Upper School: Teenagers

Children move into the upper school at 13. That is a major change in someone’s life and we like to celebrate changes. Developmental milestones are important and it is great to recognize them.

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The Upper School Community has 88 members, so it is a little like the Sama community. In Bahr, however, we stop referring to the students as children: they are young adults and we refer to them as students. It is appropriate because the community work they do at this age is more geared towards study and study skills than it was in Sama. Students study.

Young teenagers will be well versed in the running of meetings through their experiences in Sama. They understand how to set rules and laws for their community, how to prosper as self-directed learners, and the difference between freedom and license. Bahr is not all about book work. There is still time for free choice of action in their community and they can work together to create activities at increasingly sophisticated levels. The teachers are there to help and guide them.

The big theme that guides them is the Sea and there will be plenty of opportunities to back up their studies with real projects and activities to do with the beach and the sea. Some of these projects will be organized for them and some of them they will have to organize for themselves.

We want teenagers to get deeply engaged with their life and work at the school. We want them to see that what they are doing is connected to big issues that are going on in the world around them. There is still a solid core curriculum, but the community will help them to engage with big issues through discussion, creative work and scientific investigation.

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Young adults naturally start to look out at the world around them. We encourage parents and guardians to get involved with the school through a series of events that show teenagers what they might choose to do with their studies. They will be able to see how the¡r community fits into the broader community they live in and the wider world. They will appreciate the deep connections they can form with life in Abu Dhabi and UAE.


The examination year is apart. It is a separate community of 44. We set this year apart because we think that the examination year is so important. The year is focused on helping students to do the best they possibly can in the formal examinations they take.

We offer a full range of GCSE examinations. Success in these examinations will lead on to higher level work in the Sixth Form. It is an essential base. With mock exams before and after Christmas and the examinations themselves starting right after the spring break, this is a year in which students put their heads down with a purpose.

Education at MBAT is happy and free. But it yields great results as well. And the Upper School starts and ends with celebration.

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Sama: Communities

Junior 1

Junior students in Year 5 are more articulate.  The teachers in charge of this year will set up meetings once a week where all children can do two things:

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  1. Bring someone up
  2. Propose a law

It is important for the adults not to lead this discussion. 

Bringing someone up means calling someone to the meeting because they have broken a law or behaved badly.  For example, John can bring up Mary because she did not clean up after herself.  The community must decide what to do.  It is important for the adults not to lead this discussion.  The children may offer a warning, propose a fine or do nothing.  Adults watch to make sure that the core values of compassion, equality and dialogue are observed.

Proposing a law means thinking about a need and acting upon it.  For example, Reza might propose that there is a limit to how long people are allowed to be on the internet.  There will be some discussion, some proposals and a vote.

The adults may chair the meetings and act as secretary, but by the end of the year children will be able to take on these roles.  Adults may intervene if they see that the meeting is having difficulty with persistent and troublesome behavior.


The Clubhouse is a larger community than Year 5 since it includes all of Years 6+7.  That is 88 students.  There will be one communal meeting a week and one class meeting a week.  The meetings will last an hour or less.

Having learned about chairing meetings and being secretary in Year 5, they will be ready to take control of their own meetings and community.

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Children at this age are “veteran kids”.  Many are socially confident and they are well able to organize activities and events.  They will still bring people up and propose laws, but they will also elect committees to deal with issues that they do not want to deal with in the meetings.

For example, there is a festival in three weeks and the community wants to have a celebration.  They decide that they want to organize games.  They decide to elect a committee to deal with this.  The meeting will decide how many people are on the committee and someone will be chosen to invite volunteers.  This is called “taking the book around”.  Say Tom is elected.  He has a list of everyone in the community and asks them if they want to be on the Games Committee.  He then writes a list of all the volunteers and goes back around the community taking their votes.  The meeting has said there will be seven people on the committee, so everyone gets seven votes.  When the votes are tallied seven people are elected and there are three reserves in case someone drops out.

Children this age are imaginative, creative and competent.  They will bring their own ideas to every aspect of the running of their community.  They are free to change the running of the community so long as they do not violate the core principles of the school.

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Hadiqa: Classroom Communities

The organization of the school into communities with their respective meetings plays an important role in our overall behavior policy.  The communities and meetings evolve as children mature through the school.


