UAE | Education

The shocking truth about school inspections

As KHDA inspections begin, profit-driven schools are back to their dirty tricks. XPRESS cuts through the deception to expose the annual drama they stage to up their ratings

  • By Mazhar Farooqui, Deputy Editor, XPRESS
  • Published: 20:46 October 3, 2012
  • XPRESS

  • Image Credit:
  • SCHOOL REGULATOR: The KHDA building in Dubai International Academic City
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Dubai: In 2006, a regulatory body was set up for academic institutions in Dubai. Called the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), it’s main job was to develop the city’s education sector and bring it on par with international standards and best practices.

A key component of KHDA is the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB) which comprises a group of inspectors who visit schools annually and rate them on four levels – Outstanding, Good, Acceptable and Unsatisfactory.

The show is complete with stage, props and artists where everyone from the teacher to the parent, student and even the school bus staff has a specific role that’s meticulously rehearsed

Schools are permitted fee hikes according to their ratings. Schools rated “outstanding” are allowed a six per cent increase, those marked “good” 4.5 per cent and the ones rated “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” three per cent. As the DSIB inspections covering nearly 150 private schools got under way last month, we spoke to scores of teachers, parents and students to find out what goes on behind the scenes during this mammoth exercise.

The picture that emerged is shocking to say the least.

WELL ORCHESTRATED SHAM

Our investigations found that Dubai’s profit-obsessed schools have made a mockery of KHDA inspections. In a bid to please inspectors they put up a well-orchestrated sham year after year. The show is complete with stage, props and artists where everyone from the teacher to the parent, student and even the school bus staff has a specific role that’s meticulously rehearsed – in some cases – for weeks.

A good performance wins a good rating. A good rating means a licence to increase fees. And if it involves subterfuge and deception, so be it. “During inspections our school turns into a set and the teachers into theatre artists. We hate to put up with the farce but we have no choice but to play along,” a teacher at a Mirdif school told XPRESS on condition of anonymity.

MOCK DRILLS

Bizarre as it may sound, some schools actually organise mock inspection drills to ensure nothing goes wrong when the real thing takes place. “Teachers from our sister institutions double up as dummy inspectors and come to our school where they hold several rounds of mock inspections to iron out the kinks. It’s like a fire drill, but more exhaustive,” said a teacher at school in Oud Metha.

In an e-mail statement to XPRESS, DSIB’s Acting Director Fatima Belrehif said she’s aware schools undertake extra preparations for inspections, but added she does not believe the preparations are deceptive. “Our inspectors are trained to see through any ‘quick fixes”, she said (see Page 8 for full statment).

One hopes they do. And it’s not about spotting rushed-up paint jobs or other cosmetic changes like new sports gear, which promptly disappears after the inspection, but seeing through the elaborate acts of deception. For example, a school borrowed a maths teacher from Sharjah because its own teacher didn’t meet the criteria. Or another school where all arts, physical education and music classes have been temporarily replaced with Arabic classes as the KHDA places a lot of emphasis on Arabic teaching.

More dirty tricks

In certain schools, the entire seating arrangement has been revised. Bright students have been put in the back rows, average in the front and below-average in the middle rows. “It’s a strategy. From our experience, we’ve seen that inspectors usually seek answers from backbenchers. All students have been instructed to raise their hands, regardless of whether they know the answer or not,” said a teacher.

The same trick is repeated with a slight variation in some other schools. Students who know the answers raise their right hands, those who don’t put up their left hand. To the inspectors it gives the false impression that everyone knows the answer. To the school teacher it’s a cue to direct the inspector’s attention to a student who actually knows it.

The children have also been instructed to bail out their teachers if they flounder.

A grade 11 student said she and her classmates were asked to stay back and prepare a skit for the following morning’s assembly attended by KHDA inspectors.

She said they had to write the script, get the music right and rehearse – all in one evening. She not only reached home late but had to stay up to arrange props and costumes. “The school wanted to show that such skits are a routine feature. The fact is they’re not,” said the student.

