The majority of 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, not least the fact that 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 also a huge academic upheaval.
That’s why many families are considering home schooling. Already popular in the United States, the concept is beginning to take off in Dubai, with private online schooling firm K12 International Academy seeing a huge growth in interest since it began classes a year ago. Opening its doors (or rather switching on its screens) in April last year, K12 had 25 students – half full-time and half part-time. A year later and that number has increased five-fold.
So, what are the attractions? For many parents, simply skipping the morning school run while avoiding the hairy traffic and dodgy school buses may be grounds enough, but Sara Sayed, head of school and K12 regional representative for the Middle East, says there are as many reasons for home schooling as there are students enrolled in it.
‘We have a lot of families from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia interested in K12 because their school year starts in January,’ she says. ‘When they arrive here, 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. If they 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. It’s comforting to parents to know that their kids’ school is portable. Children following the K12 programme simply pack up their laptops and take their class with them,’ says Sayed.
So is K12 simply a stop-gap for those who can’t find the right school, a useful tool to ‘tide them over’ until they’re in a more secure position? Not at all, says Sayed.
Home schooling offers an individualised learning programme, providing an alternative to kids who may otherwise get left behind, or a stimulating education to particularly gifted youngsters. The Dubai K12 school, for example, boasts a budding tennis star and ice skater among its pupils – as well as kids with special needs.
One of the main advantages is that lessons move at the pace of the student. Clever clogs can zip through subjects and jump grades in areas where they are strong. 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.
K12 is not an all-or-nothing option. Some children are bored at school, perhaps losing interest because the curriculum is not moving fast enough; around 20 per cent of K12’s pupils study on a part-time basis – extra classes or subjects that take their fancy.
And with over 90 fascinating fields to choose from, including game design and oceanography, there’s plenty to keep eager beavers occupied. Plus, all subjects count as credits in the American system.
So, how does it work? Each student receives an online account and 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.
There are regular conference calls with the teacher and virtual classmates, so students can be chatting in a ‘lesson’ with a teacher in Alaska and fellow classmates dotted all around the world.
K12 creates a timetable for the entire year, including preparation and tips for parents. The schedule is flexible and can be changed to fit in with family trips and sports activities.
It all sounds great, but what about the social interaction, the playground fun and frolics and learning from ‘the school of life’? ‘It’s 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 his free time.’
The school organises monthly events such as trips, football clinics, environmental clean-ups, fundraising for pediatric cancer… the list goes on. ‘They get to know each other, establish friendships and become part of a community,’ says Sayed.
Plus, research points to the fact that home-schooled students are well adjusted. ‘They’re more confident, less likely to be susceptible to peer pressure, they engage more in social progammes, they’re socially well-adjusted and academically they tend to do better,’ she says.
Of course, home schooling does require more input from parents, but you don’t need to be a brainbox, a former teacher or a computer whiz. You just need to be able to spend time with your child and offer your support. ‘On average, K12 students excel academically when compared to students who attend traditional schools,’ says Sayed, adding that students graduate with a recognised dual (US and UAE) diploma. ‘A lot of this has to do with having engaged parents. If parents spend time with their children, they do better in life in general. That’s not rocket science.’
K12 fees range from Dhs18,322 (KG-grade eight) to Dhs25,672 (grades nine-12) for full-time tuition, with options of part-time sessions and paying by semester.
The Aldredge family
Silvia Aldredge and family arrived in Dubai last August from Connecticut. Initially living in temporary accommodation in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, they decided to home school Thomas (seven) and William (five) until they settled in.
‘We initially looked at Repton School and thought it would be possible to drive back and forth. We got into a taxi and sat on the highway for two hours. A couple of hundred dirhams and three vomiting children later [she also has a three year old] 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’m definitely not the super-enthusiastic home-school mum stereotype, but K12 did fit the bill for us in a very difficult year.’
The Miller family
When Arnold Miller brought his family over from South Africa, they had a ‘disastrous’ experience trying to find schooling options for their daughter, Tamika (18).
‘We struggled to get Tamika into school here. The cost was horrendous and 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 term starts in January], so she lost nine months of schooling.
‘I was at my wits’ 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.
‘Tamika spends a lot of time in her bedroom, it’s not an easy option and she’s having to apply herself, but she’s enjoying school because it’s very interactive, well-presented and well-supported. Being at a regular school might have made settling in easier from a social point of view, but she’s very happy, her confidence is boosted because she’s done well academically. Without the distractions of nonsense of school, she’s found her own routine and just gets on with it.’
For more details on K12, visit www.k12.com/int or their office in Knowledge Village, call 04 374 8247/48