We give the youngest children in the school safety and security.  They have circle time, guided by an adult, in which they learn to take turns speaking and listening.  They may be encouraged to have ideas about turn-taking with games and equipment.  Teachers are trained not to provide an automatic answer when a child says, “That’s not fair!”

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At Elementary level children gather for a short morning meeting every day.  They are encouraged to say if they have any problems and to make proposals.  Adults are trained not to force their own ideas onto the children in these sessions, but to allow the children to express their own opinions.  Children will learn:

  • To listen when someone else is talking
  • Not to interrupt- no cross-talking
  • To make simple proposals
  • To vote by raising their hands
  • To accept differences

There is a rota of simple housekeeping tasks that children can propose themselves for: watering the plants, organizing the paints, ordering the bookshelf etc.  They will experience the farm where they will have to learn about the need to take turns and share.  There may be some conflict and this will be addressed in the next meeting through compassionate dialogue. 

As they move up, they will be able to take on more complex jobs and their teachers will be sensitive to the need to provide opportunities for them to do so.

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A community: having things in common

I define a community as a group of people who have things in common.  Living in a community means coming to terms with that.  It means sorting out how you will manage the things you have in common and defending your own space- what you don’t have in common.

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It is important to emphasize what people don’t have in common because the word community can lead to fake visions of everyone holding hands and being happy.  That is definitely not my understanding of the word.  I live in a village.  The community comes together to discuss problems where people are rarely in agreement.  They gather under one of the barns and talk the issues out: not everyone can get their own way.  On your own property you are the boss, but when you have something in common you have to talk.  And sometimes you have to give way or compromise.

The village community is not ideal.  These people would really have benefitted from an education at MBAT.  When they have meetings, everyone talks at once.  People don’t listen.  They say what they want to say and then stomp off.  There is no chairperson to discipline this cross-talking and interruption.  There is no secretary to write down proposals and no systematic way of counter-proposing or voting.  If there is a big problem, as there was with the old water supply, people volunteer to “fix” it, but there is no follow-up, no committee that ensures things are going to plan, and no consequences for not bothering to do so.  People don’t understand that some issues can be decided by a group, some come to the vote of all, and that a simple majority is not sufficient to carry the day when a vote is important.  At the end of one meeting, a neighbor said, “What we need is a strong man to tell us all what to do!”

I was shocked.  These are simple techniques that children can learn!  And the consequences of not mastering them are terrifying: the call for a dictator.  People who don’t grow up in communities with strong and reasonable procedures of governance actively look for leadership from tyrants and demagogues.  They look to the teacher, the government official, or the policeman to sort out problems they could easily sort out for themselves.

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Although this kind of education has many implications in the world, I don’t want to wander too far off my theme.  I am talking about the community structure at MBAT and how it works.  I felt it was important to stress at the beginning, however, how important this aspect of our education is.

It is such an essential part of the functioning of the school that it is essential you understand it, especially if you want to come and work here.  It is rooted in the idea that sorting things out together is not difficult and is a bedrock skill for future life.  Here are the three essentials we start with:

  • A community is a group of people that have something in common
  • Everyone does not have to agree- well-structured meetings work out common ground
  • The community cannot affect all of your freedoms

First Experiences

Children’s first experience of community at MBAT is close.  In Hadiqa small classes have a warm atmosphere.  Each term has a series of festivities, excursions, performances and events that bring the children in their small class community together with others.  They have a lot of freedom and this inevitably results in disagreements and tension.  We resolve tensions in circle time where children are encouraged to use their voice to articulate issues.  From their first days in MBAT children learn that their voice is important.  Teachers are trained not to talk all the time and not to provide solutions to all problems.  They introduce children to some of the techniques we talked about above: turn-taking, listening, making proposals.  We give small children a firm adult presence, but the Hadiqa team leader guides teachers to prepare them for the bigger communities in Sama and beyond.

Just listening instead of talking is a powerful educational tool

As they move up through the school, children grow into their community.  They learn how to make proposals in their communities.  They learn how to make rules and how to deal with those who break them.  They call people to account by bringing them up.  They can call people from other communities as well.  The institutions of good governance are taught through practical examples.  It may start with simple things, like whether you need to take your shoes off when you go into the library, but develops into a more sophisticated understanding of how to hold people to account.


When children move up to Sama, they first enter a community of 44 and then a community of 88.  There are shared resources and activity rooms.  Their teachers get together to plan projects together.  Although they still have their classroom base, they also start to make decisions in that bigger group.  What kind of decisions do they make?  The formal curriculum is delivered by teachers, the informal curriculum is available in a mixture of projects and activities, and free play is their own imperative.  What is left for the community to consider?

