Understanding the Educational Systems in Qatar
To newly arrived expats, the education system can be a bit of a maze. It is divided into two general categories: private and independent schools. Most expat children attend private schools, but limited numbers of non-Qatari children can attend what are known as independent school, especially if their parents work for the government. For most expats, however, their child’s education will be at any of the number of private international schools in Qatar. Despite the number and diversity of international school options, waiting lists can be long, and it is especially difficult to find a place if you are arriving in the middle of a school year. It should also be noted that tuition fees may be quite a bit higher than you are used to back home.
The range gives you flexibility, however, in choosing an educational system that fits your child. Many private international schools offer multiple educational options and standards for children, with IB (International Baccalaureate) classes, for instance, nestled alongside a national curriculum. This is helpful for families who are certain they will return home after a short period of time. At the same time, the wider variety of curricula gives more options for families who may move on to a third country. Many schools accept children as young as three years old, however, there are some that only accept children older than four.
While nurseries are only allowed to enrol children younger than four, exceptions can be made (your child’s nursery should be able to help with the paperwork) or there are independent kindergartens for children waiting to age into their preferred school. While the differences in educational systems are minor during the primary/elementary school years (up to 12 years of age), they do differ significantly in the secondary school years, typically as your child enters adolescence.
This is where you need to plan ahead. Consider when your family might return home or move to a third country; then, explore what curricula will support your child’s educational needs within that context. If you don’t know what lies ahead for your family, or your home country curriculum is unavailable in Qatar, then it makes sense to stick to an international standard like the IB programme. However, despite the apparent popularity of the IB, it is certainly not for every young learner. Here, in no particular order, we give a breakdown of the most common educational options:
American Common Core
While American educational standards are generally set at the state level, there have been major initiatives to standardise them across the entire 50 states. The Common Core is the result of those attempts. It not only addresses what a child should know by the time he or she graduates high school, but also outlines what skills a child should have learned at every grade level. Common Core addresses both mathematics and language arts and is meant to build upon knowledge learned in the previous grade. In the algebraic portion of maths, for instance, grades 1-2 learn addition/subtraction with whole numbers, grades 3-5 build on that with multiplication/division, as well as working with fractions.
Grades 6-7 grapple with the basics of algebra, while grade 8 works on linear algebra, and so on. Language arts builds in a similar way, moving, for example, from simple questions about a text to evaluating the emotions or motivations of certain characters within the text. Parents should expect to see Common Core as less than a curriculum, as it doesn’t outline standards in other subject matter. For that reason, in Qatar, you might see an international school advertising that its US curriculum comes from a certain state, where Common Core would be placed alongside other educational content.
American Advanced Placement
The Advanced Placement (AP) programme allows high-school students to take college-level courses. At the end of the school year, your child has the option to take an exam for each AP course and earn college credit. AP exams are scored on a scale of one to five. While each college or university has their own system for calculating AP courses, many schools allow a student scoring a “3” or above to “test out” of introductory level college courses. While there’s an obvious advantage to saving thousands of dollars on US tuition, your child also has the benefit of skipping introductory courses for higher-level classes.
The ICGSE (Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education) is similar to the British GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) but tailored to meet the needs of international school students. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that the ICGSE relies on exam scores, whilst the GCSE considers both coursework and exams.
An interesting trend in the UK is that independent schools are increasingly adopting the ICGSE, as it’s seen as flexible, yet more rigorous. For practical purposes, however, the GCSE and IGCSE are considered equivalent. The IGCSEs are normally taken around Years 10 or 11. Over 70 subjects are available in the IGCS programme; they are necessarily more inclusive and culturally broad than what would be available in the IGCSE. Exams are scheduled after the course ends, and results are calculated from a written, oral and practical assessment graded on a scale from A* to G (with A* being the highest). Exam sessions are twice a year, in June and November. An ICE (International Certificate of Education) is awarded for students who pass seven subjects across the following groupings: languages; humanities and social sciences; sciences; mathematics; creative, technical and vocational. The ICE is further separated into three grades: Distinction, Merit and Pass. After that, a student may choose to do the IB Diploma, the A-Levels, or go into vocational training.
In the British system, specialisation comes earlier than in many other national curriculums. After passing the IGCSE, students start focusing on subjects that they intend to study at university. In the GCE A-Levels (General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels), students usually pick three subjects of their choice. This is best suited for those who intend to pursue higher education in Britain, although many former British colonies also recognise the A-Levels as a school-leaving qualification.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a not-for-profit foundation independent of government and national education systems. Conceived in 1968 in Geneva, it is intended to develop and support internationally minded students. The IB Diploma is recognised worldwide and highly prized by top colleges and universities. To offer the IB Diploma, a school must first complete an authorisation process by the IB organisation. It does take time, so often you might see a school advertise that they are a ‘candidate’ school in the meantime.
The IB diploma is rigorous. It aims to develop critical thinkers that consider both local and global contexts. However, the IB is unique in that it considers personal development; a CAS (creativity, activity, service) project is a requirement for the IB diploma. There are four age-based programmes—we outline the three commonly seen here in Qatar. The PYP (Primary Years Programme) was first introduced in 1997 for children ages 3-12. It focuses on the development of the “whole child” both curious and caring about the world around them.
