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16+ Education in the UAE, The Guide

16+ Education in the UAE, The Guide

by Jon WestleyMarch 12, 2017

Background – why we have written this Guide

Following numerous requests from parents we have produced the following guide to shine a light on the complex choices facing families at the critical point in each child’s education where they need to decide on options at age 16.

If there is a single key message to be drawn from the following it is that there should be a considered choice made by parents and young men and women whether to move schools, or to remain within an existing all-through school, for the final two years of study before graduation – whether that will be directly into industry, graduate study or a year out.

We believe that there are many circumstances in which a change of school at 16 to an alternative can be the optimal choice for a student. Too often there is an expectation that children will stay at their existing all-through school – and in many cases the many benefits of transferring to a new school are not even considered or on the radar.

One reason for this, of course, it is rarely in the interests of existing schools to encourage families to consider alternatives to their sixth form offer. This is one reason why through this Guide, we hope, we can start to fill in some of the gaps in parent’s knowledge that schools simply do not currently provide.

Another reason why so many families do not consider a change of school at 16 is simply fear of the unknown. The prospect of moving school can seem a very big step for many children, not least in moving away from their long-term friends and a school in which they are comfortable. The net result often is that many children stay in schools which may not offer them the best chance to meet their potential

Arguably this is a time when parents are under significant pressure to guide and support their children in making the right decision for them, not only in the short term, but in the context of the bigger picture of broadening their post-school options and opportunities.

This following is a general guide and will be followed by more specialist detailed and separate Guides in the coming weeks in key areas, including, for example, on how to choose a Sixth Form in the context of specific ambitions for a child such as being accepted for eventual entry to Oxbridge.


So, first, why even think about transferring from an existing school to an alternative Sixth Form/post-16 education provider


Reasons to change school for 16 – 18 education

There are as many reasons as there are types of child when it comes to understanding the drivers for taking what is, in practice, the very big step of moving a child’s school at 16. These are, however, are our top-10.

  • A new start.

The most obvious, and a key driver for many parents, is simply the fit of the school. There are many children who feel that they need to move and make a new beginning/clean break. Often the drivers here are emotional, but that does not mean that they should not be taken with great seriousness. A child may feel that he or she needs to move – and this could be for many reason – from removing themselves from negative relationships with their peers, or more broadly to kick start their education without baggage and with a clean slate. These two final years at school are in so many ways defining for the future of young men and women – and if they perceive that an existing school will hold them back then it is time for parents to seriously think about supporting them in moving to a school that fits their needs, potential and ambition.

  • Subject choice.

For many children, the two-year period spent in the build up to post-16 education is the time they first come face-to-face with a knowledge of their own individual gifts and skills – as well as a sense of the direction they want their lives to take. It may well be that their existing school does not offer specialism in the areas in which they wish to pursue their studies, or the breadth of subject choice required to maximise their chances in securing their chosen slipstream after leaving school. Many schools in the UAE have a reputation for expertise in certain subject areas – whether those are in academic subject areas, the broader Arts and Performing Arts, languages or Sport. Some Sixth Form and schools with specialised Post 16 provision too, offer a range of vocational qualifications that will simply not be available in a student’s existing school.

  • Oxbridge

Students set on Oxbridge face one of the biggest challenges of any in post-16 education. Regardless of how academically gifted a child is, or their projected grades, traversing Oxbridge applications requires significant expertise from the child’s school. Only a very limited number of schools in Dubai are set up to provide this. Where families are absolutely fixed on an Oxbridge application, this may well be a critical driver to move school. The same principle holds true for children set on Ivy league destinations. The importance of the expertise and links of certain schools should not be underestimated.

  • Finance: scholarships and bursaries

Some parents face significant, in some cases, unplanned challenges in meeting fees at their existing schools. There are a growing number of schools deeply committed to providing scholarships, many with 100% fee remission, for the most exceptionally gifted children in a range of subjects. Finance can be a major driver for some parents in moving schools – and fortunately the Emirates has many Tier 1 schools committed to stepping into the breach for the right child(ren). There are also many schools offering a very high standard of education that may be at lower fee levels than those currently required at an existing school. In some schools the cost of post 16 education can see fees jump significantly. There are also some schools that offer founding fee structures – and this period is one of the few where the change to a new school can be a natural one, cause least disruption and in some cases, none at all.

  • Returning home or leaving the Emirates – UAE/Offshore boarding options

Many parents find themselves in the position of having to plan for a return home or to alternative places of work overseas. This may well be because work contracts are finishing, and this can fall at a really unfortunate time mid-way through post-16 study. Parents need to plan for this eventuality. There are now post-16 boarding options in the UAE for both British and IB curricular schools, so that children can complete their education within the Emirates – as well as a plethora of boarding schools offshore, particularly in the UK.