If a community doesn’t have enough to do together, it drifts slowly apart or becomes stagnant

The school year is punctuated by festivities, parties, performances and other events.  There is always a half term and end of term party, for example.  This “Year of Parties” not only gives a structure to the calendar but provides Sama many opportunities to come together.  There are many possibilities for communal events.  I don’t feel like it is my job to lay these out at the beginning of the year because I want the children to be involved in making decisions including what those events might be.

Let me give you an example.  A group of kids might want to camp on the beach.  That idea would not be accepted or rejected by the school administration.  It would come to a meeting where it could be discussed.  The meeting would have to investigate whether it was legal and feasible and the community would be able to vote on whether it was acceptable.  The meeting would put some conditions after discussing the issue with the school administration.  This is very different from a school where you “ask the teacher” to get permission for everything.

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Most schools do not work like this.  They set the bar very high for children’s ideas to be listened to.  They have a discipline policy, detentions, report cards and expulsions.  MBAT works in a different way, but it is not a radical experiment that overturns educational precedent.  It is a reasonable school, built on reasonable principles that are founded in established good practice.  Teachers are still in charge of their classrooms and they cannot surrender that control. 


We have designed our school according to an idea we have about growing up.  You might say that we want the school to work in line with the way people naturally grow towards adulthood.  I have mentioned before that it is always a good idea to celebrate developmental milestones.  Moving up to Bahr is one of those milestones.  Students are no longer children; they are young adults.  Moving up is celebrated with a new seriousness in the life of their community.

The Upper Bahr community is similar to the Clubhouse: 88 students with shared resources.  They understand about meetings and self-government.  They know how to organize themselves when they are working in groups and when they are working alone.  They are proficient in designing activities and projects for themselves.

The theme for Bahr is the Sea and the school makes a big investment in Marine Biology and Environmental Science.  Students moving up from the Clubhouse to Bahr are confronted with a world of opportunities and challenges.  Academic work becomes harder.  The shared resources and facilities are at a different level of sophistication.  Whereas a ten-year-old might be happy to make model planes a thirteen-year-old may be challenged to make a vehicle he can actually use.

As students grow up through adolescence their ideas about self-government change.  They are attracted to the outside world.  They start to see that the community they live and work in is nested in other communities: the city, the country, the region.  They also discover communities of interest that take them out of the school: art, sport, science, writing, design, politics.  The school encourages and promotes this explosion of youthful interest.  Just as moving up through the school is marked by celebration, the routes to leaving the school are also marked by milestones and celebration. 

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By the time students leave MBAT they are sophisticated in the use of self-government.  They have high level speaking, negotiating and listening skills.  They have served on committees, organized events, stood in positions of authority over others and been governed by the decisions of the meetings in their communities.  They have a deep respect and understanding of the roots of lawful behavior, but they feel that they can lobby to change laws they think are unjust or partial.  They have learnt that they cannot always have their own way when the vote goes against them.

Essential Community Agreements:

  1. open and honest communication amongst all members of the school community
  2. atmosphere of compassion and equality
  3. informed and effective teaching
  4. holistic learning environment
  5. understand needs through dialogue
  6. safe community regulated by regular meetings
  7. freedom to move around and play as long as the student does not endanger himself or others: freedom, not license
  8. equal respect for all to encourage self-control and self-discipline

Sama: a Community of Learning

You are ready to participate in an authentic community.  You share resources and experiences. Your school is self-governing through its community meetings and you pursue increasingly advanced levels of formal study in teacher-led lessons.  This is what happens in Sama at MBAT House of Nature.

In the first year, there are two communities of 44 in years 5 and 6 respectively, consisting of two classes for each age group.  In the following year the four classes in Years 6+7 will form one community with one meeting to cover the issues arising, plan events, organize committees and work groups, and fine people who break the rules.  From this point onwards Year 5 will be one community and Years 6+7 will be another.

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Learning how to live in this community is a vital part of the education.  Children will learn how to run meetings, how to set up committees to get things done, how to propose laws, and how to bring people up when they break the laws.  They will learn to be effective self-learners both in the school and away from it.  They can use the online school for homework and distance learning.  They will understand what it means to have freedom of choice of action in a democratic community. 

