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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

We need a new public-private model to prepare schoolchildren for the jobs of the future

Few sectors are changing as rapidly as education, driven by technology and the need to prepare a whole generation for jobs that don’t even exist yet

Pupils at Gems Modern Academy, which earned an outstanding rating in the latest round of private school inspections in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
Pupils at Gems Modern Academy, which earned an outstanding rating in the latest round of private school inspections in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

One of the primary goals of education is to prepare our children for the world of work. As well as providing well-rounded personal and career-oriented development, good education enables young people to pursue their professional dreams.

This fundamental purpose of education is being challenged by widespread reports about rising youth unemployment. According to the International Labour Organisation, 30 per cent of young Arabs are unemployed and many young people believe their education is not adequately preparing them for the jobs of tomorrow.

Yet debates around education tend to focus on other areas, such as the fees charged by private sector schools. I would rather focus instead on the important role that the private sector plays in providing meaningful, job-orientated education.

In the Middle East, especially in countries with large populations from overseas, there is a real need for a competitive private sector education system – one that has offerings spanning every price point and curriculum.

There is potential for the private sector to play an even bigger part than it already does, especially in the context of the links between jobs and education. That role is to support the public education system, particularly in those areas where it needs fixing due to various factors, including lack of access and outdated curricula, among others. The private sector can help with these issues so that young people have access to quality education that leads them to meaningful jobs.

Private school organisations would welcome the opportunity to partner governments to support school improvement and local teacher training initiatives. The public-private partnership model can be broadened so that it encompasses not just the management of failing schools but also the advancement of active engagement between private and state schools.

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Across the region, the private sector offers choices that are simply not available in the public sphere.

There is no doubt that schooling is a huge expense for many parents but private school operators offer multiple price points and options. With some private schools in the UAE charging from as little as Dh6,000, right through to Dh100,000 per year in tuition fees, parents do have a great deal of choice.

The second point comes from an inherent advantage that the private system has over the public sector, be it in health, education or housing – and that is the ability to respond rapidly to a fast-changing environment.

Today few sectors are changing as rapidly as education, driven by advances in technology and the need to prepare a whole generation for jobs that, in many cases, don’t even exist yet. Coping with this change is the challenge all educators face, yet the private sector is optimally equipped to take up the task efficiently and help transform the educational sphere to help shape the future of our young generations.

Public schools might be reforming – and that is to be welcomed – but they are not doing so fast enough. What we, as private operators, can do is collaborate with governments in the reform process, advise on the curricula we see working best, help implement best practices in education training and delivery and school management, and invest together in new school ventures.

As with any sector, to generate returns education demands constant investment, either by the government, from a fixed pool of resources, or by an operating company through fees. But the return on this investment isn’t, in this case, measured in profit. It’s measured by the benefits it brings to the community and the economy.

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A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that one year of schooling can grow an individual’s earnings by 10 per cent. South Korea and Singapore are great examples of how putting a premium on education can turn around a country’s fortunes. The UAE is following suit and its investment in education will ensure the country successfully diversifies its economy away from a reliance on oil and gas.

The Gulf nations are special in that students here are confident in their education and their future. In the UAE, the private system is robust and healthy, with genuine choices for parents at every level. For those parts of the region facing a more challenging situation, in both sectors but especially the public, I suggest the following strategy to ensure a quality education is within the reach of every child.

Focus on the curriculum: in an increasingly digital world, our children need to be taught multiple ways of thinking, unique ways of doing and the soft skills required for effective collaboration. That is why it is important to get the curriculum right – one that goes beyond the rote learning of old and better prepares our children for the future.

Focus on the quality of teachers. By 2030, half of the world’s current jobs will no longer exist, according to some studies and will be replaced by jobs that require greater skill levels. Teaching methods and pedagogy must evolve to suit these needs. Teachers in the public and private spheres must today serve as high-level professional knowledge workers, showing young people how to problem solve in new and innovative ways.

Impart 21st century skills: in the modern-day school, engaging with ideas and wrestling with different points of view serves children better than memorising facts and working in isolation. Exposure to a broad range of topics, with opportunities to study some of these in greater depth, gives students a richer sense of their own interests and strengths. Students must collaborate and create. This requires more group work, more projects and less lecturing in classrooms. It also calls for continuous investment.

Put an emphasis on primary education. According to the Global Partnership for Education, about 260 million children in the world will not attend primary school or secondary school. Only 25 per cent of children globally have the opportunity to go to secondary school. Governments around the world cannot fill the gap to educate school entrants.

The private sector, with its financial strength, heritage, excellence and quality, has to step in to correct this imbalance, which brings me to the most important point – that is, public-private partnership (PPP). The PPP model could also be explored, including scenarios where the private sector adopts government schools while being publicly funded on a per child basis.

This might provide a solution for schools that currently incur massive expenditures per pupil. Other scenarios from the PPP world include build, operate and transfer models, charter schools (publicly funded independent schools run by teachers, parents or community groups) and special academies.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution but Arab nations need to look long and hard at models that can be adapted and implemented with the minimum of friction.

The public education system should not be dismissed for its lack of resources nor the private sector for the costs it must incur to deliver quality education. We need collaboration, co-operation and conviction among all stakeholders to make quality education accessible for all.

Dino Varkey is chief executive officer of Gems Education

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