Developing FlexEd, a blended learning solution for a smaller partnered school
Kai Vacher, Principal British School Muscat and his team, devise the provision of an affordable blended education porgramme for secondary students in a new parther school, the British School Salalah
2019 and a new partnership
Located on the remote southern coast of Oman, British School Salalah (BSS) had only 130 students in 2019. Meanwhile, British School Muscat (BSM), a leading British international school in the bustling city of Muscat, some 1,000 km by road to the North, catered for around 1250 students. Although both schools had been set up fifty years ago as not-for-profit organisations, they had operated as separate entities. A landmark meeting at the Ministry of Education in 2019 saw the amalgamation of the two schools, resulting in a highly successful partnership.
Hybrid solutions for BSS
Three years later, under the dynamic and dedicated leadership of Head of School, Jenny Maslen, BSS is now a thriving school, COBIS accredited and with 300 students projected for the school year 2023/24. How did this rapid growth occur?
The solution we eventually pioneered was not obvious at first.
Prior to the partnership, BSS only offered education to students up to Year 9. With a limited number of students in the Senior School, at the time only 15 students attended Years 7, 8 and 9 combined, it was not financially viable to support learning past this age. Consequently, as children approached Y9, their families would either leave Salalah, accept a place at another local community school or opt for home education.
In November 2019, I travelled to Salalah to meet parents at BSS for only the second time since the formation of the partnership. There was one particular challenge that was preoccupying my mind; how to continue to offer quality schooling at an affordable price for only 15 students in KS3? There was a straightforward solution; simply close the Senior School and focus instead on growing the Primary School. Once we had generated enough prospective Y7 students to re-establish a viable Senior School we could expand our provision to cater for an older intake. Of course, as the first strategic move of our partnership, this proposal would not sit well with the close knit community of BSS.
Time to reassess
Arriving at the Coffee Morning in the shaded playground, I was greeted by parents, eagerly waiting to meet the Principal from BSM. I was enjoying the initial introductions when a parent cut straight to the chase: “What are you going to do for our children next year as they start their GCSE years?” I was taken aback. A GCSE programme had not crossed my mind. We could ill afford the current KS3 programme for 15 students, let alone an additional GCSE programme for 5 students. The parents were polite but remained persistent. It became apparent that rather than closing down the Senior School, another, more creative approach was required.
I was forced to rethink the problem. Perhaps we could extend provision beyond KS3 to embrace GCSEs? After all, we had 5 students whose parents were desperately keen for their education to continue at BSS. At the time, the Senior School was staffed by a Maths teacher and an English teacher who, between them, taught most of the KS3 curriculum. What could an innovative, affordable and effective solution, offering 9 or 10 GCSEs with just two specialist teachers for 5 students, look like?
FlexEd provides the solution
Inspired by innovative curricula, such as the pioneering Bedales approach, Les Jonson, Director of Digital Technology at BSM and I devised ‘FlexEd’ – a blended programme where students learn ⅓ face-to-face, ⅓ online and ⅓ independent study.
Students following the FlexEd programme:
- attend BSS five days a week.
- study at least 5 GCSES; English and Mathematics face to face;
- study Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computing and French online with teachers based at BSM
- study non-assessed courses in Arabic, Art, PSHE, Music and PE.
- study independently using Century, a learning platform powered by artificial intelligence.
Cost and implemetation
As FlexEd requires fewer teachers to be employed on site, costs are significantly reduced. Tuition fees for FlexEd in KS4 are only slightly higher than for KS3.
By the time we launched FlexEd in August 2020, there were many similarities to the online learning taking place all over the world due to COVID. Whether this helped with the introduction of FlexEd we will never know, but we had no resistance from students, staff or parents.
By the end of Term 1, parents agreed that their children were making good progress; they were more than happy to recommend FlexEd:
“FlexEd is the best of both worlds; face-to-face AND online learning”.
Our first cohort of FlexEd GCSE students achieved excellent results in summer 2022. Students and parents were now keen for us to extend FlexEd to cover A Levels.
The ingenuity and high expectations of Jenny Maslen, her team, the teachers at BSM and the enthusiastic support from our parents, have ensured that FlexEd has delivered quality outcomes for our KS4 students.
Furthermore, FlexEd has helped to fuel the growth of BSS from 130 to 250 students in just 3 years with a roll of 300 projected for the school year 2023/24.
The design principles of FlexEd can be adapted wherever teacher recruitment is problematic or where there is a desire to rethink the 14-19 curriculum. In the process, FlexEd has challenged fundamental assumptions about curriculum design including:
- How many iGCSE students need to study.
- How blended learning can work supported by online independent learning platforms such as Century.
We need to continue exploring options and opportunities for curriculum redesign as the demand for more flexible ways of learning and working increases amongst our students, colleagues and communities. But we are well down the road and have come a long way since 2019.