Class identity will not be as strong as it was in the Elementary school, although children will still have their own place in the home-base; a home teacher who collects their reports and is responsible for communications with parents.  Experience at Elementary level will help; new children will take time to adapt.

This post is part of a series on the curriculum.  I want to explain to you how the curriculum works in Sama.  It is important because Sama is in many senses the hub of the school.  As I said in my last post:

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… By contrast, if this level flops the senior school will flop around as well.

We work with the idea that the curriculum is not just what teachers teach in classrooms.  The curriculum is everything that goes on in a school.  And, since we are giving children freedom of choice of action, we have to be attentive to the design of the areas they spend time in when they are not in class.  Freedom to wander around a barren cell is no kind of freedom.  This is what we call the habitat.  At this level we are especially concerned to create a habitat that works for children. You know something about our ideas for this already: this is a school set in Nature.

Pooling of resources allows us to provide ambitious activity areas.  We stress that learning through activities is not the same as project-based learning.  We do not impose a project model on children’s self-initiated activities.  Some activities are individual, some are in groups; some last an hour, others last a year.  Some are led by adults; some are led by children.  We encourage children to record their activities. 

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Teachers use a Tracking Framework that is adapted from the performance indicators in the English National Curriculum.  They can see the skills and abilities that have been used in a freely-chosen activity or project, and may photograph or copy student work for the process of building portfolios for inspection.  This assessment might or might not lead on to follow up work in the formal classroom.   Activities are not formally graded or assessed.

Formal lessons are available in a wide range of subjects with priority given to the core curriculum.  The teachers in Sama work together to provide a broad and balanced taught curriculum to the children.  They can call on other subject specialists from other areas of the school.  All lessons are available on the Online platform so that children who are not in school do not fall behind or miss out.  Remember we have a 40% distance learning option!

The core curriculum of Arabic, English, Mathematics and Science is given priority on the timetable and in planning.  This does not mean that all of the objectives in the Tracking Mechanism of these subjects will be delivered to all children in formal classes.  We see the reduced formal curriculum as the spinal column of a fuller curriculum that includes projects, activities and free play. 

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Teachers collaborate in the presentation of curriculum content for foundation subjects.  They make use of the ample facilities of the school, combining inside and outside work, and focusing the learning, wherever possible, through “real” activities rather than religiously following a textbook.  Teachers take turns to lead project cycles in collaboration with their colleagues.  For example, a unit on breathing might have implications for health, biology, poetry, measurement, music, nature study, and much more. 

We are serious about freedom of choice of action

We encourage teachers to bring the full resources of their personalities and experience to bear on their work.  All teachers are trained and experienced professionals, but one of the attractions of working in this school is its human face.  We want our teachers to be open, warm and human.  We don’t want them to be curriculum delivery and assessment robots.

Children are not obliged to interrupt their project or activity work to go to classes.  If a child, for example, is writing copiously by himself, he will not be compelled to interrupt that work to go to an English lesson.  We are serious about freedom of choice of action.  Evidently, we do not want children to miss out on whole chunks of the formal curriculum on a whim.  On the other hand, we think it is essential that a child exploring a vital interest should have the freedom to do so.  In practice most children will exceed the specifications in the curriculum documents because it is a well-resourced and exciting school full of learning possibilities. 

Teachers may intervene if they see that a child is drifting, especially if there are deficits in key skills.  Confident reading and number skills underlie access to the more exciting aspects of school life higher up the school.  We do not think it is a restriction of freedom to firmly guide students to attend to formal learning when they are falling behind.  We do this with compassion and understanding, using the help of the school counsellor to ascertain whether there is any underlying problem such as dyslexia.

Sky: Solar, Weather and Climate

Weather affects most everything in our environment, from the quality of our drinking water to the migratory pattern of birds.  Scientists know the climate is changing and how this will impact on our environment.  At the Junior school, the theme will focus on weather and climate change and learn about the weather issues in Abu Dhabi, the Gulf Region and the World.

Teachers will cooperate to create projects using a project-based learning model.  This model is not applied to children’s self-initiated projects but is appropriate when there is an adult lead.  The aim is to have an integrated learning experience hitting learning targets across the curriculum. The thematic approach may raise achievement in science, math, language arts, and social studies. It may also inspire children to think how their own lives might evolve later. 

