UAE Schools: Setting the Benchmark Too Low?

UAE Schools: Setting the Benchmark Too Low?
By David Westley
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By Mark Atkins, Headmaster, Foremarke School Dubai.

At dinner with a colleague recently, I was reminded of the joke about two friends who became lost in the forest. Suddenly they were set upon by a huge, fearsome grizzly bear and the friends started to run for their lives.

“Do you think we can outrun him?” gasped one friend to the other.

“I’m not worried about the bear,” said the second friend, “All I have to do is outrun you!”

This story set me thinking about education and schooling in the UAE. In a country where demand for quality education remains high, are schools in danger of simply trying to ‘outrun the bear’ rather than really extending themselves to become world-class institutions in their own right?

With the proliferation of independent brand schools in the UAE and around the world, it could be argued that Britain’s strongest export is its education. Certainly that would seem to be the case as, internationally, a British education is still seen as one of the best starts a child can have whether they live in Singapore or Saudi Arabia. However, the shameful truth according to a major international report is that England is the only wealthy country in the world where school-leavers are now worse at maths and reading than their grandparents. In fact education in the UK lags behind much poorer countries including Lithuania, Latvia and Hungary.

In a number of studies conducted over the past three years, the highest world rating given to British education is 6th and the worst 44th.

Education reform led by the Minister for Education, Rt. Hon Michael Gove, has been a hot topic in Britain over the tenure of the current government. With a number of studies confirming Britain’s slide down the world’s education League tables, improvement has been sought.

The old National Curriculum was implemented under the Education Reform Act of 1988, and ensured that all state schools run by local authorities had a uniform curriculum; at the time, this was as necessary as it was welcome but the last 25 years have witnessed a steady decline in standards. Despite testing, re-testing, league tables, literacy hours, numeracy hours and any number of educational initiatives, the startling fact remains that standards have dropped and attainment levels have been dumbed down to the point where recent research demonstrated that a B Grade at A level gained in 2007 would have been deemed unclassified (U) in 1988. (Note: this refers specifically to Mathematics (although all other subjects were also researched and similar results were found. Source: Meta-Analysis/Findings presented by Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM)).

Writing in the British newspaper the Guardian recently, Danny Dorling, who holds a Chair in Geography at Oxford University, revealed that on any given day, a fifth of children in Britain qualify for free school meals. However, just one in a hundred of those children will go to either Oxford or Cambridge University. In contrast, the most prestigious 100 schools in the UK secure 30% of all Oxbridge places and notably, of these schools, 84 of them are private, independent schools.

So what does all this tell us?

Firstly the value of the English language as ‘the language of the world’ remains undiminished. Despite well-publicised concerns over the academic standards in UK schools, for parents the world over, spoken and written English is considered a pre-requisite for their child’s success. The usefulness of English is undeniable. But for British children, the native English speakers, the thousands of ex-pats in the UAE, communicating in English is an expectation not an aspiration, for the parents of these children it is academic success that is important.

In the UAE we have a plethora of wonderful schools. Many have facilities that the majority of schools in the UK can only dream of. Teachers too have, on the whole, intelligent, interested, engaged and supportive parents who want the best for their children. Children here are well behaved and motivated; they attend regularly. They are naturally ambitious and internationally minded. So my question is, and that of many parents I speak to, why do we only match our UK contemporaries when surely we should be better?

There are a number of reasons.

Sadly demand for quality education still outstrips supply. I believe this has led to a climate of complacency on the part of school providers who know that an ordinary school will still be full. Where is the incentive to push, to innovate, to ask for more and deliver excellence when simply going through the motions produces the same financial returns? I admire the initiative of the Dubai Schools Inspectorate and Irtqua'a in the quest for excellence but when UAE school performance is measured against existing UK standards, we are merely measuring ourselves against ordinary and thereby in danger of replicating the same low academic aspirations.

The UAE is reliant on private, profit making schools. This sits uncomfortably with many parents but I do not have an issue with this per se. Without investors in education there would not be enough schools to go round and only the most dizzy idealist would be naive enough to think that education can rely on philanthropy alone. However part of the problem here is that a lack of transparency in accounting and financial management causes rumour and mistrust.

A recent announcement by the KHDA about regulated school fee increases has once again fuelled the debate on school fees. Naturally fee increases are never popular with parents but the fact is that the cost of operating a school is excruciatingly high and increasing year by year. Profits do not go straight into shareholders pockets despite the rumour-fuelled chat rooms.

With profit margins squeezed by rising operational costs and fee capping imposed across the country, it is inevitable that standards will be affected as operators struggle to operate within budget. It is possible that we may yet see the end of more schools following in the path of much lamented The English College.

Then we come to teachers. All parents will know that a great teacher is truly a gift. However, the teaching population in Dubai, as in every other industry here, is transient.

With the growth of British Schools overseas, teachers can increasingly shop around for the most attractive package and, in an increasing number of cases, this is not to be had in the UAE.

True, the UAE is a marvellous country in which to live. It is safe, tolerant, sunny and vibrant. It is also expensive.

On a positive note, teachers are not generally motivated by money but who among us would turn down the chance to earn more if it was offered? Quality of life therefore is key to keeping our best teachers. It is incumbent on us all to make sure that they are afforded decent housing free from the constant threat of rent rises, a fair salary and good working conditions.

How many parents have resorted to a lie down in a darkened room after their child’s birthday party with perhaps no more than 20 energetic young guests? Imagine therefore the daily stresses and strains on a teacher trying to manage classes of over 25 and year groups in excess of 250. The simple fact is that our schools are just too big, too impersonal and problematic to manage. All this contributes to a constantly revolving staffroom door which, in turn, does nothing for school development.

Headteachers are increasingly forced to become focused on staff recruitment from an ever shallower pool of worthy professionals with the inevitable outcome that staff induction takes precedent over school improvement.

Despite all this I do believe that British is best. The problems faced by British schools are shared by all other schools in the country. Certainly standards in our schools compare well to the UK but my frustration is borne of the fact that we could do so much better; we have an opportunity that we either cannot see or will not take.

Returning to the beginning, independent, private education clearly leads the way in the UK. Like it or not, statistics show that pupils in private schools do better than those in state schools. As the government in the UK has acknowledged in the development of the new English National Curriculum, the standards and expectations of the private schools are the benchmark to which all schools should aim. In the UAE we have the opportunity not to be ordinary but to be extraordinary. Surely now is the time to realise that ‘good enough’ is, in fact, not good enough and that just because demand fills schools this does not mean school operators of Headteachers should be complacent.

It’s time we stopped trying merely to outrun the bear and worked together with the authorities to develop truly world-class education in the UAE.


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This article has been written by Mark Atkins, Headmaster, Foremarke School, Dubai.


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