Another student said the school has started showing animated children’s movies in its own transport area just for the KHDA inspection. Of course no one bothers to check if they are pirated or genuine.

THE ROLE OF PARENTS

In this whole drama, parents play a role too. Several parents told XPRESS how their children’s school called them for a ‘special briefing’ on the weekend before the KHDA visit.

“We were told not to pack junk food in the tiffin that week and teach our children everyday so that they come prepared,” said a parent.

A parents committee member selected for an interaction with the inspectors said he was laboriously coached to say good things about the school. Almost all schools we investigated issued circulars seeking the “cooperation” of parents “in view of the KHDA inspection”. One such circular reads: “Own transport students to be dropped off and picked up only from the designated areas…. The turnout of the student must be smart and they should be in proper school uniform.”

“Shouldn’t these points be adhered to at all times irrespective of whether a government body is visiting the school or not?” said a parent who received the circular.

“We look upon teachers as not merely educators but also those who will instil values and morals in our kids. Here, the children are blatantly told to put on a pretence every year. Is this what we want we want them to imbibe?” she asked angrily.

Paradoxically, many parents we spoke to said they don’t want the schools rated ‘outstanding’ as it would result in a fee spike. “Ratings are directly proportional to fee hikes. By this logic, they should reduce the fee if a school is downgraded,” said a father of a grade II child.

Catch them off-guard

Some parents questioned the rationale of informing schools about inspections in advance.

“Where is the element of surprise? It’s like Dubai Municipality telling a food outlet it’s coming to inspect it on a specific day,” said the mother of a grade six student.

The parent of a grade three student said her child has been coming home for the past fortnight without being taught anything because the teachers are busy preparing lesson plans, prepping the school and brushing up their acts for the KHDA inspections. “It’s a circus out there,” she said.

UNREALISTIC PICTURE

A grade nine student said the school’s true picture is far removed from what the inspectors see.

It’s this unrealistic picture that often forms the basis of school ratings across Dubai and eventually gives them a licence to hike fees. Already this year, 80 per cent of Dubai’s private schools have increased their fees. Some 117 schools were allowed fee hikes by the KHDA in line with the fee increase framework issued last April.

Stressed out teachers

But as schools laugh all the way to the bank, there is nothing in it for the main actors: the low paid teachers. For weeks they toil, staying back after school hours and often foregoing their weekends, to prepare the stage for the inspection. Often they have to spend from their own pockets to purchase props, chart papers and teaching aid material.

Many teachers told XPRESS how the work pressure during KHDA inspections has turned them into raging balls of stress. “In the past fortnight or so, I’ve barely slept for three hours. Most nights were spent tweaking lesson plans, preparing self evaluation reports and making teaching aids. The KHDA wants evidence of all school activities we have done over the year. We’ve proof of a few, the rest have been faked. But in trying to pack a year’s work in one week, my blood sugar has shot up... I’ve no time to see a doctor,” a kindergarten teacher at a school in Al Warqa told XPRESS. Another teacher said the inspection preparations have wreaked havoc on her life. “There was a stay-back everyday and we were even called on weekends. By the time I used to come home I was too tired to even cook. For one week we ordered food from outside. For all our troubles we get just Dh3,000 per month. It’s not worth it. I want to quit.”

A teacher said the massive paperwork and documentation ahead of the inspections have impacted her real job.

Teachers are required to make detailed tracking sheets charting the progress of students in each subject on various parameters. At a Garhoud school, where the class strength is 32, teachers had to prepare tracking charts for the entire year in just one week.

“Where’s the time for teaching after this?” said one of them. A male teacher said: “The school management wants us to get them good ratings. But they don’t provide us the resources. We’ve no incentive. We are given a pittance of a salary and can do only so much.” His closing remark sums up the story: “A headmaster is what I wanted to become, a bluffmaster is what I might end up as.”

