How a UAE Education Compares Internationally

At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, we work hard to bring you all you need to know about education in the UAE. But how does education in the UAE compare with other countries? We take a look at the data, the trends and speak to two international education groups to look at how the UAE education sector measures up against the rest of the world.
How a UAE Education Compares Internationally
By Jenny Mollon
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LET'S GO

Education is described as a “cornerstone of the vision” for the UAE and delivering a “Quality Education” is listed as goal number four in UAE’s sustainable development goals. The country aims to"ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. 

In light of these admirable and lofty goals, how then does the actual delivery of education in the UAE compare with the rest of the world?

The Background

It should first be noted that education in the UAE is split into two distinct sectors. First, the public sector (government schools), where education for the children of UAE nationals is provided and paid for by the state. We then have the private sector, open to both UAE nationals and children of expatriates (residents).

UAE government schools follow the standard national curriculum of the UAE. The private sector is significantly more varied, with the three most popular curricula being the National Curriculum of England, the IB curriculum, and the Indian CBSE curriculum. Despite government schools being free, private schools have attracted ever growing numbers of Emirati students.  Today, more than half of all Emirati children attend private schools, despite having a ‘free’ option available to them. 

Making comparisons between the public and private sectors within the UAE can be a challenge, given the significant variances in style, curricula and resources between them. With that in mind, this feature will focus (where possible) on drawing parallels between a UAE private education and education in three significant locations; the United Kingdom (chosen as a comparison due to the prevalence of UK curriculum schools in the UAE), Singapore and Hong Kong (both chosen due to the high percentage of expatriates living alongside the local population).

The Data

Every three years, the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) publishes the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings for participating nations across the world. The last data set was published in 2018 and the is based upon the results of standardised tests given to 15 and 16 year old students. If we look at two of the primary performance indicators, performance in reading and performance in maths, overall the UAE performed significantly lower than its peers.

  UAE UK Singapore Hong Kong OECD Average

Student performance in reading (mean score)

432 504 543 524 487

Student performance in maths (mean score)

435 502 569 551 489

PISA scores are something of a 'headline' event when it comes to education assessment. The UAE’s data is an aggregate of performance of students in both government and private schools. So, for most UAE expatriate and half of Emirati parents, PISA results are not truly indicative of the education sector which their children experience.

Of perhaps more interest are the recent TIMSS (or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) which are international assessments created by Boston College in the US. In previous years, the UAE’s data has been aggregated similarly to the PISA scores, but, interestingly, for 2019, UAE private school data was listed separately to government schools, immediately giving private sector parents a clearer picture of attainment.

This special WSA feature on the TIMSS data provided a detailed analysis of the UAE’s 2019 scores. To demonstrate a key trend for the report, we can look at the UAE’s results for Grade 4 maths. The UAE as a whole scored 481 points for Grade 4 Maths, placing it in 43rd position out of 59, well below the dividing '500' line that demarcates above and below average performance. Dubai's private schools, however, scored 544 points, placing the emirate in the equivalent of 10th place overall, just behind relatively high performing Northern Ireland. Abu Dhabi schools, conversely, with a score of 441, would fall into 52nd place, equal with Chile. Singapore schools topped the list with a score of 625, and Hong Kong schools followed (602). England was placed 8th with a score of 515.

In Dubai, UK schools fared the best with an average of 565 points, followed by Indian schools (562) and then IB schools (554). Only MoE (government) schools fall below the 500 centre point for Grade 4 Maths, with a 495 average.

The Schools

It goes without saying that the UAE's private schools tend to have terrific facilities and resources. What is even better, is that the UAE education sector has expanded considerably in recent years, meaning that we now have a spectrum of schools at different price points, offering differences in location, cost, teacher experience and qualifications and physical facilities. With so many new schools having opened in the UAE, parents can really drill into price point and quality to meet their expectations.

We asked WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s International Editor, Carli Allan, to reflect on the similarities between UAE schools and Singapore schools. Carli has considerable expertise when it comes to schools in both locations. She told us:

“International schools in Singapore share the same state-of-the-art campuses as many of those in the UAE, have classrooms filled with a truly international student body (you won’t find many locals here though, as Singaporean students need special approval from the Ministry of Education to study at an international school), and follow the same September to July academic year.