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The US National Environmental Education Foundation says that weather and climate education promote a number of academic and life-long learning skills including

  • Critical Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Observation Skills
  • Scientific Methods and Processes
  • Personal Responsibility Awareness
  • Bringing about Change

There will be a cycle of events, festivities, performances and exhibitions throughout the school year.  Children will be able to take positions of responsibility in the planning, organization and running of these events in the communities.  There will also be opportunities within their communities to take meaningful roles in organizing their own study spaces, deciding on the rules they should live by and electing people to committees that they decide are necessary.

The individual child can also choose to pursue a personal path, using the considerable freedom in time and space to follow his own interests.  A child who enjoys working with Mathematical problems alone will not be compelled to join group projects against his will.

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Sama: Head for the Sky

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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.

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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.

A School With a Farm!

Hadiqa is a Farm School. The philosophy grows out of the “Nature Schools” movement.  Children at primary level learn through direct contact with nature and the world around them. They grow food, learn about plants, and use Nature for artistic inspiration: story writing, drawing and painting, singing, and drama and movement.

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Hadiqa is the primary division of our school. When Solen first started her long conversation with me about this school she was keen on including the animal sanctuary she was involved in. She was convinced that children learnt important qualities of compassion and care from contact with animals and nature.

I have been working with Woofers for years in Spain. Woofers are organic farm volunteers who help us on our small plot in rural Asturias. I had direct experience of people’s need to reconnect with the land. I say reconnect because the volunteers who have come here have mostly been escaping from town and city life to the country. There is a whole generation that has little experience of the soil and what it can provide.

Spain is one thing. It rains a lot here. UAE is another. At first the idea of an organic farm in UAE was hard for me to square with my images of the desert and the sea. However, I have come to realize that this is precisely the environment where learning about food and food production has the most vital connection with children’s lives. UAE is engaging in some substantial investment in farming. The next generation will have some important decisions to make. It is in the news right now.

Questions of how to promote sustainable agriculture in arid environments are studied in the south of Spain. My son went to work at Sunseed in the south of Spain. I can see many ways of making connections between this and other projects around the world. Children are open to learning about where their food comes from. This is real education in a nutshell. I have been following many schools that have been getting kids to grow food in vegetable plots. The results are excellent.

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Hadiqa gives children an in-depth understanding of where and how food is grown, the importance of nutrition and health, agriculture, and hands on learning through gardening.  Environmental science and Mathematics grow naturally from children’s engagement with real things. We acknowledge Slow Food International’s Themes:

  • Food and Health
  • Bees
  • Climate Change
  • Family Farming
  • Food Waste
  • GMOs

Interdisciplinary Activities will cover important world issues as well as concepts in the core curriculum from Mathematics to Literacy and Science.

Play in Hadiqa

Play will also be encouraged in the learning process. 

Academic research shows that active play is the natural and primary way that children learn. It is essential to their healthy growth and progress, particularly during periods of rapid brain development. We must place adequate importance on play now, so that our precious children grow up into successful, well-rounded and happy adults.

Sir Ken Robinson

Our play spaces will include:

  • Adventure – physical challenges including climbing and balancing
  • Paths, trails and maps
  • Imagination and creative play – building, making art, playing make-believe
  • Special places – forts and dens either found or made
  • Loose parts- things that can be manipulated such as rocks, sticks, sand, pinecones, leaves, etc.

Children will have choices about how and what they learn.

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The emphasis at this stage of schooling is to create love of learning while learning basic skills. 

Kindergarten: a natural space for children

Play is how children learn in kindergarten. Sometimes they play by themselves, sometimes they play in groups and sometimes they play in activities organized by teachers and adults. The space is designed at their scale. We are firm believers in the idea that the environment is the second teacher and put a lot of effort into ensuring that kids have materials and resources for constructive and inventive work.

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The ‘Kindergarten Curriculum Framework’ emphasized that while early academic competencies in numeracy, literacy (reading and writing), or science are necessary and should not be overlooked, the enduring effects of social and emotional competences are of even greater importance for the holistic development of a life-long learner

Tan 2007

Kindergarten children learn mostly through play. There are few formal lessons. However, through each activity and play, children will naturally learn important concepts in Mathematics and Literacy, as well as develop socially and emotionally.  There will be mirrored activities in English and Arabic to reinforce vocabulary in both languages. 

The overarching theme in Hadiqa is the Garden.  The teacher and the two teaching assistants will incorporate practical activities on the Farm into their teaching schedule, with a focus on growth and respect for nature.

