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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.