Dubai schools report

A report into Dubai's education scene says schools must improve. <em>Time Out</em> takes a closer look

Last month saw the first ever assessment into the state of Dubai’s schools, and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading, with more than 20,000 kids in Dubai currently attending schools that were judged ‘unsatisfactory’.

Just over a third of the 189 state and private schools inspected were rated ‘good’ or better, while more than half scored ‘acceptable’ or lower, falling short of the quality expected by the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. Only Jumeirah College, both branches of Jumeirah English Speaking School (Jess) and Kings Dubai were considered ‘outstanding’.

However, there is some good news: most parents welcome the report, conducted on behalf of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), as a first step towards a more open and accountable school system.

‘I was initially surprised that only four schools were rated “outstanding”, but I guess if there’d been more, that would have raised questions about the rigorousness of the process and concerns over whether the bar had been set high enough,’ said one Dubai mum. ‘It’s good to aspire, and I think this report makes schools accountable, gives parents a tool for comparison and, more importantly, gives schools a bit of a kick in the pants.’

Between October 2008 and April this year, teams of inspectors spent up to five days in each school, observing lessons and interviewing pupils and staff to gauge the schools’ performance across seven key indicators, which included everything from the quality of teaching and administrative procedures to the state of school buses and canteen food.

At best, the results can be described as ‘mixed’, with state schools faring particularly dismally and considerable variation in the performance of private schools. Lack of progress in Arabic and Islamic studies, poor teaching in many cases and inadequate assessment in more than a quarter of schools are the most common criticisms. Many schools are not equipping students for university or employment and almost all schools fall short in terms of self-evaluation and governance.

Even some of the supposed stars of the education scene failed to shine. Repton, which opened its doors last year and charges fees of up to Dhs80,000 a year, was rated ‘good’ – a result which surprised some onlookers who had expected a more impressive performance given the fees and the school’s esteemed reputation back in the UK. Most parents, however, were happy with the result.

‘I wasn’t too disappointed with the grading,’ said one Repton mum. ‘This is the school’s second year, it’s still being built, and a lot of the criticism concerned issues I know they’re addressing. From an educational point of view, I’m more than satisfied. I like my daughter’s teacher, they work the students extremely hard, and they have great after-school activities for free.’

In another example of fees being no indication of quality, parents paying up to Dhs92,000 a year to send kids to GEMS World Academy may be feeling slightly peeved after the school only managed to muster an ‘acceptable’ rating. The school boasts a symphony centre, planetarium and rooftop peace garden, and yet came in for criticism for its poor capabilities in English as a second language. ‘I didn’t have any faith in the curriculum and the level of English in my kids’ classes was poor. I felt they were being held back,’ said one mum, who pulled her children out of the school.

The report did little to shake the view that parents are paying private school fees for a state-standard education – which is particularly galling given that the vast majority of Dubai’s schools are profit-making.

‘For many schools, they are a business and all that matters is the bottom line,’ says Alison Schofield, consultant at Dubai Education Oasis. Indeed, many parents feel that schools don’t want to know them once they’ve cashed the fee cheque. ‘It’s a case of “put up and shut up”,’ said one mum. ‘This report gives parents a voice.’

With expectations that the economic downturn will force many families to leave Dubai at the end of the school year, we may see more parents voting with their feet. However, Schofield cautions against taking the findings at face value and urges mums and dads to interpret them within the context of their child’s needs.

‘Don’t just look at the names, the reputations and the rankings. Investigate the school and find out if it is compatible with the needs of your child,’ she said. ‘Ask yourself “is my child happy? Is the school meeting my expectations? Are the staff taking good care of my child?” And remember that what one inspector sees as, say, “good” teaching, may not be another person’s idea of good teaching.’

The report has far-reaching implications for schools, as their grades will determine how much they can raise their fees by. This is a move that has come in for criticism from some teachers who say that it is the schools falling at the lower end of the scale that most badly need to raise fees to fund necessary improvements.

‘We’re expecting to be hit with a 15 per cent increase in September,’ said one parent whose kids go to the ‘outstanding’ Jumeirah College. ‘That’s the sting in the tail.’
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