x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Yardstick needed for school quality

With American, British and Indian curricula all present in UAE schools, parents and regulators are finding it difficult to compare schools on quality.

As if shortages of school places are not already a major problem for parents in the UAE, Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority plans to tighten regulations and restrict the entry of school providers as a way of maintaining high standards.

The KHDA has the commendable goal of raising quality, but it may be getting ahead of itself with this plan. Reforms are often being implemented in a rapid, disjointed process, meaning that long-term plans are being adopted before the preliminary groundwork has been covered.

How can regulators, for example, set standards when there is a great disparity in school curricula across the country? In the mix of the American, British and Indian curricula (among others), there has been a lot of confusion about school quality and pupils' achievements. How, then, can parents and regulators compare schools on quality?

The new plan could lead to further competition for places as supply is constricted. In the past, that has put parents in a bind so that they are forced to accept any school place for their children regardless of quality. It might also lead expatriate families to send their children home, leading to the disruption of families.

The first step is to establish a transparent, comprehensive standard to rate school quality. In part this can be achieved by looking at standardised test scores, but in the complicated milieu of different curricula, other measures are also necessary. KHDA has done well in the past, for example, by linking fee increases to quality determined by inspections.

If this were properly enforced, schools would be likely to work towards raising the bar. At present, however, this is an inefficient process as many schools either charge higher fees anyway or falsify reports about the quality of education.

It is important to give schools incentives to improve, and offer penalties when they do not. KHDA says the move will ensure quality and restrict the growth of education providers that do not improve over the years. But the more urgent step is to determine a yardstick that measures school performance, and provide that information to parents.