What is different, here is the predominant curriculum. The majority of schools in Singapore follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, with 28 offering the IB Diploma Programme. There is only one school (Tanglin Trust) offering A Levels. While the UK National Curriculum is taught at a smaller number of schools, some IB schools do offer GCSEs. There is also a limited choice of Indian schools, with just five teaching the CBSE or ICSE.

Just as it is compulsory for students to learn Arabic in the UAE, all schools in Singapore offer at least daily or weekly language classes in Mandarin Chinese from as young as 18 months.

There is also a growing number of international schools that offer an immersive, bilingual education in Mandarin for students aged two to 11 years – and the demand for this is increasing from expat parents.

And, just as we’re seeing a growth in early years education at Dubai's schools, there are several international schools in Singapore offering pre-school education for children from as young as two months.

While all schools must be registered with the Committee for Private Education (CPE), which regulates Singapore's private education sector, there is no KHDA equivalent to inspect international schools. And, although fees are among the highest for a private education worldwide, several new, low-cost schools have opened in the last five years in response to the demand from parents for a more affordable education”.

The Government View: School Inspection Reports and Regulation

As our International Editor points out, parents of children in Singapore's (and Hong Kong) private schools are missing one key piece of data that Dubai and Abu Dhabi parents have easy access to: government backed inspection reports. 

Just as in the UK with OFSTED (for state schools) reports, parents in the UAE's two most populous Emirates can see how the government rates their child's school against a sound framework and, better still, they can compare this report against other school options for informed decision making (and to monitor the school's progress over a number of years).

In Dubai, private schools are regulated and monitored by the KHDA, and in Abu Dhabi, private schools fall under the guardianship of ADEK, both long established and respected bodies and both tasked with driving forward standards in their own private school sector. 

Without these bodies, international, private schools in countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong may choose to invite commercial organisations (for example, British Schools Overseas, or the UK's Independent School's Inspectorate) to conduct and publish inspections.  The fact remains however, that there is no definitive, united inspection framework to allow parents to compare and contrast private schools in either location. 

Matthew Farthing, Principal of Nord Anglia International School, Dubai (NAS Dubai) appreciates the benefits of working with Dubai's regulator,

"We appreciate the support and control that comes from our regulator [the KHDA] [with the] need to evidence progress at all ages against national and international benchmarks. This is no bad thing and it certainly helps to lead school improvement".

Writing for the Education Intelligence Group, Mark Steed, Principal of Kellett School in Hong Kong and the former Principal of Jumeirah English Speaking School in Dubai believes the greatest differences between Dubai and Hong Kong's schools is the totally contrasting roles played by the regulators.

"The KHDA and the Hong Kong Education Bureau are polar opposites. In Dubai, the annual DSIB inspection rating is everything – it is the focus of the year. Despite Dubai’s innovative context, the sadness is that creeping regulation and curriculum demands means that schools have little scope to do anything other than toe the line, lest they be down-graded.

"In total contrast, international schools in Hong Kong have the freedom to set their own curriculum and to be whatever they want to be so long as parents are prepared to sign up and pay the fees. International schools survive, thrive or fail according to market forces - the system sounds Darwinian but it works.

"Schools are granted licences to provide a certain type of education and have to make a submission to renew their licence – typically every five years. Other than that paper exercise, there is no inspection regime. In practice, the regulator is more concerned with health issues and pupil safety than academic performance".

We contacted Mr Steed to see if his views had changed with more time under his belt in Hong Kong. It hadn't. While it can and has, as Mr Farthing notes, raise the bar in terms of quality, reports over over regulation blunts difference.  He continued,

"Education in the UAE, like the UK maintained sector, is always going to struggle to complete with what the UK Independent schools or International schools in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Regulation stifles creativity, it brings everything down the lowest common denominator. Safeguarding aside, the UK Independent and Hong Kong International schools markets are unregulated – Hong Kong doesn’t even have school inspections - accountability comes from free market competition. The London Independent Day and Hong Kong International schools markets are the most competitive in the world. The two cities serve communities which are hungry for education and host a diversity of approaches to education. The result is that these are the very best day schools in the world".

