One of Britain’s most prestigious schools, Eton College, is targeting the Gulf region with its new range of online soft skills courses.
Unlike its UK peers such as Repton, which now has an international outpost school in Dubai, Eton has notably refrained from the global branch model.
Instead, the iconic school – educator of many British prime ministers – has launched EtonX, which offers pure-play virtual classroom courses, such as ‘critical thinking’, ‘communication skills’ and ‘entrepreneurship’.
“We are a wholly owned subsidiary of Eton College. When Eton decided that it wouldn’t open an overseas branch, they figured technology was a different way of extending their reach,” Catherine Whitaker, CEO and head of Learning at EtonX, told Arabian Business.
“Eton is genuinely interested in seeing what could be done with virtual class technology,” she said.
The UK-based CEO said take up of Eton’s online courses in the Gulf region has so far been strong. EtonX already has around 20 GCC-based schools on its books for the start of the academic year in September 2019.
The education company has been particularly active in the UAE and recently signed an MoU with UAE-founded GEMS Education company to offer after school courses to pupils.
Whitaker said Eton X’s ‘Future Skills’ programme – a set of nine courses, soon to be 12 – will help regional schools and universities address gaps in the teaching of ‘vitally important’ soft skills.
“Since we launched in 2015, EtonX has been mostly focused on the Gulf region and South East Asia. That’s because there are international schools in both those regions and, in the Gulf, it’s because the soft skills gap is very much on the government agenda,” the CEO said.
“The UAE Ministry of Education has a 2020 strategy which explicitly references the need to meet the requirements of the knowledge economy – of which critical thinking and strong communication skills are the key components of that. We are meeting that need for a focus on skills beyond the pure academic,” she said.
The EtonX platform aims to ‘distill’ the best of the school into online courses for international students, said Whitaker.
“What makes an education at Eton special? Obviously academic education is very much part of that picture but, really, success is often dependent on personal characteristics and skills that are developed during the course of the education.
“These skills are developed through the style of teaching and some are developed by being part of Eton’s clubs and societies and inter house competitions – these opportunities create the skills.
“We have effectively distilled what makes an Eton education valuable into a series that can be done by anyone, anywhere,” Whitaker claimed.
The world over, there is a growing mismatch between graduate skills and the rapidly changing jobs market.
In the 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report, titled ‘Technology, Jobs and the Future of Work’, 60 percent of global employers said graduates were not adequately prepared for work.
In a similar survey, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Educating For The Future Index 2017 research found that of 35 leading countries, only Canada, South Korea and the UK government had agreed future skills strategies. Only Canada had successfully added them to its school curriculum.
Whitaker said the issue of relevant skills cultivation and jobs matching is particularly "acute" in the Gulf.
In 2018, the IMF warned that the MENA region must accelerate economic reforms and tackle an unemployment crisis among young people.
At 25 percent, the region’s youth unemployment rate ranked highest in the world in 2018. With 60 per cent of the population aged under 30, an estimated 27million youths will enter the region’s labour market over the next five years, the IMF said.
Whitaker said: “The problem of skills mismatch and youth unemployment is a worldwide problem. No one knows how technology will shape the future … but we do know that soft skills allow people to adapt to whatever comes along – if you can communicate, if you can work in a team; if you are resilient, then you’re better able to cope with whatever life throws at you. These skills mean students can learn on the job.
“The days of relying on knowledge from university are over. It’s all about being able to think critically and spot opportunities and solve problems creatively.”
Whitaker said ‘critical thinking’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ are the most popular courses chosen by teachers and pupils in the Gulf.
The CEO explained: “Entrepreneurship is a mindset. Our course encourages students to have their own ideas… we do this by asking what problems they need to solve in their own lives and then encourage them to take this to the wider world. This is a way of bolstering the regional economy.”
“We are proud to be innovating in live online learning, capturing some of the key social and entrepreneurial skills of a world-class Eton College education in the form of online courses that young people anywhere can now access and benefit from.”
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