Dubai has long prided itself on being judged against the biggest and the best as it has mushroomed spectacularly out of the desert during the boom years.
But at times its rapid expansion was accompanied by what at worst could be described as chaos, and at best an uncoordinated free-for-all.
And the emirate’s education system was not immune. As more and more people poured into the emirate, increasing numbers of private schools opened their doors to take advantage of the rush – with virtually no quality assurance mechanisms.
Today the emirate has 220 schools, 140 of which are private. Yet for years they were largely unregulated with the authorities concerned only about the location, the fees and which curriculum would be taught.
The result was a significant gap emerging between the best and the worst, but few tools to enable new arrivals to the emirate to gauge the quality of one school from another.
That, however, has been changing since the 2006 launch of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) to inspect schools, assess quality and raise standards across the board.
It conducted its first inspection of schools between October 2008 and April. The results painted a mixed picture, highlighting the range of standards within a diverse system that reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the emirate, with a dozen or so different curriculums being taught.
Of the 189 schools inspected, 22 schools were considered unsatisfactory, while only four were deemed outstanding. (Indian, Pakistani and Iranian schools were not inspected because their academic year begins in April.)
The KDHA concluded that more than half the schools were providing education “that is not yet of the good quality expected”.
Jameela al-Muhairi, chief of the inspection bureau, says KHDA’s plan is to raise the bar “phase by phase”, with additional criteria gradually added to the inspection process to ensure standards keep improving. KHDA officials acknowledge that there was some resistance when the inspections began, but generally the move is seen as a belated welcome step forward.
“It’s had a few teething problems but frankly that is completely overwhelmed by the fact they have got on with it,” says Ralph Tabberer, chief schools officer for GEMS, which runs 17 schools in Dubai. “As a Gulf state Dubai is out in front on this.”
The result, he says, is that parents are starting to question whether they want their children at certain schools, even if the fees are low.
Such comments would be music to the ears of Abdulla al-Karam, KHDA’s director general, who wants to see Dubai’s education benchmarked against the best.
It was for that reason that Dubai took part in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for the first time in 2007.
The results showed that Dubai scored significantly below the international average in the tests for both maths and science.
Yet Mr Karam says the key is setting a benchmark for the emirate.
“Let it be what it is,” he says. “You need to know where you are.”
The acceptance is that much needs to be improved in both public and private schools – approximately 85 per cent of the education system is privately managed and around half the indigenous population attend private schools.
Mr Karam notes that during the 1980s, private schools were the preserve of a small population of expatriates, who would come to the emirate for a few years and move on.
But as the demographics of Dubai have dramatically altered – with more than 85 per cent of the population made up of foreigners, many of whom put down long-term roots – so too has the composition of private education.
But “unfortunately the governance or the regulation that govern this has not changed”, Mr Karam says. “There are some schools that are really good quality and give you real value for money and there are a few that have exploited [the system] and are extremely business [orientated] but the problem is the few give the whole a bad name.”
The hope is that the introduction of annual inspections will force the poorer quality schools to improve. If not, they can expect to be weeded out.
A couple of unsatisfactory schools have already been prevented from expanding, Mr Karam says.
He also wants to see private universities, which have also swelled in number in recent years, better regulated in the future.
But given the vast array and diversity of Dubai’s schools there will be challenges ahead if standards are to be significantly raised.
“Education in Dubai covers systems from 30-odd nations so there’s a tremendous challenge trying to inspect such a breadth of education experience. But the inspection process will continue to improve,” says Rob Stokoe, headmaster at Jumeirah English Speaking School.
“It’s very early days but they have a base now to move forward from.”