x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Let schools improve by competition

More competition among schools would benefit parents, children and society

There is wide agreement that the UAE's school systems need substantial improvement. This week, Dubai officials admitted that fully 100,000 students get only adequate schooling, or worse.

At Transforming Education, a conference in Abu Dhabi this week, there was accord among the experts on how to make meaningful change: to improve education, we must give good teachers more pay and respect. But with all due respect to the experts, this step is necessary but not sufficient.

Lucky adults will remember at least one "born teacher" who brought school to life and made learning fun. If those teachers are lured away by better-paid careers in other fields, or chased away by smothering bureaucracy and a lack of real authority over students, then we abandon our classrooms to teachers of the second rate, or worse.

There is however a simple way to transform the teaching corps and the schools: scale back on central bureaucracy, give schools greater autonomy and judge the results in public.

True, standard tests and school-to-school comparisons can be tricky in a country with many, varied curricula. But once the tools for measuring results are in place, competition will do much of the work.

In many countries, there is movement towards self-directed schools set up and run by groups of parents, or for-profit companies - as is the norm for private schools in the UAE. These must follow a required curriculum, but can add extra classes as parents wish.

In the US, the UK and elsewhere, such schools begin with the assumption that parents have the motivation to oversee school operations. The governing boards of such schools take a close interest in what their children learn, and how. Success is measured by uniform tests; results should be public so that parents can choose a school on the basis of test scores, as well as price, location and other factors. Parents can judge, close-up, the quality of teachers, and decide how to pay enough to attract and retain the best.

In the UAE, this would be an ambitious, far-reaching addition to school systems. Freed from top-down regulation, and required to show good results, such schools could bring a real transformation of the struggling education system.