KHDA Response:

When XPRESS sought KHDA’s comment based on the findings of its investigation, Fatima Belrehif, Acting Director of Dubai Schools Inspections Bureau (DSIB) responded as under:

Any plans by DSIB to launch surprise inspections? Will short-notice inspections help improve the system?

Since we started inspections in 2008-2009, the period of notice has reduced. When we visit schools we need a number of key documents, including self-evaluation reports, timetables, survey responses and examination data. Short notice inspections are one approach.

Many parents have asked for no-notice or short-notice inspections and we are keen to listen to them. We regularly review our methods and such an approach may be beneficial to Dubai in the future. However, we urge schools to view inspections as a tool for school improvement and plan both short- and long-term changes to help enhance students’ achievement.

Has DSIB received any complaints from parents stating that surprise checks work better than scheduled ones?

During inspections parents have every opportunity to inform inspection teams about the actual performance of a school.

At present, before every inspection, DSIB receives surveys from parents, teachers and students. These give up-to-date and accurate information about the work of each school. Many parents, students and teachers take the opportunity in the surveys to answer questions and comment in detail about the current work of the school. These are, of course, confidential surveys.

They are completed a few days before and during the actual inspection. During every inspection interviews are held with parents, students and teachers and these are held in confidence, with each group able to offer their views about the performance of their school. It is often the case that students in particular will report some difference in the work of the school during an inspection period, so such information is not a surprise to inspectors.

Our inspectors have many years of international experience in school inspections, and are trained to see through any ‘quick fixes’ schools may undertake.

We are aware that schools undertake extra preparations for inspections. We do not believe these preparations to be deceptive in nature. Inspections promote greater self-awareness for teachers and school leaders alike. If inspections encourage better performance, that can only be a good thing for students in the short term, but hopefully also in the long term.

How have school inspections helped improve and shape the education sector in Dubai?

From the baseline inspections undertaken in 2008-9, evidence indicates that there has been significant improvement in Dubai’s schools over the last four years. Inspections have contributed to this improvement, but the credit must go firstly to teachers, school leaders, parents and, of course, our students.

Inspection reports have given parents comprehensive, objective and regular information about school performance. This has helped inform parents in their choice of schools. It is our view also that this level of public accountability has encouraged schools to strive for improvement.

Our emphasis upon openness in inspections, with published inspection findings and shared criteria for evaluation, has led to schools working positively with inspectors to identify strengths and address weaknesses. This partnership through shared self-evaluation is key to ongoing success because it builds the capacity in each school to drive improvement from within, rather than depending always upon external guidance and support.

Comments (149)

Your Comments
  1. Added 10:50 October 8, 2012

    I don't believe this happens in all Schools. I don't see any pharse put up by the teachers at my sons' school. Yes they worry about the inspections and ensure that all children actually meet the teaching standards. We are really happy with the performance of the school.

    Doreen Dharmai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  2. Added 17:05 October 7, 2012

    Agree to this comment totally. Such a review should be carried out in Sharjah schools too.

    Jasmine, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  3. Added 15:01 October 7, 2012

    My children's exams which were scheduled for last week of Sept to 1 week of Oct. have been postponed for 2-3 weeks due to the KHDA visit. Even they were given a day off last Thursday and asked to attend on a Saturday. This means my kids will be finishing a taxing exam schedule which will finish just before the Eid day. Please have constant walk-in unscheduled inspections all round the year. Every day the papers are full of advice on the importance of physical activities and sports but most schools have only 2 periods per week of PE classes which are more a free for all kind of unsupervised play time. The only place children can play regular sports is in the school. The heavy school bag issue has been around for last 30 years but nothing has been done so far. Since the building boom in early 2000 Dubai has less open spaces. No parks, No residential play areas, no grounds, even open parkings are not available to them to play. KHDA please listen to the people who are stakeholders and are genuinely concerned about the health and progress of the school going children. A tip - Ask every school to have a complaints email address , where anyone logging a complaint will get a instant acknowledgement with a complaint no. and ask the inspectors to monitor how these complaints are handled or closed and believe me the results will be astonishing.

