Dubai: Dubai schools get three weeks notice prior to being inspected by education authorities. This procedure has led to many people questioning the credibility of the inspection process itself — with some even calling it a sham.
“Even toilet paper is only available at our school while inspections are going on,” said a disgruntled high school student, when asked of her opinion about the annual school inspections by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). Schools are rated Outstanding, Good, Acceptable and Unsatisfactory.
“Everyone is really happy you all are here. We are actually being taught this week. Please don’t tell them I told you,” said a secret message passed on to a school inspector by a student.
From renting chairs to sending fake responses to KHDA’s questions addressed to teachers and students, to bringing teachers in temporarily to be at the school on the days of inspection, and putting up cultural shows to hold up the inspectors from doing their jobs, poorly performing schools bring out every dirty trick in the book to better their ratings. So does that mean they get rated better than what they are eligible for?
KHDA responds with an emphatic no. “Inspectors don’t inspect sets or well-rehearsed farces. They inspect the learning of children in schools. As in the case of a well-rehearsed farce, inspectors know a fiction when they see one,” says Jameela Al Muhairi, who heads the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau at KHDA.
To find out more, Gulf News shadowed school inspectors at an underperforming school (name withheld).
It’s 7am on a Sunday and I am with a team of eight inspectors, who have just entered the large school for a five-day inspection.
Together, the team has more than 200 years of experience in teaching, leading and improving schools around the world.
“I have personally inspected over 100 schools in Dubai, from the very best to the ones run by people who try to fool us for a week. The kids, they seem to forget, tell inspectors the truth sooner or later,” an inspector said.
The process started with the analysis of documents sent by the school. This includes the results of the KHDA surveys of parents, teachers and students and the school’s self-evaluation document.
The first issue flagged by inspectors was that the school sent two self-evaluation documents — one prepared on their own and another by a newly hired consultant firm — and the organisational chart in these documents are completely different. It was not clear who runs the show, the principal or the manager.
Also, the school said at first that they had no children with special needs, but over the day the inspectors identified several within classrooms.
“Over 1,000 parents responded this time and told us many important things, and every comment is noted,” the inspector said.
“For example, before visiting any classroom, we already know that parents are unhappy with the high costs, over-crowded classrooms and the long bus rides their children have to endure.”
“About 90 teachers have told us that some of what we will see only takes place for one week out of the school year, but this is not news to anyone on the inspection team.”
“Our survey of students tells us that they have been rehearsed to impress us in lessons, and that their answers to our questions have been scripted for them. However, it is difficult for schools and teachers to hide the boredom on the faces of students and their dis-interested responses in lesson after lesson that are rehearsed,” said the inspectors.
“Students tell us if the soap dispensers and hand towels are only in the school for the inspection week. Parents tell us if they feel their children are safe and happy. They tell us of their worries about transport or parking around the school. They tell us what they think about their child’s progress in subjects. They tell us about the teaching and learning in lessons and the after-school curriculum, and if it needs to improve. They tell us about the school leadership and if they feel involved in the school. They tell us what they like about the school they have chosen for their child. All this is not news to us. We’ve seen and heard it all before.”
As we entered the school, the inspectors took note of how the boys were showing their identity cards to the security guard. “It is obvious they are not in the habit of doing so,” remarked one. They also saw how teachers and administrators hurried children through the gates because they were late and did not want inspectors to notice.
“In one lesson I observed students working in groups, but it was obvious to me that they had never done so. They had no idea of where to move their desks and they exchanged puzzled looks as the task was set by the teacher. They could not complete these tasks that they did not understand even though they had already rehearsed them.”
“Clearly this ‘group work’ was put on for my benefit and was not regularly done,” the inspector concluded.
By the end of the day the team observed dozens of lessons and interviewed teachers and leaders. Most importantly, they spoke to boys and girls of all ages about what it is like to be in the school. Not just within classrooms but also in the hallway and on the playground.
“We do like the school to prepare for inspections, because it’s important for schools to understand that we are not there to catch them out. Our job is to guide and support them in providing high quality education. We want schools to show us their best because this also allows us to understand the best they could do. But that is just a starting point. We dig deeper.”
However, they avoid directly confronting those who put up a show. Instead inspectors record their concerns which are then taken up with the management of the school in private.
“We acknowledge there are schools that spend their time trying to fool inspectors; they do a dis-service to those schools that do a good job. We need to celebrate the good, ethical practices that do take place.”
The best schools see their own strengths and weaknesses and don’t pretend.