The takeaway from Mr Steed's experiences of these two very different regulators?  We would interpret it as this: the education sector in Hong Kong is more risk taking than the UAE, and parents may need to be brave to commit to a school, especially a new one.  In Dubai, the government backed framework exists to control, to support, to improve and to reassure... But risk sometimes pays off, and as Mr Steed describes, perhaps the unfettered approach in Hong Kong allows for creativity, difference and innovation to flourish. That, in turn, allows for more types of schools to marry with more types of student. 

Of all countries we discuss here it can be argued international schools are perhaps more important to the UAE, than anywhere else. This story is partly just about scale. In the UAE, there are, approximately, 550 private, internationally focused schools. In Hong Kong there are just over 100, and in Singapore just 80. For the UAE, in many ways, the private sector is the national, state sector. This is not the case in either Singapore or Hong Kong, which have very strong state schools, arguably stronger than their private school peers - at least if measured in academic results.

This can explain why there are many more countries with the light regulatory touch of Hong Kong than countries with the active regulators of the UAE. Even in the UK, Ofsted inspections are only every four years, while ISI inspections (for the UK's private schools), every two to three years (and that just the compliance report). There is no inspection system for Singapore. 

Inspections are a significant investment by the Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and most recently Sharjah regulators to raise quality of education delivery, because private schools matter nationally. Follow the trend line, and soon more UAE locals will be in private schools than government ones. No wonder regulation of private schools in the UAE often feels more like an approach towards the state sector. 

What is debated is how can schools, particularly those that have proven themselves, be given more freedom to innovate, and be different. What is not debated is that in terms of overall improvement, the KHDA, MoE and ADEK have been extraordinarily successful.

"The UK can learn much from the KHDA in terms of the raising standards in education agenda," Stephen Duckitt, Principal of Safa Community School and a highly experienced UK and International school leader told us.

"Through unambiguous, decisive leadership, through clear expectations and inspection criteria, and using best practice from international research, schools and students in Dubai have undoubtedly benefitted from the direction of the KHDA. This has been supported by the effective and highly analytical use of consistent data, ensuring that there is continuity and communality in using the extensive data available in Dubai to ensure school improvement across all phases and all curriculum types.

In the UK, there seems to be a lack of this overarching consistence and direction across the country and across different educational sectors. Combative, indecisive and divisive seem to be phrases that sum up some of the educational rhetoric emanating currently from some education authorities and some educational leaders in the UK".

The best from over there, over here..?

There are now many international school brands in the UAE. While once a ‘big name’ might have enticed parents solely on the brand and international heritage, those times are behind us. Increasingly savvy parents want more than just a name hanging above the door to prove that an international education is being replicated, or perhaps better put, translated in to a UAE setting.

To make this point, we spoke to Clare Turnbull, Head of Prep at the soon-to-open RGS Guildford Dubai and asked, first, what had brought the UK school to the shores of the UAE.

“At the Royal Grammar School Guildford we always want to be part of the most dynamic and forward thinking global education environments. As such, it felt completely the right thing to come and be here in the UAE and in Dubai.

We plan to embed the very same curriculum as taught in our home school in the UK. Of course, it is right and proper that certain tweaks are made to ensure we are delivering the best and most appropriate experiences for our young people here in Dubai. However, at the core of everything we do are the same brilliant basics – especially in our English, maths and science curriculum. We are following the National Curriculum and then adding extras on top – just as we do in the UK. Our assessment processes will follow a very similar pattern to those that we follow in the UK so that we can keep track and support the progress of every child within the RGS Family.

We focus on expanding every pupil’s experience with a broad range of languages, music, arts and sport. Some of these are slightly different to those that we offer in the UK but the core priority of offering and encouraging that breadth is central to us both.

At the heart of our school are the same core values and learning habits and we share also the same robust and well planned programme of character education. Here in Dubai this naturally combines with the UAE social studies and moral education as an integral part of who we are”.

Nord Anglia is a thoroughly international education group, with 69 schools across 29 countries.  If anyone know how a UAE education compares it is Matthew Farthing, Principal of NAS Dubai who brings many years of international experience to his role.  He tells us of the common themes which unite Nord Anglia schools around the world.