  • Getting the grades

A major driver for changing schools is to maximise a child’s opportunity to secure the highest academic grades. It is an uncomfortable fact that for certain universities, particularly overseas, predicted grades and interim examination performance (for example at AS Level) are necessary preconditions for even being considered for a place. A child’s existing school may simply not have a history of delivering the grades required for a child to secure his or her future and in these cases a transfer to a specialist Sixth Form with a consistent history of delivering results may be unavoidable.

  • Location and practical issues

Some parents simply face needing to move in their career and a given school may simply be too far out of their catchment area. This is a particular problem when parents need to move between Emirates. Issues can also result from the complexity of managing the logistics of having children at different schools.

  • Timing

As above, the 16-18 period is widely accepted as the best time for children to move schools, because it offers minimal disruption to any child’s education. Many schools are set up to help parents and students through the process of transfer and educationally, this is a natural break point between two distinct styles of teaching and learning. This holds true across the spectrum of curricular. Historically, of course, this is a time when many children left school altogether, or moved to specialist Higher Colleges of Education.

  • Repeating a Year

In a very limited number of cases some children may benefit from re-sitting their first year of post-16 study. In these cases it is almost always better for a child to move school to re-begin Post-16 study, rather than to go back a year in a school where their peers are moving to the next year. This is to avoid obvious stigma, but also for the positives that come from a new start without any baggage. In these rare cases, an extended conversation will be required with the shortlisted schools to ensure that this quite drastic move is in the best interests of the child. Some schools also specialise in enabling children who have not achieved results in key subjects at Middle school phase to seamlessly re-sit these in parallel with Post 16 study.

  • Moving from a Single sex school

Many parents take the decision for their children to attend single-sex schooling during the complex adolescent years. This is usually so that their child(ren) can avoid the perceived inevitable distractions of being educated at a time when hormones are kicking in for both sexes. There are many experts who argue that single sex schooling to 16 helps children of both sexes. Girls tend to progress more quickly in the Middle years but face boys dominating the classroom. Boys can find themselves much more seriously distracted, on balance, by the distractions of mixed classrooms. However, there is consensus that between 16 and 18 both sexes benefit from a co-educational environment. It is at this stage that many parents find themselves needing to find alternative slipstream schools to their existing single-sex school for post-16 study.


In all these areas the key driver for moving school in these final two critical years of post-16 schooling is to ensure that a child is given every possible chance to meet their potential. For many children, moving schools will significantly improve their life chances and the breadth of options open to them when leaving school at 18. It is, as above, also one of the very few times that even the best schools are not going to be set up to naturally to guide or alert parents or students to the opportunities outside their existing school because this is the exactly the time when they are going to want to retain them.


The Checklist for what to look for in dedicated 16 – 18 provision

The first, and obvious, guidance comes in the recognition that there is no single perfect school for all children. The perfect school is the one in which your child(ren) will excel. That may well be a very different school than that which would best serve your son’s or daughter’s friends.

For example, you could send your son or daughter to a hothouse academic school that consistently delivers high results. But, if your son or daughter is not academic, or does not respond well to discipline, they will not achieve the grades that may very well come, in stark opposition, from a more relaxed, whole child school environment and a school specialising in mixed ability, inclusive schooling. The equation is one that involves the individual school and the individual child. Both are integral to working out whether the fit will be good and the potential, needs and ambitions of each child are met.

If this is the overall context to any decision, there are 10 fundamental areas of provision that we believe all post-16 providers should be delivering. Parents should ask for detail in all of these areas in weighing up the quality of post 16 provision and the likely fit of the school to the needs, potential and ambitions of their child(ren):


Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG)

This covers many areas, but in simple terms it is the investment a school makes in ensuring that each child can access the broadest range of options when they leave school. The best schools heavily invest in this area and each child should expect significant one-on-one guidance and mentoring in moving into graduate study, direct-to-industry employment, apprenticeships, work placements or internships.

We would expect the best departments to have a number of experts employed in a dedicated department and to work throughout the two-year period of each child’s post-16 education on placements and industry experience. We would also expect significant guidance to be provided to students on ECAs that will map well onto plans for leaving school – for example, ensuring that ECAs add value to university applications.

Usually IAG departments will manage individual student applications to university or direct. Parents should question the number of staff employed in the provision of IAG services, how much time is provided for each child and when – IAG should be timetabled. IAG will be responsible for university destinations achieved by children on graduation – see below.

We also think that, with competition increasing for university placements, schools need to play a bigger role in securing serious and interesting year-long placements for children set on a year out. In some cases, particularly for students who do not achieve required grades, a year out may be an advisable course of action anyway.