There will be six learning areas:

Aesthetics and Creative ExpressionMotor Skills Development
Science: Discovery of the WorldMathematics
Language and LiteracySocial and Emotional Development
Six Learning Areas

The teacher creates learning experiences fusing the principles of:

  • Constructivism: allow children to construct their own knowledge
  • Facilitation: to be facilitators of learning
  • Authentic learning: to use “realia” and quality interactions with new knowledge
  • Integrated approach: to work with other teachers to create holistic learning experiences
  • Engagement: designing lessons through purposeful play

Many of the thematic units will introduce the child to STEAM.

Various physical activities will round out the children’s large and small motor skill development and self-confidence. Cooking and preparing food will also be an important aspect of kindergarten, as children learn math, science, nutrition and health through the cooking experience.

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A Generous Preschool

This week I am looking at the curriculum. I am going to start with the preschool curriculum. You might hold your hands to your head and wail at the thought of a preschool curriculum. That’s what I did when I read a newspaper article about curriculum plans for babies in Spain. “What is the world coming to?” I thought. “Leave the kids alone!”

If you read the last post, however, you will know that curriculum is not everything you might fear it could be. The curriculum for the Fuzzy Houbaras Preschool is enlightened, compassionate and reasonable; it is underpinned by the school’s values and Mission. It is guided by sensible childcare provisions and is open to inspection by all relevant bodies.

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I shouldn’t have been so judgmental. In the UK preschool education is governed by what is called the EYFS, or Early Years Foundation Strategy, which goes from 0-5. It is compulsory. We cannot get out of doing the assessments because we are a private school. That’s OK. The EYFS is great!

Read the four guiding principles from the Statutory Guidance for EYFS and you will see that they could have come out of our own documentation:

  • every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured
  • children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships
  • children learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers
  • children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates

There is no point in rewriting the guidance here, but you should be happy to consider that there is nothing in our approach that is out of synch with the official guidance. We have our own values, but they do not contradict the values of the official guidance.

The poor person is rich with their family, the small one is big with their family, and the weak one is strong with their family. And so it is with the nation that brings us together as one single family. 

H.H. Sheikh Mohammad Al Maktoum

Fuzzy Houbaras Preschool

A Bridge connecting Families to Bayt Al Tabiea

The family is an important foundation in our lives and culture in the UAE.  We aspire to build a strong partnership with our children’s parents and guardians. Our preschool is established to form this connection before the formal education years start in Kindergarten. 

Fuzzy Houbaras Preschool will focus on daily play and learning activities. Parents will be involved in the learning process as they will be required to accompany their child to the school.  This emphasizes the bond between our school and parents in the eyes of our children.

Our school is small and we want an intimate family feel.  Parents have the choice to enroll their child in as many days per week as they wish. There will be a morning and an afternoon session.

The preschool promotes positive values so that children will begin to understand how to become a member of a learning community:

  • be willing to share and take turns with others 
  • be able to relate to others 
  • be curious and able to explore independently
  • be able to listen and speak with understanding 
  • be comfortable and happy with themselves 
  • develop physical co-ordination, healthy habits
  • participate in and enjoy a variety of arts experiences 
  • love their families, friends, teachers and school 

When it is time for Kindergarten, children will already be familiar with the Hadiqa School and will not have the high stress that is so often a part of little children’s lives during early school years.

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“There is just too much curriculum,” she said and pointed at the folders of curriculum documents on the shelf.

“Do you mean the taught curriculum?” I asked.

“What other kind is there? Look at it all! There isn’t enough time in the school day to get through all of this stuff. And I would need two lifetimes to be able to assess it in the way I am asked to. Sometimes I get the feeling it’s all part of a plan to keep us busy all the time with stuff that…”

“…really doesn’t matter?”


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I guess most teachers have had conversations like this. What are curriculum planners playing at when they write these documents that squeeze the joy out of learning and teaching? We are at once drawn in by the promise of so much systematic thought and research, and appalled by its all-encompassing scope. It’s a giant tentacled beast that will suck the living breath out of anything vital or exciting. Anything you ever learn will just be a step upward on a prescribed stairway.

Needless to say, this is not the way we think of the curriculum at MBAT.

Working up from our values

I finished the last post talking about the core values of Body, Mind and Spirit that underpin our work in the school. I said:

Standing for your values means having the firmness of purpose to defend them against external pressures. We are stubborn about this. The practices in our school arise from our shared values. They have to grow in our own hearts where we tend them with careful study, dialogue and compassion.

