By Courtney Trenwith
Dubai already has the most diverse education system in the world. And as a record number of new schools enter the maturing market, the man in charge of ensuring top marks, Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) director-general Dr Abdullah Al Karam, explains how even fee packages are becoming more innovative
Aware that Dr Abdulla Al Karam has a tight schedule, I ask him to immediately take me to his office so we can start the interview. He leads me into a nearby room, where the bare windows open onto the manicured gardens outside and there are just three items: a FitDesk (a hybrid desk and bicycle), an exercise ball and a whiteboard.
Confused, I again query where we will do the interview.
“Here is as good as anywhere,” the director-general of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) says.
“Where will we sit?”
“Wherever you like.”
Still confused, I realise this is it: an almost empty room that initially appears unsuitable for a meeting.
“I don’t have an office; this is the closest to an office I come to,” Al Karam, who is now sitting at the FitDesk, says.
The entire ground floor of the KHDA headquarters in Dubai Academic City is a hive of activity: staff and visitors mingle on couches or at cafeteria-style tables; a few sit in the quieter majlis, balancing laptops on their knees. Visitors are greeted by concierge — lucky guests may even be welcomed by the resident talking parrot — and offered coffee and fresh popcorn or fruit as they wait.
While I admire the ‘office’ set-up, I’m not sure I can write and balance on an exercise ball for 20 minutes so I opt to stand and do away with the notebook, now relying on the dictaphone.
The unique KHDA culture comes down to what Al Karam calls "the H word".
“We want people to be happy; we want our visitors to be happy, we want our guests to be happy,” he says. “We need people to be happy… because we have a deep belief, if people are happy they will perform better. There is very strong evidence that happy students perform better, happy students don’t call in sick, don’t mess up. So we’re focusing a lot on that.”
It is not only the headquarters but the entire Dubai schooling system that is unique. With the most international schools of any city in the world (253, according to the International Schools Consultancy), and as much as 90 percent of the population from abroad, diversity is a given.
A record 21 non-government schools are scheduled to open in the next academic year and KHDA forecasts studnet growth of a conservative 7 percent annually until the end of the decade. The majority of schools are privately run, whether by for-profit businesses, not-for-profit organisations or embassies, and offer curriculums from across the world.
Ensuring their quality is not an easy task.
“With this large number and diversity of school offerings come challenges and opportunities,” Al Karam says. “We looked around the world, and talked to different governments; we found there’s a lot of good practices out there, but in Dubai, how can we harness the diversity that we have at hand?
“Eventually we had to create a universal [inspection] framework that applies to the British schools, American schools, Indian schools… it has to apply to everybody and once we start doing that we find ourselves closer to the mission of education, purely. I think that challenged us initially but it created an opportunity for us and going forward we have this universal framework of inspection and various organisations are looking at it right now because it does not, for example, bring a UK teacher to teach in a UK school in Dubai; it brings a UK teacher to teach the rest of the world physically in Dubai, and they have to handle various students and their backgrounds.”
The inspection system marks schools according to various performance indicators, providing an overall rating from outstanding to unsatisfactory, and in the past three years also has been used to determine any fee increases.
School costs are a significant burden for many families in Dubai, where free public education is only available for citizens.
An Arabian Business analysis in 2013, found fees for a typical student aged six to nine were $18,700 each year, while they escalated to $21,700 for many ten to 13-year-olds and as much as $26,100 for the most expensive secondary schools.
Al Karam says 39 percent of students now pay less than AED10,000 ($2,700) a year.
But many expats continue to complain that Dubai school fees are excessive.
“It’s a myth and we busted it,” Al Karam argues back.
He says complaining parents are accustomed to sending their children to the local school in their community, which is provided by the government.
“If you compare to other countries around the world, it comes back to taxation, as that’s how you pay for education and other services, you pay tax you get social services,” Al Karam says. “Here, the country says you don’t pay taxes but you’re responsible for your services; it’s a choice.”
Al Karam claims that comparisons of private schools in Europe and Dubai show the emirate’s school fees are better.
“If you compare everything, the value for money you’re getting in Dubai is much, much higher,” he says.
“It’s a matter of fact, living costs always come with a price. What you need to make sure is, that if parents choose to pay we make sure they’re paying for a good product, for a good education system. We’re also saying, this is the best investment you’re ever going to make.”
Although most private schools in Dubai are commercially run, Al Karam argues the fact their aim is to return a profit is itself motivation to provide a quality education service.
“If price comes into play… it should come in terms of value for money, but for them to establish the value for money, first things first, they have to establish the value of the product that’s being presented,” he says. “I don’t think the ownership of a school should be as much of a key as the quality of the school itself. If the nature of the ownership happens to be entrepreneur or for-profit then that’s okay because if that is going to help us open more schools to cater to a higher quality of education to a wider spectrum of students, then so be it.”
Dubai’s new schools are creating diverse approaches to their fee structures in a bid to not only attract students arriving in the emirate but to poach existing pupils. Al Karam says they are looking at more than just physical infrastructure and considering unique educational options or specialty niches.
