses may be enough, but Sara Sayed, head of school and K12 regional representative for the Middle East, says there are many reasons to choose home schooling. ‘We have a lot of families from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia interested in K12 because their school year starts in January.
When they arrive in Dubai, they find that their kids don’t slot in easily. They’re out of synch with a term that started in September, so many use K12 as a temporary – or permanent – solution.’
Another reason, particularly in today’s uncertain economic climate, is that families don’t know from one term to the next how long they’ll stay in Dubai. If they do move, where will they go, and what will the schools be like when they get there?
‘People are in an unpredictable situation at the moment,’ says Sayed, ‘They’re scared of committing. It’s comforting for parents to know that their kids’ school is portable. Kids following the K12 programme simply pack up their laptops and take their class with them.’
One of the main advantages is that lessons move at the pace of the student. Clever clogs can zip through subjects and jump grades. Weaker students can take time to understand the key points properly – they won’t be able to move to the next grade until they have a thorough understanding of the subject.
‘The individualised, self-paced system allows some students to move ahead, some students to catch up, and others to pursue what deeply interests them,’ says Sayed.
By the same token, K12 is not an all-or-nothing option. Around 20 per cent of K12’s pupils study on a part-time basis – extra classes or subjects that take their fancy. Plus, all subjects count towards credits in the American system.
So, how does it work? Each student receives an online account, a box of materials and equipment to last them the whole year: textbooks, test tubes, microscopes – they’re all included. They then work their way through the programme, at their own pace, but within certain guidelines: they must ‘attend’ school for sufficient hours to complete the school year and meet Ministry of Education requirements, and they must pass the assessments with at least 80 per cent in order to move on to the next lesson.
Apart from the online assessments, there are also regular conference calls with the teacher and virtual classmates. Students can be chatting in a ‘lesson’ with a teacher in Alaska and fellow classmates dotted around the world. The schedule is flexible and can be changed to fit in with family trips and sports activities.
What’s missing, of course, is playground fun and frolics. ‘It is true to say that the lack of social interaction is the main concern of parents looking at K12,’ admits Sayed. ‘But, typically, parents who are considering home schooling as an option are parents who are incredibly engaged with their children.
They’re not blinkered, so if they’re worried about the lack of interaction, they’ll make sure their child gets that interaction in their free time.’
Home schooling does require more input from parents – typically four to six hours a day with their child. ‘If parents spend time with their children, they do better in life in general’ says Sayed. ‘That’s not rocket science.’
But, of course, interaction with parents and interaction with other children is not the same thing.
The Aldredge family
Silvia Aldredge and her family arrived in Dubai last August from Connecticut. Initially living in temporary accommodation, they didn’t know which area would suit them for schools, so Silvia decided to home school Thomas (seven) and William (five) while they settled in.
‘We initially looked at Repton School and thought it would be possible to drive back and forth. We tried it once. We got into a taxi and sat on the highway for two hours. A couple of hundred dirhams and three vomiting children later I realised there was no way we could do this!
‘We started home schooling to keep the boys up to speed while we considered what to do. Schools at that time were demanding enormous registration fees without giving very much indication as to whether they’d have space. K12 was much simpler, and it offered us the flexibility to move and travel and do different things.
‘I think the boys wanted to go to school, but they understand that this suits us at the moment, and this way we’ve been able to take trips back home and to Rome, so they get it. The boys [there’s also three-year-old Charles] are as thick as thieves so they stick together. They haven’t missed out socially, although I don’t know if I would have home-schooled it if I had just one child, or older kids.’
The Miller family
When Arnold Miller brought his family over from South Africa, they had a ‘disastrous’ experience trying to find schools for their son Benjamin, now 16, and, in particular, their daughter, Tamika, now 18.
‘We really struggled to get both our kids into school here. The cost was horrendous and typically the schools were pretty full. Plus the school year was out of kilter to what we were used to in South Africa [where the school year starts in January]. Both kids lost nine months of schooling because of our move here.
‘What annoyed me intensely was that the schools here made the kids sit a test, asked us for Dhs500 and put us on the waiting list. That was completely demoralising for the kids – they felt like failures and rejects. And in my daughter’s case, because of the curriculum choices she’d made, schools here just refused to take her.
‘We started home schooling with a South African school but it was poorly presented and poorly supported. It was incredibly difficult for Tamika because she’d spent her whole life at a regular school with classmates, and now she was stuck in her bedroom, missing her school friends, not knowing anyone and feeling quite isolated.
‘I was at my wit’s end, wondering if I’d have to send her back to live with my mother in South Africa, but then we came across K12. I liked their approach: K12 chatted to us, they showed us how their system worked, they counselled us about subject choices and generally took an interest in our child.
‘My son Benjamin is at regular school and, in fairness to him, he’s thriving there, enjoying his friends and the sporty aspect. He has three or four years left of schooling and I’m not sure we’d manage to contain him in his bedroom!
‘Tamika is very happy with K12. I think if she’d had a choice, she would have preferred to stay in her own school in South Africa, but her marks have been great. Without the distractions and nonsense of school, she’s found her own routine and just gets on with it.’
K12 fees range from Dhs18,322 (KG-Grade Eight) to Dhs25,672 (Grade Nine-Grade 12) for full-time tuition, with options of paying by semester. For more details, visit www.k12.com/int or call 04 374 8247/48