x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

School assessments for northern Emirates

The accreditation scheme will determine if schools meet minimum requirements in health and safety and student attainment.

An accreditation scheme for schools in the northern Emirates will begin in two weeks to determine whether they meet minimum requirements in areas such as health and safety, student attainment and school leadership. Schools that pass the inspection will be accredited, in effect being approved by the Ministry of Education and giving parents confidence that they adhere to certain standards.

The ministry will begin assessments on October 18 in partnership with the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust (CfBT), a not-for-profit organisation. Sixty-nine state schools and two private schools in the northern Emirates Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al Qaiwain and Ajman will be inspected during the first year of the programme. "It's a way for schools to be publicly accountable and it's a way to raise standards," said Eileen Owens, the CfBT's project director for the region.

Dubai schools were inspected last year and Abu Dhabi schools will be inspected this year, each by their own regulatory body. The ministry's scheme for the northern Emirates means every school in the country will be held to minimum standards, but there is no federal system to ensure they all adhere to the same standards. The northern Emirates scheme, first announced last October by Dr Hanif Hassan, then the Minister of Education, will eventually cover all state and private schools in the region. Schools that fail to achieve accreditation may eventually be closed, Dr Hassan said at the time.

While schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will be ranked based on the results of their inspections, schools in the northern Emirates will receive a simple pass or fail. The Dubai inspections last year established a framework for understanding school quality and gave parents tools for making informed choices. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's school regulator, made information about school quality public for the first time last spring. Inspections revealed serious health and safety issues at 29 per cent of Dubai schools and exposed problems with the national curriculum and issues with poorly trained teachers.

Not a single state school was ranked "outstanding" and more than half were found to be just reaching the minimum standard. Similarly, there were no international comparisons for the UAE's state schools until last year, when Dubai schools participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international benchmarking exam. State schools in Dubai did poorly on those exams, posting scores well under the international average and significantly lower than their private school counterparts.

Though the northern Emirates programme and Dubai's school inspections are different models, both are aimed at raising standards and ensuring that schools meet minimum standards. There are significant differences, however. Dubai has published school reports and created a ranking system. In the northern Emirates, the names of schools that fail to gain accreditation in the first year will not be published, and the ministry has not decided whether reports will be made public.

"All these systems have similarities," Ms Owens said. "I suppose the difference is in the fine detail do you publish reports?" The ministry will evaluate the northern Emirates programme at the end of the pilot phase. It has not decided how often schools will be evaluated after they gain accreditation. "There is huge value from schools going through an external or a shared review with the school staff, and that can contribute to school improvement," said Paul Wagstaff, regional director for the Middle East at Nord Anglia Education and a former inspector in the UK.

"There is a good deal of international research that school inspections or reviews can contribute to improving schools themselves and the quality of teaching." Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government and an expert on the UAE's state school system, said the current quality control mechanism in the northern Emirates, whereby supervisors from the education zones assess the quality of teaching, was not functioning properly.

"In theory it's the job of supervisors to check up on subjects and how they are being taught," Dr Ridge said. "I think if they were functioning in their correct role, that would be an effective quality assurance mechanism. "The problem is, they are not actually empowered enough and perhaps not as rigorous [as they should be] at looking at teaching quality." Dr Ridge believes the federal ministry should adopt a mechanism to measure school quality, but she cautioned that inspections and accreditation are not effective unless schools have the means to solve their problems. If inspections only point out flaws without giving schools the tools to improve, Dr Ridge said, it can be demoralising.

Also, she stressed that inspections alone cannot solve every problem. "I personally think it would be better to do more standardised testing, so that you can actually compare the schools not only against what inspectors think but on the basis of students test scores, which is what other countries are moving towards," she said. klewis@thenational.ae