Traveling the world is not in itself of value. However, a UN or NGO placement in a part of the world where the young man or woman can make a difference could have a real impact on securing a top tier university offer – and contribute significantly to whole child development in the process. IAG has become a critical part of 16 – 18 school provision and parents need to interrogate the commitment of schools in this area. Schools with a genuine, serious commitment to dedicate post 16 provision will have invested heavily in this area.


University destinations

Parents need to ask for a complete list of university destinations secured by each school for their children. We recommend that this should be provided for between the last three and five years. It should identify which courses have been secured at which universities. We will provide a later Guide identifying top schools and courses which parents can reference. Parents should note that in many cases you should not look at a university destination in isolation of the particular course achieved for the child.

For example, the Mdes/BA in Automotive and Transport Design at Coventry University in the United Kingdom is widely accepted as the best course in the world in its sector with graduates in demand from all major car manufacturers including Aston Martin, Bentley, Mercedes Benz, Porsche and Ferrari. Equally, studying Economics at the London School of Economics will offer significantly more value than studying the same subject at nearly any other institution in the UK.

The best post-16 providers will have expertise in the process and requirements of the broadest range of university providers worldwide. Ideally, if you know the subject area and destination your child is aiming for you should ask for the school’s expertise with that same area and destination. Each school is likely to have greater expertise in, and contacts with, different subject areas and university slipstreams.


Industry links

The best post-16 providers will have a broad range of direct links with industry both in the UAE and worldwide. Ask what sorts of Summer placements the school can help your child secure. IAG departments should be able to provide a list of companies they have and are working with. The best post-16 providers are likely to have a range of vocationally centred courses, including BTEC in British schools and the Career Related Programme in IB schools. As a result, these schools will almost certainly have very strong industry links that they should be able to leverage for your child(ren).


Exam results

This is the most sensitive area for many schools. It is also one that confuses most parents. You do need to get a breakdown of the grades achieved by all children for between the last three and five years. However, these do need to be weighted in the context of the school.

A selective school that only admits the very brightest children would be expected to achieve very high grades for all children. An inclusive, mixed ability school achieving the same grades would in all probability, however, actually be a higher performing school because to achieve this it would have needed to have achieved very high levels of added value to each child’s expected grade flightpath.

The KHDA measures this in its reports by differentiating progress and attainment. However, it is very vague and unclear how this is measured across schools and a high grading is only indicative. Placing an academically weaker child in a selective school may not be the best course of action if the aim is to achieve high results for that child.

A future Guide will seek to work through how best to interrogate schools to ensure the best fit for your child, but you are still looking for schools that deliver high grades for the largest number of children. The main issues you need to look at, as a parent, after you have found a school securing high grades, lies in understanding how academic your child is, the types of school environment they will respond best to and the subjects they will need to study to be able to access their chosen destination on leaving school. Academic grades secured by a school will not tell you this.


Subject choice

Schools should be able to guide you as to the best subjects for securing places at top universities. This is not, however, always clear cut. For example, psychology is often over-looked, yet scores very highly with top universities as a bridging subject for entry into very diverse courses including Medicine, Law and Drama.

It is a subject, weighted too, for example, by Oxbridge. Despite this, only a minority of schools provide psychology as a subject for post-16 study – even though it can be a key differentiator in securing places at top universities. Often some schools will provide very limited subject choice to save the costs of employing specialist teachers. Subject breadth in the post-16 phase, we think, is a very important indicator of the ability of post-16 providers to meet the individual needs of children. There are more obvious examples in specialist areas including Music, Performing Arts, Sport, Drama and Dance.


Class size

Class sizes should reduce for post-16 study. We do not think that it is appropriate for young men and women at this phase of education to be taught in class sizes above 15 students. Ideally we would want to see around 10 students per class.


Environment and culture

The best post-16 providers very clearly differentiate this phase of education. We would expect to see this include changes to uniform, specialist facilities including dedicated Common Rooms and more intangible ways in which children in these last two phases are taught and managed. Ideally we would expect physically separate teaching and study areas.


ECA and whole child development

Important in itself, this area of provision takes on an even more important role in distinguishing children for future employers and universities. School programmes should have breadth – and should continue into holiday periods through placements in government and industry, whether in the UE or overseas. Investment should be obvious in key areas including music, but also in newer areas of technology and engineering/manufacturing.


Teacher expertise and qualifications

Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) and those who have been teaching for under five years have an important role in any school. The best NQTs will bring with them up-to-date knowledge of latest best teaching practice for example. But a school with a majority of NQTs or inexperienced teachers is likely to be indicative of a school cutting costs. There has to be a balance.