There are many ways to “buy in” components of a school, the whole curriculum or aspects of it. We are always mindful that whatever we take from the world must be in line with our core values.

We are “mindful that whatever we take must be in line with our values.” This means that we won’t allow any curriculum documents or syllabus materials to distort our vision and mission. Our job as educators is a serious one; we don’t act like curriculum content robots.

Fortunately, curriculum planners are not complete dunces. They know that they have to design the curriculum for everyone- that’s why there is so much of it- but they do not expect us to follow everything they say. The English National Curriculum specifically says that the curriculum is everything that happens in the school, not just what goes on in classrooms. If we confuse the curriculum with what happens in a classroom, we have made a choice to do so.

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At MBAT we choose to place our Mission and Values first. We have a small school set in Nature where children learn through freedom and community. This is the foundation of our curriculum. The rest, however important, would not make sense if we did not have this crystal clear.

Let’s make this simpler:

  • The curriculum is everything that happens in a school, not just lessons
  • Even curriculum planners do not design their documents as programs of study
  • Children do not need to be in a classroom to learn
  • Children can be in a classroom and not learn. 

The Hidden Curriculum 

This brings me on to the vital question of the hidden curriculum. The content of a taught scheme of work may be undermined or reinforced by the way the material is presented. There is a huge difference between teaching in an hierarchical, constrained environment and teaching in a natural setting with free choice of action. What you learn from the habitat or environment is the hidden curriculum.

It is impossible to be completely aware of the hidden curriculum. It is hidden because you are not aware of it all the time: it includes our common assumptions and untested biases. We have attempted to guide the hidden curriculum in a certain direction by giving a clear message about freedom in our mission statement, our vision and our core values. We explicitly state that community, family and nature are valuable parts of the “curriculum”. We demand children make choices for themselves.

We encourage children to feel that they can do things for themselves. They can work out problems, set themselves tasks and create working groups


When children start here, they are immediately faced with decisions about what to do and how to do it.  As they grow up through the school, they become increasingly confident in using the resources of the community to help them develop. There are:

  • well-designed, age-appropriate spaces for activities or projects (with or without adult involvement)
  • a reduced formal curriculum offered in classrooms and online.
  • free play.  Spaces and resources will be designed to enable them to do this safely and constructively
  • social and emotional learning within their communities

Is there “just too much curriculum”? For us the question doesn’t make sense. Since the curriculum includes everything that goes on in the school and we accept that learning is a natural process there is always exactly the right amount of curriculum. How much time we spend in the classroom is another question entirely.

Our curriculum model

Our curriculum model is based on three interconnected circles: the formal curriculum, the informal curriculum and free play.

 The formal curriculum includes all teaching in lessons by teachers.  Good teachers use a range of strategies, from project work to book work, classes heavy on instruction and others full of interaction.  We have no pedagogical preference for one model over another in the classroom though we favor a Constructivist approach in the community.

Free play/activity is the part of the curriculum that is not accompanied, organized or managed by adults.  Children have freedom to do what they want to do.  Adults do not get involved.  They do not measure or observe children’s play.  They do not try to improve it.

The informal curriculum lies between the classroom and free play.  Children can get on with their own projects, or read quietly by themselves, for example.  There are spaces on the timetable for discussion, group reading, cooking or project work, and many other activities that teachers and students devise.  In studios such as the Art Room the informal and the formal curriculum can run at the same time in the same space.

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Curriculum Content

MBAT will use the English National Curriculum as a guide.  The ENC divides schooling into Core and Foundation subjects. 

Children, parents and visitors are instantly aware that English, Mathematics and Science are given importance and priority: materials and resources, the timetable and the design of spaces make this clear.  Much of the content in skills, knowledge and understanding can be approached in the informal curriculum.  Our Tracking Mechanism is neutral- if children hit relevant targets, it doesn’t matter whether they learnt in a formal classroom or not. However, there are lessons in these subjects and they are given prime position on the timetable.   There is respectful silence during lesson times; if not, a case can be brought to a community Meeting.  We do not put attractive leisure-style activities on offer during lesson times: excursions are planned in advance, there are set times in the calendar for trips, parties and celebrations. 

The school management is aware of the learning that goes on throughout the community and prepared to present this as evidence in the case of inspection or outside interest.