Opinion: Dubai's Headteachers Discuss KHDA Inspections

Opinion: Dubai's Headteachers Discuss KHDA Inspections
By C Hoppe
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While Dubai’s media has been abuzz with comment and analysis on the most recent round of KHDA inspection results, we thought it was time to ask the city’s high-profile principals and decision makers, exactly what they thought of the process.

The principals who’ve not only steered their schools through the exhausting inspection procedure, but are now in the process of dealing with parent, teacher and investor reactions to the 2014/15 KHDA ranking results.

With years of both UAE and international experience behind each one, we get the low-down on the inspection process; discover what changes they’d like to see to future inspections and get a better understanding of the KHDA inspection process in a global context.

Thanks to: Ian Jones, Principal of The English College, Clive Pierrepont-Director of Communications for Taaleem, Sam Welch- Marketing Manager at Victory Heights Primary School and Simon O'Connor Principal of Jumeirah College, who kindly took part in this feature.


What do think of the KHDA inspection process?

Clive: “Inspections are a crucial way of supporting school self-review and self-evaluation; the inspection teams are school improvement partners and critical friends! The inspection process should simply be confirming what the school already knows about itself and is working on through its own self-improvement and development plan. The process is rigorous and the standards reflect those that are outlined in other international accreditation bodies, such as Council of International Schools, International Baccalaureate and British Schools Overseas.”

Ian:  “I think it shows the desire to improve that quality of education within Dubai. Aspects of the process seem to change each year and I feel that sometimes a two year cycle would be more appropriate for ‘Good/Outstanding’ schools.”

Sam: “The process itself is crucial to a school’s personal development and should be seen in a positive light as it allows an opportunity for schools to really focus on weaker areas and also see what they are doing well in their more stronger areas. However, other inspections, such as the BSME and BSO, the purpose is developmental: teams work to inform the schools of how they can improve in a positive way.”

Simon: “The annual DSIB process is now an integral part of the school year. It is very rigorous and the expectations are high – exactly as it should be. The UAE has an ambitious vision to develop to become one of the best education systems in the world and the inspection process is one of the many tools which can help the realisation of this aim. The inspections also produce a very public analysis of the schools. This feedback helps to identify a school’s strengths and areas for improvement. An additional importance is that it is a valuable source of comparison for both parents and newcomers to Dubai, ensuring they are able to make informed choices about their children’s education.”


Do you think it is fair?

Clive: “There have been some inconsistencies in the judgments made by teams in the past but these are now far less common.  Many schools are classed as 'Good', but within 'Good' there can be a considerable range. Parents may visit two schools that have been rated the same, yet in reality they can be far apart in terms of character and occasionally academic achievement. However, on the whole it is a fair process and as it matures, is improving and refining all of the time.”

Ian:  “I think an overall inspection would be fairer rather than just focus on certain key areas.”

Sam: “The inspection process should simply be confirming what the school already knows about itself, and a way of working upon its development. If the primary purpose was school improvement, the inspection process would be more relevant. The ratings are relevant to an extent, but the overall rating lends itself to some degree of subjectivity. Obviously being in the UAE, Arabic and Islamic studies are a key focus. The KHDA inspection has a way of coming across as being judgmental rather than developmental and this can have a dampening impact on staff morale.”

Simon: “Yes. The DSIB framework makes it very clear what is expected and the standards to which schools are to be held account.”


Does it help improve standards of schools?

Clive: “It is the leadership and vision in schools that raises standards, not the inspection process. The inspection process is simply a partner in school improvement, a critical friend. The inspection process should simply be confirming what the school already knows about itself, they offer guidance and expertise to help schools achieve their goals and better serve their community.”

Ian: “Yes, I believe it does.”

Sam: “The inspection definitely helps towards forming a school’s self-review and self-evaluation. It provides benchmarks to measure yourself against and thus pushes you to improve in certain areas. The inspection should play a crucial role in developing a school by providing direction and guidance and focusing on a school’s vision. We consider ourselves to be a highly reflective organisation and use any inspection and accreditation as a tool to help us to move forward and improve further.  And, while the UK is in limbo regarding a ‘world without levels’ we are proud to measure our progress and attainment on British age expected outcomes.”

Simon: “The opportunity that the DSIB inspection provides is feedback from education experts. They produce an in depth report as to what the school does well and recommendations as to how it can continue to develop. Moreover, there is an expectation that schools demonstrate that they have acted on previous advice. I think this process is strong and the improvements in schools across Dubai demonstrate its impact.”


What are your views on the frequency of the KHDA inspections?

Clive: “It would be far more reasonable to fall in line with standards from other countries and regulatory bodies, where these occur every 3-5 years.   Those schools rated good and above should be awarded “trusted status” and their progress measured against their development plans and self-evaluation documentation in the interim period between inspections.  Also consideration should be given to those schools that have already achieved or are seeking international accreditation.  A longer inspection cycle for schools rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ would allow the inspection teams to concentrate on those identified as needing the most help.”

Ian: “As I mentioned before, I do think ‘Good/Outstanding’ schools should be inspected every two years allowing for changes to be implemented fully.”

Sam: “This would depend on a school’s overall rating. Schools who are 'Outstanding' and 'Good' wouldn’t need to have the inspections as frequently, let’s say every three years. Those schools that are acceptable should have it every two years and the focus should mainly be on the improvement areas that were mentioned in the previous inspection. Schools that have rated unacceptable should be reviewed annually. These inspections should place focus on developing a school.”

Simon: “I think there is a need for balance, but also a different approach for schools in different contexts. There are many new schools in Dubai, and it is important that they are inspected to ensure the quality of their provision. Similarly it is important to look at schools which are improving. However, I do believe that schools which have shown themselves to be consistently operating at the highest levels could move from a full annual inspection to something slightly different, whether with a lighter touch or decreased frequency.”


