Sama: Head for the Sky

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

It is always a good idea to recognize and celebrate developmental milestones.

Horses for courses: it’s the phrase that comes to mind when thinking about how to divide up a school into years and sections.  Do we go with the UAE divisions?  Do we go with the UK divisions?  Do we go with the US divisions?  Or do we go our own way?  In this post I want to talk about the rationale behind divisions at MBAT. 

This is a necessary preparation to talking about the curriculum in Sama,  the next topic on my list.

Here is a table that compares the divisions at MBAT with the divisions in the UK and UAE national systems:

In the table the first line represents the communities at MBAT, the second line represents the administrative divisions, the third line represents the division of the English National Curriculum (which we follow)  into Key Stages, and the last line represents the divisions in the UAE.

Sama sticks out here.  It seems like we have arbitrarily taken the last year of Key Stage 2 and chopped off the end of Key Stage 3.  Why have we done that?

It is not arbitrary.  It is all to do with the communities. The top line shows the communities in the school.  It is the organization of communities that dictates the way we divide the school.  Up to Year 4, communities are based around the classroom.  After Year 5 that changes: all children still have a tutor but they belong to a bigger community which gives them more challenges and opportunities.

Photo by fotografierende on

Year 5 is not a single class.  There is an intake of new children so that Year 5 is twice the size of Year 4.  The children go from a small community of 22 to a bigger community of 44.  Then they move up into the Clubhouse, an even bigger community of 88.  It is phased so that children can get used to it. 

The Phase Leader in Sama is a vital member of the Senior Management Team.  This is the age at which children really start to understand how to use the community structure of the school.  If they understand it and can make it work, they will have the skills, knowledge and maturity to go on to the Upper and Senior Schools and make them work, too.  The head of Bahr will be able to concentrate on the increasing academic burden of the formal taught curriculum, because the students coming up will already be motivated self-learners.  By contrast, if this level flops the senior school will flop around as well.

But, what makes us think that this age group of 10-13 is different?  Why do we make this division?

We are not alone


We are not alone in our thinking.  In the post-war Plowden report there was a recommendation that the UK introduce middle schools. The primary school I went to had a division at age 8.  The uniform changed and there was a barrier between infants and junior.  That seems to be in line with Plowden: divide things up; let there be breaks.  But it is not a middle school. 

My ex-wife went to a middle school.  When she was 9, she moved up from the small village primary to the middle school in town.  At 13 the kids had the experience of being the big, responsible ones.  I worked in that school for a while (much later of course) and could see that the 13-year-olds behaved differently to similar-aged kids in 11-18 comprehensives: Year 8s can either organize things and be responsible or be holy terrors; it depends how they are treated.  So, I liked it.  However, I have to say it was at that age my ex-wife started drinking shampoo to get out of going in the morning.  What an adult likes is not necessarily what a kid likes.

The other model you can see in the chart below is the English private school system.  It goes by two-year cycles called forms.  Preparatory schools take the place of primary/junior and go up to Upper Third. The divisions are different to the ENC and mainstream schools and are based on a long-standing and proven tradition.  Our Clubhouse straddles Upper Third and Lower Fourth.

The other system we need to look at is the American.  K-12 is the common name.  In some parts of the USA there are schools that go K-8.  In others there is a Junior High as you can see on the last line of the table.  Since the Americans have their own system of aptitude testing, they are not committed to the same range of exams that exist in the British system.  They do not have the concept of a Sixth Form.

This is interesting because it shows how much of what exists in curriculum documents is an ossified cultural legacy.  When you are designing a school from the ground up- as we are- it is as well to be aware when the structures you are looking at are cultural artefacts or genuine developmental stages.

Personal Developmental Narrative

Leonard has a phrase he likes to throw out from time to time: personal developmental narrative.  It is a useful phrase in this context.  It is certainly true that if you plant students at desks and ask them the same questions you can make a chart of their responses that seems to answer developmental questions.  That evidence might even seem scientific.  If you treat people like cattle, they might even start behaving like cattle.

However, when you give students a bit of freedom, they begin to develop in their own way. They have a personal developmental narrative.  Our experience tells us that somewhere between their twelfth and their thirteenth birthday there is a jump from what we commonly call being a child to what we commonly call being a young adult.  We wanted to reflect that in our school design.  It is always a good idea to recognize and celebrate developmental milestones.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you a little more about Junior and Clubhouse at MBAT.

Published by Jason Preater

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