The Sixth Form at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

There is a groundswell of opinion that traditional A Level teaching methods need an overhaul. This is not coming from the regulatory bodies and government departments that oversee these qualifications – although there will always be ongoing debate in those quarters. Rather it’s coming from universities and employers whose concerns relate to how well the A Level years prepare students for their educational and professional careers. Indeed, for life. This argument is therefore less about A Levels per se, and more about the best way for sixth form students to learn and develop.

At the root of it lies the enduring challenge of ticking the exam box while helping students think outside of it. While helping them actually think. A Levels have been accused of being more a test of exam technique than of intellectual capacity. However, there is no doubt that they remain widely respected as the sixth form qualification of choice when it comes to significant subject specialism.

So the challenge is, how can you retain the ‘Gold Standard’ depth and rigour that A Levels deliver while avoiding the passive, rote learning trap which schools can fall into through the teacher-centred classroom?

The answer lies in the phrase, ‘teacher-centred classroom’. As long as schools continue to use a command and control style teaching model, there will always be some pupils who are too shy to participate. Who sit at the back. Rest on their laurels. Become invisible. With minimal engagement comes minimal achievement. And, more importantly, a lack of self-worth and the erosion of confidence and ambition.

We considered our approach to Sixth Form carefully and, true to our vision of keeping young people’s development at the heart of our pedagogy, our Sixth Form experience places discussion-based learning at its core. Using the Harkness Method, it empowers students to own their learning process, enhance their critical thinking and listening skills, and take responsibility for the kind of social and intellectual scenarios that lie ahead.

Harkness learning was first adopted in the United States by Phillips Exeter Academy in the early 1930s. Its development was inspired and funded by wealthy businessman and philanthropist Edward Harkness, whose own schooling had left him so uninspired that he made it his mission to bring about educational reform. Harkness is used in many of the top US schools and also at several British schools, notably Wellington College who adopted in in 2008.

‘What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.’
Edward S. Harkness

Harkness places the onus on the student to prepare for the lesson and come to class ready to discuss topics in a collaborative, tutorial style that encourages and develops listening skills and interaction with other minds. The process ensures every voice is heard and valued and this helps to overcome the fear of being wrong. It is the students rather than the teacher who run the show. Teachers become facilitators, coaches and indeed, learning partners. Classes are small and are held at an oval table allowing eye contact with everyone. No-one sits at the back in this scenario.

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi’s Deputy Headmaster, Matthew Ford, who directs the academic programme in the Senior School, was part of the inaugural Harkness team whilst at Wellington College. He is an enthusiastic proponent of the approach and has been instrumental in the decision to embrace it as the basis for the school’s Sixth Form learning culture.

“Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Harkness is how it builds students’ ability to think and react, engaging the brain deeply rather than using it to simply recall factual information” says Ford. “It encourages respectful questioning and requires awareness of other perspectives. Most importantly, it ensures maximal peer-to-peer participation and develops each individual in a way that traditional teaching simply cannot.

“Sixth formers are ready for this type of approach’ continues Ford. “They don’t want to be told the answer. They want to craft it for themselves.”

Headmaster Brendan Law says: “Harkness dovetails with and adds to what we are already doing at Cranleigh. It is a natural pedagogical partner for us and fits very well with our teaching and learning philosophy.”

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”
Confucius 450BC

For more information or to schedule a meeting to discuss Sixth Form entry, email

Sixth Form Revisited