What are we prepared to do to give equal access to a great education?
Dubai’s top private schools are selective whatever their websites tell you. That is not to say that all schools select on the basis of academic ability. Some select on sporting ability, nationality, ability in spoken English, personal profile or waiting lists.
However, a brief look at the average cost of fees in those schools rated outstanding, good, acceptable and weak shows another very clear form of selection: wealth.
Data recently compiled by schoolscompared.com paints a pretty compelling picture of what you need to get into an outstanding school: money. The average fees in outstanding schools are Dh43,337 per year. In good schools they are Dh23,652 per annum, in acceptable schools they are Dh12,983 and in weak schools they are Dh7,135.
I am aware that I am being slightly disingenuous by looking at groups of schools on average. Some schools provide an outstanding eduction for far less than the average fees. By the same token you could be paying above average at an acceptable school.
As a general observation, however, it is clear that schooling in Dubai is not yet fulfilling one of the primary purposes of a liberal education: social mobility. The “haves” have access to outstanding schools and the “have nots” have not.
This, of course, is the product of a free market education system dominated by big business who see schools as an investment vehicle rather than a medium for social justice. That, however, is a topic for discussion at another time.
The important question, however, is what are we prepared to do to ensure that all the children of Dubai have access to an outstanding education?
The UK is revisiting this same issue now as Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, has announced her plans for a new raft of grammar schools across England. A 50-year-old debate contests the success of grammar schools at increasing social mobility.
Detractors argue that children with educated, middle class parents are better placed to overcome the hurdles of entrance exams and catchment areas and gain a place at a grammar school. The schools, therefore, become dominated by those who would otherwise attend private school, perpetuating a middle class oligarchy.
Supporters of grammar schools argue that they undermine the advantage of the privileged by enabling the brightest students from poor homes to achieve strong exam results.
There is, however, another model which Dubai could consider adopting, that of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in London.
Its headmaster, James Handscombe, outlined their approach in a blog post on the Spectator website: “Our success in getting our students into top universities is in line with other selective schools. What is unlike other selective schools, however, is the level of deprivation in the student body: a third of the cohort came from backgrounds so deprived that they were entitled to the Pupil Premium.”
To explain, the Pupil Premium is additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.
“The national average is 29 per cent and typical selective schools have under 10 per cent,” he continued.
“This success has been achieved by doing something radically different with admissions. Our policy is uncompromising: all students must meet the required standard in the entrance exam and interview but if we are oversubscribed (as we are, with five applications for every place) then students eligible for the Pupil Premium get priority.”
Incredible. How can we do this in Dubai?
There are two obvious routes. The first involves national governments providing the equivalent of Pupil Premium in Dubai. This way all able students would be able to access outstanding education whatever their parents’ level of wealth. This would take a huge investment in education by the state, however.
The other route would involve schools establishing their own educational foundations.
With a fully understandable tightening on fundraising in the UAE to prevent the disbursement of funds to illegal causes, however, the ability of schools to set up educational foundations needs a significant review. The Community Development Authority, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority and the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department have the power and influence to create and promote a clear and simple route for leading schools in the emirate to fundraise specifically to enhance access to their institutions.
At the moment, however, the process is neither clear nor publicised.
So I will ask the question again: what are we prepared to do to ensure that all the children of Dubai have access to outstanding education? History will be our judge.
Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College
Updated: November 5, 2016 04:00 AM