"At NAS Dubai, we take the best of what of the UK National Curriculum offers and modify it for the backgrounds of our learners and the context that is Dubai. We enjoy the potential that the UAE social studies curriculum offers and we spend much more time with languages education that you would see in a typical school in England. We further benefit from being part of the Nord Anglia Education group and the special partnerships which that creates; with M.I.T. for STEAM work, for Juilliard to foster creativity and UNICEF to remind us how we need to work towards the UN’s seventeen sustainable development goals.

Culture, Politics: The Differentiators?

A 'good' education is the amalgam of so many things, not least the commitment of a child's parents layered with prevailing political and societal attitudes towards education in the home country.  These attitudes may tip one way or another and vary significantly between countries. 

There is no doubt parents in the UAE, in general terms, can be less fraught about education for their children, than their counterparts in Asia, Mr Steed told us. But while that can mean more serious students in class, it works both ways...

"The importance of education in Hong Kong and Singapore is not always healthy. Both cities have a fallen into the trap of tutoring culture. Children in Hong Kong barely have time to sleep as they are bounced from Tutor to Music Lessons to more Tutoring. No wonder Hong Kong has the dubious distinction of having highest teenage suicide rate in the world.

To illustrate the differences in approach, take the differing reactions to the recent announcement by the UK Government to cancel GCSE and A-level exams this summer. Schools in the UAE are generally concerned about how they will motivate students for the remaining six months of their courses; whereas in Hong Kong schools are concerned about student fatigue and breakdown. In the Hong Kong psyche, the announcement means every piece of work has taken on the status of an exam. Because students know that teacher assessments will be based on the work that they are doing. For this reason, our focus at Kellett is firmly on Student and Staff Wellbeing, particularly in the context of the past 18 months where we have faced Protests and the Pandemic".

What the Teachers Say

Vicky Juett, a Geography teacher at the British International School in Abu Dhabi worked in an international school in Singapore for eight years before arriving in the UAE in 2019.  What then did Ms Juett see as they key similarities and differences between schools in Singapore and the UAE?

"The first and most obvious thing is the physical space available to schools. In Singapore, schools are allocated a campus where the size is based upon the number of pupils and calculated by the government. It is definitely my impression that UAE schools are blessed with much more space.

In terms of day to day life, I think that UAE students have the more rounded experience at school. Schools here place a greater emphasis on wellbeing and non-core subjects. In Singapore, there is an almost constant focus on university admissions, even from quite a young age.  It is almost a given that your child will receive after school tuition. In Singapore, I often saw children and young people with social issues or depression. In my experience, that is rare here in the UAE.

As a teacher, my quality of life here in the UAE is much better. There was some good networking and professional development opportunities in Singapore, but here in the UAE we collaborate better with other local schools”.

What do parents say?

So how do parents with children going to international schools in the UAE, Singapore and Hong Kong feel about education?

According to our Parent survey results for 2020, a survey which runs in each country site, there is a broad thumbs up. A remarkable 81% of UAE parents think education is on a par, or better, than education provision in their home country, while 72% of Singapore parents and 62% of Hong Kong parents think the same way. Singapore has more parents than anywhere who think the quality of education by the country's international schools is better than in their home country (52%), followed by the UAE (42%), and then Hong Kong (36%).

It perhaps speaks volumes that the UAE has the lowest percentage of parents who think education quality delivered by international schools is worse than their child would get than in their home country. Our survey clearly reflects the fact that the bar has been raised by regulators across the board. A quality education is clearly more consistently delivered in the UAE, than elsewhere. Whether it reaches the same heights...?

The Move from one Education Hot Spot to Another

Whilst it has certainly been fascinating to contrast these global education hot spots, what will ultimately matter most to families on the move is how well their child can adapt to a new school in a new location. Singapore, Hong Kong, the UAE, and the UK all now have decades of experience delivering international education. Quality is there. However, success means focusing on the individual...

"Never forget, your child is a versatile, intelligent and adaptable being, Mr Duckitt of Safa Community School gave us as final advice for parents... "The younger the child, the more so.

"Children find a way to adapt to change. The key to the successful movement, whether from one country to another, or from one school to another in the same area, is how much support that child receives from their family, their carers and from the school’s individual pastoral care systems and procedures.

We need to focus on the emotional and social well-being of the child moving, and the adults in their lives need to take responsibility for this.

Your child will then manage the educational and other changes much more effectively".

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