x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE schools should strive to be better than those in Britain

In the UAE we have the opportunity not to be ordinary but to be extraordinary, writes Mark Atkins

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.

“I’m not worried about the bear,” said the other. “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 each other” 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. 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 sixth and the worst 44th.

However, the value of the English language as “the language of the world” remains undiminished. The usefulness of English is undeniable. But for expatriate British children, 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 wonderful schools, many of them with facilities that most schools in the UK can only dream of. On the whole, parents are intelligent, interested, engaged and supportive, while children are well-behaved and motivated. So why do we only match our UK contemporaries when surely we should be better?

Sadly, demand for quality education still outstrips supply. I believe this has led to a climate of complacency on the part of school providers. Where is the incentive to push, to innovate and deliver excellence when simply going through the motions produces the same financial returns? I admire the initiative of the Dubai Schools Inspectorate in its quest for excellence, but when UAE school performance is measured against UK standards, we are merely measuring ourselves against the ordinary.

The UAE is reliant on private, profitmaking schools. But part of the problem here is that a lack of transparency in accounting and financial management causes rumour and mistrust. A recent announcement by Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority about regulated school-fee increases has once again fuelled the debate. Fee increases are never popular but the fact is that the cost of operating a school is excruciatingly high and increasing each year. With profit margins squeezed by rising costs and fee-capping imposed across the country, it is inevitable that standards will be affected.

Then we come to teachers. The teaching population in Dubai, as in every other industry here, is transient. With the growth of British schools overseas, teachers can shop around for the most attractive package and, in an increasing number of cases, this is not to be had in the UAE. The UAE is a marvellous country in which to live. It is safe, tolerant, sunny and vibrant, but it is also expensive. Teachers are not generally motivated by money but who among us would turn down the chance to earn more? Quality of life therefore is key to keeping our best teachers.

It is incumbent on us all to make sure that teachers are afforded decent housing free from the constant threat of rent rises, a fair salary and good working conditions. How many parents have had to lie down in a darkened room to recover 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. Head teachers are increasingly forced to become focused on staff recruitment from an ever-shallower pool of worthy professionals.

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 born 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.

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 or headteachers should be complacent. It’s time we stopped trying merely to outrun each other and work with the authorities to develop truly world-class education in the UAE.

Mark Atkins is the head of academics and education at Evolvence Knowledge Investments