Another unique characteristic is the PYP’s interdisciplinary approach to education. The MYP (Middle Years Programme) was introduced in 1994 for children ages 11-16. It continues the interdisciplinary learning of the PYP by requiring a unit that combines at least two subject areas. Subjects are pulled from the familiar (languages, sciences, maths) to the more uncommon (design, individuals and societies). They are also asked to consider issues of global importance, such as cultural identity, sustainability, fairness and technological innovation, linking these concepts with the wider world. The MYP also asks students to complete a comprehensive project at the end of their studies.
The DP (Diploma Programme) was introduced all the way back in 1968 for students ages 16-19. It is composed of six subject groupings: language and literature (in the student’s native language), language acquisition (a second language), individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics, the arts. To acquire the IB diploma, the student also
must complete an “extended essay” in an approved subject; a “theory of knowledge” (TOK) portion that tests a student’s ability to think critically, with assessments based on an oral presentation and an essay; and self-initiated CAS project that allows for personal growth and reflection.
The IB diploma is a popular choice for international students, but it is not for every child. The workload is significant, and requires initiative and organisation on your child’s part. Also keep in mind that, because the IB curriculum requires the students to have undertaken every aspect of coursework with ongoing assessment in addition to regular exams, it is not easy to move to an IB curriculum as students will have missed the required amount of hours and necessary coursework completion stages.
Also, because of the way IB makes assessments, if a child is weak in one subject, it will bring down their overall mark and doesn’t easily allow for highlighting specific grade successes, as university application is based on a singular final score.
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) sets the national curriculum of India in the following areas: language, maths, computers, science, social sciences, art education, health and physical education, study of peace, and work and education. However, as India is a federation of diverse states, there are concurrent national and state educational boards that work within these guidelines.
The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is one of many federal examination boards, and has become increasingly popular. It has a wide following in both India and beyond, as 28 countries have one or more schools supporting the CBSE curriculum. These are mostly countries with a large population of Indian expats. Significantly, Qatar is one of those countries, as are most other countries in the Gulf. The CBSE follows the NCERT curriculum in the primary years, from 6 to 14 years of age. Then, students will work towards the CBSE examination held in grade 10.
Here, the subject areas narrow slightly from the primary years: a mother tongue and second language, maths, science, and social science. Optional courses include a skill subject in topics ranging from media to agriculture to banking, and a third language. Co-scholastic areas (as they are dubbed) include art education, health and physical education, and work experience.
The CSBE board examinations for grade 10 include a 3-hour examination for each subject that covers all of the material for the school year. Final assessment is based primarily on this exam, although it also considers previous exam results, coursework and student portfolios. The grading system is based on a ranking system, so for instance, the top 1/8th of passing students get A-1 (the top), while the next 1/8th receives an A-2, and so on. Students then move towards the grade 12 CBSE examinations.
The CBSE is most suitable for students who intend to complete their post-secondary education in India; especially for medical or technical schools that require entrance exams based on national standards.
The Curriculum Standards Office (CSO) is tasked with developing Qatar’s national curriculum and supporting the implementation of the national curriculum for use at independent schools. It covers the following areas: science, math, Arabic, English, Islamic studies, and early years education (i.e. preschool).
The Montessori method is based on the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who opened her first school in 1907; it emphasises a “whole child” approach that encourages children to use their own natural curiosity to direct their learning. Instead of desks, Montessori classrooms often have kid-friendly furniture and cosy spaces where they can immerse themselves in a puzzle, care for classroom plants and animals or quietly read books. Cleaning up after themselves and learning to move independently are other values of the Montessori method.
While Montessori schools do support primary and secondary education, it is most popular for the youngest learners. In Qatar, Montessori education is generally available for preschool aged children.
An intriguing alternative is the Finnish education system, which is lauded for its academically strong results as well as its nurturing approach to children’s well-being. In Finland, the state education system mandates what children should learn, but gives teachers remarkable flexibility in how to introduce concepts. So, if a teacher decides that a reading session on marine animals would be best by the sea, then that is what will happen. Playground and outdoor sessions are encouraged and considered a valuable
use of classroom time. Children will typically have the same teachers throughout the primary years, which allows teachers to deeply understand the needs of each of their charges.
With high tuition fees and tight admissions policies, some parents opt for home schooling. Qatar doesn’t support home schooling, so it’s important to follow the guidelines set forth in your home country. Doha Home Educators (DHE) is an organized network for homeschoolers in the city, and are a great resource for parents interested in homeschooling. They share learning resources and also organise get-togethers and meet-ups.
DHE also has a private members-only forum for current home school families. It should be noted that home schooling is not recommended for families waiting for places at their preferred institution. Often, you will be advised to continue your child’s education in your home country until a spot opens up.
Special needs education
Special needs schooling may not be as comprehensive as back in your home country. In theory, children with special educational needs (SEN) are legally empowered to receive educational and therapeutic services, but private schools in Qatar are not required to accept children with learning difficulties. This is usually because they do not have the proper facilities or enough trained staff to accommodate children with additional needs.
Two challenges face families who have children with SEN: access to professionals who can make a diagnosis and finding open spots in a mainstream school that can support their child’s specific needs.
A starting point will be institutes or learning centres that can provide therapeutic and occupational support; they can also direct you to mainstream schools or preschools that will be best suited for your child.