x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Two thirds of Dubai schools below par

Five schools are graded 'outstanding' by inspectors but nearly two-thirds fall into lower half of rankings in latest results.

Expatriate parents in Dubai say the new ranking system makes it easier to determine if a particular school is right for their child.
Expatriate parents in Dubai say the new ranking system makes it easier to determine if a particular school is right for their child.

DUBAI // Almost two-thirds of schools in Dubai were rated less than "good", in the latest round of inspections in the city, which was little improvement on last year's results. A total of 186 schools were assessed and graded into four categories - outstanding, good, acceptable and unsatisfactory.

They were evaluated on a wide range of criteria, from school leadership to student achievement. Inspectors judged 95 schools to be "acceptable", compared with 97 last year, while 20 others were ranked "unsatisfactory", compared to 22 last year. A total of 115 schools were ranked in the lower two categories, compared with 71 in the upper two. Education experts said part of the schools' collective failure to demonstrate improvement was due to increased focus on Arabic and Islamic studies, an area that several administrators said presented difficult staffing challenges.

Just five schools got the highest mark, compared with four the previous year, according to the assessment teams from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). Three of the "outstanding" schools are public and two are private British schools. Just one school ranked "outstanding" last year, Kings Dubai, has retained its position in the new inspections. The Wellington International School is the only facility that teaches children up to grade 12 to achieve an "outstanding" ranking; the other four - Kings Dubai, Al Manhal Kindergarten, Al Nokhbah Model School and the Childhood Development Center - are kindergartens or primary schools.

While 28 schools have improved in the eyes of Dubai's education regulator, almost as many, 25, dropped a grade. Problems teaching Arabic and Islamic Studies were not the only reason some schools were downgraded, said Dr Abdulla al Karam, the director general of the KHDA. Indian and Pakistani schools, which are inspected on a separate schedule, had their first round of reports earlier this year, with 23 being assessed.

None were ranked outstanding, seven were ranked good, 11 acceptable, and five were unsatisfactory. This means 209 schools were assessed this year, compared to 189 last year. Two public schools have merged since last year's inspections and one private school has closed. "Sometimes the dropping is not because you raised the bar. It's because you have not seen any sort of progress in a positive direction in that area," Dr al Karam said of the schools that failed to act on KHDA recommendations.

But three of the four schools deemed "outstanding" last year were downgraded, largely due to substandard performance in Arabic and Islamic Studies. Rob Stokoe, the director of the Jumeirah English Speaking School, whose two branches were downgraded from "outstanding" to "good", said Arabic and Islamic Studies were key. "That's obvious from the report," Mr Stokoe said. "The school has significant outstanding features. Arabic and Islamic Studies came under close scrutiny and we've got work to do there."

Part of the challenge for his school, Mr Stokoe said, like many other Dubai schools, has been finding and retaining good teachers in those subjects. "We've been trying for two years now to seek out and retain Arabic and Islamic Studies teachers of the standard we would normally aspire to hire," he said. "It's been a slow, steady process and I think most schools would have the same problem. Really good teachers of Arabic and Islamic Studies are a finite resource."

Jameela al Muhairi, the chief of the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau, the department in the KHDA in charge of assessments, said: "Some schools have dropped because of this subject, but there are other areas that schools have to fulfil." In spite of dropping a place, Mr Stokoe said the inspection process had been useful. "It's a valuable element in our overall picture of where our school is at," he said.

"It was more rigorous than the first inspection." Officials from the KHDA said inspections are leading to school improvement, and Dr al Karam said most schools had taken seriously the agency's recommendations from last year. "The improvement we would like to see has started happening," he said. "The vast majority have started progressing." According to one expert, inspections alone will not necessarily lead to better schools.

"It is what is done with the inspection reports that will ultimately improve quality," said Dr Natasha Ridge, a research fellow at the Dubai School of Government. "Ultimately, it will come down to leadership. A good school leader with a school board that is supportive will take these reports and do what has to be done. However, a school leader who is very apathetic and does not have any incentive to change - such as the threat of closure - will continue to operate as before."

Dr Ridge added that some schools may "not have the means or the expertise" to make changes and would need support from the KHDA. Richard Forbes, the director of marketing and communications for GEMS Education, the UAE's largest network of private schools, said: "Nothing automatically leads to school improvement, other than investment in teaching quality and leadership skills. "Inspection is proving a useful tool in the UAE but, yes, it would be good to see additional help targeted at the lower end of the market, too.

"Education is the most important investment that a society makes in its future; you can't starve schools and expect them to give you high returns on quality and achievement." While the government will not subsidize private schools, Dr al Karam said the KHDA would play an "instrumental role" in helping encourage failing schools to form links with good and outstanding institutions in order to boost their standards and improve their performance.

On the question of whether chronically failing schools would be closed, Dr al Karam said two years was not enough time for schools to turn around. "We have kept the pressure on," he said, noting that of the 22 schools scored "unsatisfactory" last year, "seven have moved up, so the pressure worked". The authority has prevented schools that have not made improvements from expanding. Last year, the authority restricted fee increases based on inspection performance. "Outstanding" schools could raise fees by 15 per cent; "unsatisfactory" schools were limited to seven per cent.

This year, as a result of the economic downturn, schools have not been allowed to raise fees unless they have a compelling case to do so, such as relocation. Dr al Karam said 41 applications for increases have been received; none have been granted. Inspection scores will always be "the key criteria" when the KHDA considers a school, he said. "That means fees, that means relocating, that means expanding, that means shutting down, moving to another operator."

klewis@thenational.ae