“These schools will not sit down and wait for the parents,” he says. “We’ve started hearing in recent years terminology like ‘pricing strategies’ and ‘packaging’; we’re seeing stuff we’ve never had before because some of these schools are not going to wait 5-6 years, they want to get more kids to sit in the seats. And I think this is creating a very healthy competition.
“As in any industry, once you’re close to a market stability in terms of occupancy then you see a diversification… everybody trying to create a unique selling point. This is something we’ve not had in the past before.”
Parents also are viewing Dubai as a longer-term residence, and therefore demanding better quality education for their children who may be in the Dubai schooling system for much of their education.
“They will be the ones who are [saying], ‘okay, fine I get all these schools but I want something different’. Whenever you provide something different, people really jump to it.”
KHDA also has recently introduced standardised contracts between parents and schools, which Al Karam says has reduced the number of grievances made to the authority by 25-30 percent. It was first piloted at a handful of schools for two years before being rolled out across the board at the beginning of the current school year.
“What we realised is, actually, the consumers did not know what they were buying into and if they did, it was only one sided,” Al Karam says. “Many grievances that used to come to us were very technical grievances, just the fact that it was not put in black and white. So we created a standard contract [and] every parent, every year will sit down with the school and say ‘these are my duties and responsibilities’ and the school does the same thing — everybody’s clear about it.
“It brought up a lot of things that many people did not know. You’re finding schools are charging for things they’re not supposed to but the parents did not know.
“[It also] strengthens the relationship between the school and the parents; the parents have to go to the school and sign the contract [and therefore agree that] I am paying and will be part of this system.”
However, schools are free to be creative with how they educate students and Al Karam says curriculums are becoming less rigid — or based on a textbook — and more innovative. “We don’t inspect the processes, we inspect the outcome, which gives the school a lot of freedom to create. To do that, they have to translate that down to the classroom… you go around the schools in Dubai and you see tonnes of creativity.”
That same flexibility is not always present in schools abroad. Several schools operated by the Lion Academy Trust in London this year banned Muslim students from fasting during Ramadan. In a letter to parents, the trust claimed the decision was in the children’s interest because Ramadan fell during the hottest period of the year.
France’s ban on the wearing of religious symbols extends to female Muslim students, who cannot wear the Islamic head covering at school. Several female students have reportedly been suspended from school for wearing ‘conspicuous religious symbols’.
In December 2014, the mayor of Sargé-lès-Le Mansj, in France’s north-west, introduced a “pork or nothing” lunch at schools in his town, which reportedly left 27 Muslim students without a meal. He defended his rule by saying it was based on the “principle of Republican neutrality”.
Al Karam will not be drawn to criticise schools abroad but says the best way to improve them is to set the example.
“Unlike [in Dubai], in those places, the school becomes a community school but it’s for that community and there is a fence ring around it, it’s not integrated in the system. When you do that in Dubai it doesn’t work — not only in school, it doesn’t work anywhere else, period. You cannot [segregate] because there is no such concept of segregation,” he says.
The benefits of diversity and an inclusive schooling system are evident when students migrate to other education systems outside the UAE, Al Karam says. KHDA commissioned a survey of American universities to gauge the quality of students who had graduated from the Dubai high school system.
“The answer was very unanimous… these kids from Dubai they just talk to everybody, they have no such thing as a culture shock or identity crisis,” Al Karam says, referring to the universities’ response. “Because diversity is part of their daily life in the school, in the mall, on the beach, so… from a young age, these students are not exposed to divides, to compartmentalisation. We’re not born [divided], it’s the system that makes us that way. So we make sure the education system in Dubai is so inclusive. The only thing they need to know is, that kid is from my school and he’s from my city. And I think this is something... leading to a better performance.
“I think the model of tolerance and the… acceptance of that in the system, and leaving the kids the freedom to do what they think is ‘cool’… produces a better result than just being so uptight and restricted about it. That doesn’t make people happy.”
Happiness, after all, is Al Karam’s goal, which he reiterates while jumping off the FitDesk. Our interview is finished and we both wander out of the room - Al Karam to find a couch to conduct his next meeting and me to trudge back to the desk and computer in Dubai Media City.
Why restrict to 1000 words when this topic is huge. When parents complain about the fee vs the quality of education, we don't enjoy the complain part as insinuated in this article/ interview. Ground reality is much to be desired as far as education is concerned. school fee goes up every year, if KHDA doesn't allow it to be increased any given year school increases books cost, its outrageous to pay over AED 5 K just for one child. uniform cost higher than any designer cloths, additional fees are extorted from parents on pretext to providing internet to children in school, in short schools find their way to charge whatever amount they wish to. We have lived in many countries, yet to compare any other country so expensive in providing basic education, I would be glad to know where are those AED 10K per year schools of good repute so we can also benefit. (This is a personal opinion as a parent, no disrespect to any one intended).