By Rob Corder
Why allowing the UAE’s best private schools to select only the brightest children is a matter policymakers must consider.
Educating Emirati nationals to the highest possible standard has always been a priority for the government.
As every parent knows, the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority runs a mandatory programme whereby schools are inspected and ranked according to a number of criteria, primary among which is academic achievement.
Schools that are ranked in the ‘outstanding’ category for one academic year are allowed to increase fees for the following year by considerably more than schools that are ranked merely ‘good’ or worse.
Linking a school’s ability to increase fees in line with the quality of its education is at first glance a sensible way to drive up standards, but the unintended consequence of the initiative has been to nudge head teachers in the direction of selecting only the best young students at the intake stage.
It is easier to achieve outstanding results from children who are naturally bright and well-disciplined than it is from those that are perceived to be less academically gifted. The best schools find ways of selecting the brightest children from the outset so that academic results remain exceptional and demand for places remains well above supply.
This is the exact outcome you see in all parts of the world where a private education system runs parallel to, and effectively competes with, a state system. Inevitably, the private system ends up with better schools where the privileged can ensure that their offspring are given the best possible start in life.
The private schools and wealthy parents love this self-perpetuating cycle of selection that is almost impossible for state schools and poorer families to break into.
The unique situation for the UAE is that the state system is provided for the children of the wealthiest portion of the population – Emirati nationals.
These state schools are, for the most part, very good. But being very good may not be good enough now that there is a ranking system that identifies ‘outstanding’ schools.
It is hard to imagine Emirati families tolerating a situation where they want their children to be educated in ‘outstanding’ schools in their own country, they can comfortably afford the fees, but are still unable to secure places.
Headmasters of the best schools are going to find themselves at the sharp end of some extremely difficult confrontations, a situation that has been foisted upon them by a system that has not been properly thought through.
Even though the end result ought to be better standards of schooling across the state and private sector, there are going to be some difficult scenes in the coming months as the fight for places at outstanding schools intensifies.
A new book by Professor Gerald Grant called Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh concludes that: "the single biggest factor determining whether you do well at school or not isn't your parents, your teachers, your school buildings or your genes. It was, overwhelmingly, the other kids sitting in the classroom with you. If a critical mass of them are demotivated, pissed off and disobedient, you won't learn much. But if a critical mass of them are hard-working, keen and stick to the rules, you will probably learn. Watch any 10-year-old: they are little machines for snuffl" and here is the gem :" So they formulated a bold â€“ and strikingly simple â€“ solution. They wouldn't allow any school, by law, to have more than 40 per cent of its children on free school meals, or more than 25 per cent of children who were a grade below their expected level in reading or maths. Suddenly, the children who needed the most help wouldn't be lumped together where their problems would become insurmountable; they would be broken up and fanned out across the educational system. Raleigh merged its school system with white suburban Wake County, so they became one entity, sharing pupils. In order to soothe suburban suspicion at this change, Raleigh turned a third of its inner-city schools into specialist academies, offering excellent music or drama or language specialisms. Soon, children were bussing in both directions every morning, in and out of the suburbs. Many conservatives savaged the plan as "social engineering" and said it was doomed to fail. Some parents were angry, and a few decamped for the private school system â€“ until the results came in. Within a decade, Raleigh went from one of the worst-performing districts in America to one of the best. The test scores of poor kids doubled, while those of wealthier children also saw a slight increase. Teenage pregnancies, crime and high school drop-out rates fell substantially."
Rob, Nice article, with one exception. It is based on a fallacy. The KHDA does not base their ratings highly on the academic results of a school and students. If it did schools like Dubai College would have been outstanding in the first year. But, they were not. And how would you rate a primary school when they do not take an exam per se and how do rate the academic acheivement of a 4 year old in Foundation 1? The KHDA evaluations were far broader last year than academic results. However, that being said, this year the evaluations seemed to be linked solely to how much the school incorporated local culture and feel into their school and lessons. As well as the quality of the Arabic language and Islamic studies courses. Right or wrong, this is what was done. But nowhere did I understand that the results of the students who took those classes were looked at in great detail. What seemed to be reviewed was the teaching standard, the quality of the lesson plan, and the overall curriculum followed. Perhaps our sources are different? Mine are the teachers in the schools - many and varied. Your's, would imagine, are the headmasters and KHDA spokespeople.
While I am a huge fan of market forces, there is a MASSIVE problem with allowing schools who perform to increase their fees to a much higher level. That problem is that it seriously hinders social mobility. While I thankfully am in a situation where I do not need to worry about high school fees, this kind of action creates a self-perpetuating upper class. The children who go to the best schools get a better chance to go to the best universities, giving them a better network and better opportunities going forward. This can be a good thing *IF* the best schools also have a social component, offering scholarships and/or significantly reduced fees for children of lesser means but superior aptitude. I myself attended a less expensive school in Dubai and despite my classmates being of much higher aptitude (measured by standardized tests) than peers in more expensive schools, few of us got into top universities as we didn't have the same opportunities as the rich kids (before someone cries sour grapes, I was one of the very few from my school who did make it to a super-selective university). I agree with incentivising schools to outperform. However, this MUST be mixed with a social component so as not to cripple people of lesser means (and I dont mean racial quotas, I mean scholarships - if you manage to underperform despite advantages, then you have no right to admission at good institutions).