How does it compare to similar school inspection policies globally?

Clive: “The process is potentially outstanding and very similar in many ways to inspections in other countries. The standards against which DSIB assess schools are easily aligned to the standards of all other inspection bodies across the world.”

Ian:  “It’s similar in many respects. The model has similarities to Ofsted and the BSO Inspections to name but two.”

Sam: “Other inspection policies are developmental. Also, schools are classed as 'Outstanding,' 'Good,' 'Acceptable,' etc., within each bracket there can be a huge range. For instance if two schools are rated 'Good' Parents see two schools that have been rated the same, yet in reality can be worlds apart in terms of character, culture and academic standards. We are sure that most schools would love to be measured against motivation, enthusiasm, energy and inspiration. Would it not be refreshing to be deemed ‘Outstanding’ specifically for creating magic and awe in a school? How do you measure magic?

Simon: “My previous experience is with Ofsted and the ISI in the UK. I would say that DSIB is very similar and in many ways more rigorous. In an Ofsted inspection a school would be seen by 2 or 3 inspectors for a day and a half. Here we are seen by 6 inspectors for 4 days. Inevitably here they will be able to see more and their insights will be based on a greater amount of evidence.


Do you think it's right that students are consulted for their opinion?

Clive: “Of course, student and parent feedback is an essential aspect of school review. They are in the best position to tell us if we are doing a good job! A positive school/parent partnership and the pursuit of common goals is a powerful driver in the pursuit of outstanding achievements for our students.”

Ian: “Yes absolutely, student voice should be encouraged.”

Sam: “Student feedback is an essential aspect of school self-review. Our children are in the best position to tell us if we are doing a good job, ignoring their views would leave a major gap in understanding all stakeholder needs. We believe that the voice of the children and their opinions are of utmost importance.

Simon: “It is essential that an inspection talks to all those involved in a school – students, parents and staff. I would worry about a system that didn’t.”


How do you think the inspections can improve?

Clive: “We welcome the joint inspections initiatives where the DSIB will partner with international accreditation and authorisation bodies such as The IB, NEASC, CIS and BSO. This will certainly help triangulate results against global standards.”

Ian: “By not changing the criteria each year, to allow for continuity over a two year period.”

Sam: “By having consistent and clear goals and by looking at the frequency of the inspections in relation to the overall rating and improvement areas. The inspection can be seen as being judgmental rather than developmental and this can have a dampening impact on staff morale. We consider ourselves to be a highly reflective organisation and use any inspection and accreditation as a tool to help us to move forward and improve further."

Simon: “I would like to see a move towards less notice for an inspection. At the moment schools are given three weeks and, inevitably, the inspection becomes the focus of preparation and a cause of stress during that time. Things don’t relax until the inspectors arrive and people can get on with what they do best. In other inspection frameworks schools get a phone call on the afternoon before the inspection. The consequences of this are two-fold; firstly the amount of tension in the lead up to the inspection is reduced. In addition, the inspectors get a much more realistic view of the school.”

“I understand moves in this direction are being discussed at the KHDA and I would very much support such a development.”


How do the standards at UAE schools compare globally?

Clive: “Standards in the leading international schools in Dubai measure up very favourably when compared internationally, evidence derived from international benchmarking tests and exam results support this.  Good schools evaluate themselves against international standards and the statistics are available to parents to make their own comparisons.  However you do have to compare like with like when comparing the academic achievements of selective and non-selective schools and those with different curricula.”

Ian:  “Favorably in most cases. As in most countries there are a range of schools in terms of quality.”

Sam: “UAE schools should seek to meet global standards, focusing on international accreditation and comprehensive quality assurance programs. Although the UK is in limbo regarding a ‘world without levels’ we are proud to measure our progress and attainment on British age expected outcomes. Schools should concentrate on professional development and they should also invest in teachers. As a British school in the UAE we have ensured that we are in line with our vision and so we have set out to achieve a high standard of holistic education that we are proud to be measured against contextually.”

Simon: “Like all school systems there are a variety of standards in evidence across the UAE and it is difficult to generalise. What is clear, however, is the determination of the government to continue to raise standards to the ambitions of the National Vision. The focus on this year’s PISA ratings is a clear example of this.”


Have you introduced any changes in the past year to work on recommendations?

Clive: “Taaleem has made it a priority to continually improve the teaching of Arabic and is working on many levels to accomplish this. We are committed to place special emphasis on the teaching of Arabic, Islamic history and culture through the use of innovative pedagogy. This is achieved by making Arabic more fun and taking an approach that veers away from the traditional ways of teaching and adopting a more interactive approach that totally engages children. We have also been working hard to further improve our learning support services and provision.”

Ian: “We’ve made changes to how we challenge students at all levels and allow time for them to reflect on their own learning.”

Sam: “Being in operation since August 2013, these visits would not normally take place until a school’s third year of operation, but VHPS wanted to get a bench mark as we continue to expand and develop. We are proud of our achievements in context and continue to focus on our vision to Nurture, Challenge and Excel all individuals. The school governors held several meetings with school leadership with regard to areas of improvement; and have taken on board all inspectors’ comments to implement a structured action plan to address these identified areas. We have already introduced Arabic and Islamic levelling as recommended by DSIB, and changed the teaching areas for Islamic and Arabic in line with their recommendations.”

Simon: “Many – the feedback which we gain every year is vital and forms the basis of our development plans. A good example is the work which we have put into continuing to develop our Arabic and Islamic provision, and helping students to understand the context of the UAE in which they live.”

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