Reputation and brand

There are a number of schools in the UAE that enjoy a reputation – either locally or internationally that can benefit students. In many cases this will come from the age of the school and the links it has created with universities and/or industry over time. In the limited number of internationally branded schools there may well be some advantage to be secured in University and Industry applications simply by virtue of the recognition that comes with the brand – but this will rarely overtake secured grades. Where there may be, however, much more important impacts are in the area of alumni which can significantly contribute to future networking opportunities. In these schools in particular, parents should interrogate the level of investment made by the school in alumni events, the size of the alumni and in understanding how the school leverages its links to benefit students currently and on leaving the school.


Other individual qualities of different Curriculum schools

There are a number of distinct features unique to different curriculum schools that parents should look for beyond the above more general features


American and Canadian schools

We believe that all US or Canadian curriculum schools that do not offer an IB Diploma or Career-related Programme option between 16 and 18 years, should be offering Advanced Placement (AP) courses. We would expect in these schools the majority of children to be studying and sitting for four or more AP exams. Al schools should be accredited. However, even with accreditation, the High School Diploma is awarded by institutions and lacks the weight of alternative post 16 qualifications (including AP)

IB Schools

We would like to see all IB Diploma schools offering the alternative International Career-related Programme (IB CP). In some cases, BTEC qualifications may be offered instead. It should be noted that currently ADEC, unlike the KHDA in Dubai, have not accredited the IB CP. Many schools award International Baccalaureate Certificates in individual subjects to students who do not complete the Diploma. Parents should be wary of this. UK universities, for example, have strict demands for performance in the Diploma and will not treat certificates in individual subjects as equivalent, for example to A Levels. Parents need to interrogate what percentage of students take the IB Diploma and how many pass. What happens to others students? If they do not secure a Diploma, or secure an alternative qualification with some identifiable value (which would include APs, the IB CP but exclude individual Certificates) the school is arguably failing children.

Indian CBSE and ISCE schools

The major focus here should be on subject choice. We think all post 16 CBSE and ICSE schooling should include Humanity Streams and bridging subjects. One simple way of testing the breadth of subject provision at these schools is to check that both Psychology and Sociology are offered by schools. The other key area parents should check is timetabling. Some schools cut subject choice within Streams so that subject choice is limited. You should seek schools able to offer maximum subject choice within streams, including being able to pull, as required, business, IT and humanity subjects across into a Science Stream and vice versa.

British Schools

Unless a school is achieving a minimum of 3 A*B grades for all students at A Level (a big ask) we think that they should be providing alternative BTEC options at Sixth Form. These should include a dedicated business option (at the least) and not a single Travel and Tourism option. Parents should note that changes in the UK mean that Travel and Tourism, whilst extremely important in the UAE, will no longer register in UK school calculations for league table scoring and the result is likely to be a reduction in its profile. This should not impact on UAE students.

Arguably all mixed ability, inclusive British schools should be offering BTEC. Parents need to interrogate the quality of industry links enjoyed by the school within BTEC subjects. We also think that, in terms of subject choice, British schools should be offering Psychology A Level (see above). A top tier British School will be offering between 12 and 15+ core subjects at A Level. For parents set on Oxbridge, places secured, and the number of students attending Oxbridge Sumer school placements should be interrogated. Parents should not be diverted by the number of A Levels sat beyond 3 subjects. It is high scoring in three subjects that needs to be the core focus.


Further information

In the following weeks we will be publishing the following Guides for parents that build on the broad outline of information we have provided here. The next set of guides are detailed below. As they are completed you will be able to link directly from the following:


  • The SchoolsCompared Guide to choosing 16+ Education in the UAE.
  • To IB, A Level or the Alternatives: The SchoolsCompared Guide to the best Curricular for individual Students.
  • Getting the Grades: The SchoolsCompared Guide to the Best Schools for Academic Results in The Emirates.
  • Understanding what Universities are looking for: The SchoolsCompared Guide to Choosing the best Subjects for getting into Top Universities including Oxbridge and the Russel Group Universities.
  • The SchoolsCompared UAE Sixth Form Guide to getting into Top US Universities including Yale and Harvard.
  • The SchoolsCompared Guide to 16+ Options for non-academic Children and Options on Graduation.
  • Going for Gold: The SchoolsCompared 16+ Guide to the Best Schools for Sportsmen and Women in the Emirates and the Career and Graduate Options that Follow.
  • The SchoolsCompared Guide for studying Dance and Music in the UAE at 16+ and Getting into the Top Universities and Performing Arts Schools Worldwide.
  • Not Just Academics: The SchoolsCompared Student and Parent Guide for What to Expect at 16+, What the Best “Whole Child” education looks like in Practice – and Why it Matters.
  • To Stay or Go? The SchoolsCompared Parents Guide to Staying in the UAE or Moving Overseas for 16+ Study.

Updated March 2017


About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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