    ettehad, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  4. Added 14:26 October 7, 2012

    I'm a teacher by profession and know all the games mentioned in the article but I want to express my personal opinion about the school of my son and KHDA reports which differs from what is written in the article. 1. Never ever was I asked to give any false information. My son was giving me envelopes with the questionnaire which I didn't fill in just because of laziness. 2. BUT! I carefully read all KHDA reports for past 3 years and could see that each and every negative comment which I wanted to make was there. Thus I trust to what they are writing about our school and how school is handling this issue. 3. My son never told me about any kind of 'preparations for the lessons' though kids are happy to share secrets.

    Barbara, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 11:44 October 7, 2012

    There should be something like this in Al Ain. The teachers in most Indian schools won't teach properly in schools instead they will take tuition classes which will be held at their own premises and will teach very good over there. They charge Dh300 for 10 days. Some will charge even higher. I hope the authorities will take action against this activity....just hope

    Sunil, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 10:47 October 7, 2012

    I totally agree with this article - even i feel KHDA should come for a surprise inspection in schools to know the actual condition of the school....Its not enough to just upgrade the school once in a year just for clearance..........This causes mental and physical stress on parents, students as well as on teachers....And the conditions of the school are totally diferent for rest of the days of a year, so whats the use of practicing just to show the high standard of schools............In some schools there are no separate canteens,not enough teachers and bus services, even then they increase their fees annually and the teachers salary remains the same WHY???Surprise inspections is the step that can make the school to raise their standards for whole year which will improve education.......Because education is not a source of earning more money actually it is the neccessity of ones life........

    Sadaf Majeed, fujairah, United Arab Emirates

  7. Added 09:40 October 7, 2012

    Some schools have increased tution fee by 9%. Which is higher than the permitted by KHDA.

    parent, dubai, Pakistan

  8. Added 08:55 October 7, 2012

    i very much agree, that these inspections have helped very little as our children are still carrying the heavy bags to school, project work is entirely a parents job,(the projects assigned are not in line with a child's age) vacations are a time to study and holiday HW. the children, parents and teachers are just over-burdened because of inspections. Teachers are mostly involved in paper work instead of concentrating on teaching. nothing has changed, many parents are complaining through surverys. there are no proper and qualified teachers in schools as they are paid less for more work. the students have lost interest in learning. the children of staff are given more priority to become monitors etc. what are we inculcating in our children at this age???

    renee noronha, dubai, United Arab Emirates

  9. Added 06:58 October 7, 2012

    As a teacher who has experienced the ADEC inspection, it is a 'dog and pony' show. I understand the reasons behind the inspection, but what I wish is that the KHDA ensures that teachers' contracts are being honoured. These inspections shouldn't just be about the well-being of students and parents, but the teachers as well.

    JM, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

  10. Added 23:59 October 6, 2012

    This article took me back to my school days. I won't go as far as saying that my school followed every dirty trick described here, but they did do a lot. Let's look at the sort of incidents not mentioned here. Students were told not to use certain doors and passageways for a few days, which sounds like a small thing, but meant we had to walk around impractically long paths just to get to our school buses. Many students were barred from going into the canteen since they did not want the place to appaer too crowded. That basically meant people who did not get tiffins for some reason may have had to go hungry if they didn't find friends to share food. The worst was when we were forbidden from using the restrooms when the inspectors were there. So we held our bladders and guts tight until halfway through school? And the stuff mentioned here? As I said, some of it is also true. What's a yearly student development plan? I have never seen 1 in my life. Yes, we did have short unit tests which were supposedly 10% of our entire year's grade. But something that counts for 10% is not something you can apply to the entire year as a continuous assessment. I for one didn't give a concern about the 10% that much. I've got 90% to gain elsewhere right. All in all, appalling behaviour which has finally been uncovered. I hope for my unborn kids sake, authorities act.

    Ricky, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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