Dubai There's one basic difference between good schools and those ranked at the bottom — the former are expensive and generally cater to the rich while the latter charge nominal fees and mostly accommodate children from low-income families.
These is the conclusion one may draw from studying the Knowledge and Human Development Authority's (KHDA) schools inspection report.
But there are always exceptions to the rule. Take the Indian High School for instance. Despite ranking among the top schools in Dubai, it has the most economical fee structure in the country.
Generally, however, the gap in the annual fee structure among good and not-so-good schools is wide.
Most ‘outstanding' schools charge Dh30,000-Dh70,000 in annual fees, while schools rated ‘unsatisfactory' charge Dh3,000 -Dh7,000. Does a higher rating mean expenditure and higher fees? Or can schools with a lower fee structure also achieve outstanding ratings?
Gulf News spoke with educators, teachers, pupils and parents to find out what the KHDA inspections have brought to the table and what it takes for a school to be rated outstanding, good, acceptable or unsatisfactory.
Jameela Al Muhairi, Chief of KHDA's Dubai School Inspection Bureau (DSIB), agrees that there is a huge gap in the fee structure of the top and bottom groups, but argues that it is not the only element that differentiates the two.
"Outstanding schools are those that meet the outstanding criteria in the inspection handbook. Inspection teams do not consider financial aspects of schools during inspections. They look first at outcomes and then the provision that results in the outcomes," Jameela explained.
She added that it's a school's management, teacher commitment, teaching aids and quest for improvement that make a difference.
"Schools that pay teachers higher salaries usually employ better teachers. Professional development opportunities for teachers and their working conditions are two things, other than salaries, that result in increased retention of good teachers," Jameela noted.
She observed that schools that know themselves well through objective and accurate self-evaluations are most likely to improve.
Interestingly, most of the administrators and teachers even from the schools ranked ‘unsatisfactory' agreed with Al Muhairi.
Mohammad Rashid Ashraf, a board member of the Pakistan Educational and Cultural Board that governs the Pakistan Education Academy (PEA), believes that if the KHDA guidelines are followed meticulously then it's easy to improve for all schools irrespective of fees.
Established in 1968, PEA is one of the oldest schools in Dubai and biggest among Pakistani schools, but it is one of more than a dozen schools that has consistently been rated ‘unsatisfactory' by KHDA over the last four years.
PEA follows the Pakistani national curriculum and has a fee structure of Dh3,000-Dh7,000 annually.
However, Ashraf admits that a lower fee structure should not be an excuse for poor quality.
"There shouldn't be any excuse not to comply with the KHDA guidelines. I am positive that next year we will achieve the ‘acceptable' rating and in the long run all the schools will perform better."
Indian High School Dubai
One school that has achieved a top rating while being one of the most affordable is the 51-year-old Indian High School Dubai.
The school with a strength of more than 5,000 pupils was consistently ranked ‘good' over the last two years. This year, it finally managed to break into the top bracket. In the process, it became the only CBSE curriculum school to achieve the rating.
Ashok Kumar, the CEO of the school, insists that there hasn't been any drastic change in the way the school was being run over the last two years.
"The KHDA guidelines only reaffirmed the principles and ethos we follow in this school. The two most important things are a supportive governing body and a clear strategy. Once you have a basic structure in place it's easy to add value to it, which is provided by KHDA suggestions and guidance."
On whether a lot of investment is required to achieve the high quality, he said it depends on the school in question. "If a particular school has the basic infrastructure and basic quality of teaching than with a little bit of effort and investment it can do better," he added.
Pupils and parents agree that the school does niot put undue pressure on them, but there has been a definitive shift in the way lessons are taught particularly Arabic, Islamic studies and Science.
"The focus is on technology and smart learning, with smart boards in place and the entire campus is connected with WiFi. There is more interaction in class rather than lecturing," a parent, whose son goes to Indian High School, said.
Mariam, a Grade 11 student, said, "Use of boards has declined and videos, graphics and live demonstrations are used to explain different subjects."
One thing that is obvious from the discussion is that ‘it's not money' but the learning ethos that drive the results and that's one thing most schools rated ‘outstanding' focus on.
"Learning is the part of everything we do and it involves everything, right from a child's first step in the school to the last," said Emma Leighbennett, Head of the secondary section of GEMS Wellington International School, which achieved has achieved ‘outstanding rating over the last three years.
However, schools differ in the methodology and how they attain the quality in learning and teaching.
"The idea is to bring the curriculum alive and make learning fun for children. For this you need to have qualified and suitable teachers who themselves enjoy engaging with children," said Kevin Stedman, Chief Educational Officer of Kings Dubai School, which is the only school to secure ‘outstanding' ratings in the last four years.
Eleven private schools achieved an ‘outstanding' rating this year, five more than last year, while 13 were rated ‘unsatisfactory', down from 16 last year, showing a marked improvement.
Top 11 schools and their fee structures
- Kings Dubai: Dh30,000 to Dh47,000.
- Gems Wellington International School: Dh40,000 to Dh65,000.
- Jumeirah college: Dh55,000 to Dh70,000.
- Jumeirah English Speaking School: Around Dh30,000.
- Dubai College: Around Dh60,000.
- GEMS Jumeirah Primary School: Dh30,000 to Dh40,000.
- Jumeirah English Speaking School - Arabian Ranches: Around Dh30,000.
- Dubai American Academy: Dh15,000 to Dh65,000.
- Jebel Ali Primary School: Around Dh33,000.
- Dubai Modern High School: Dh30,000 to Dh40,000.
- The Indian High School: Dh3,500 to Dh7,500.
- The bottom ranked schools generally charge between Dh3,000 to Dh7,000.
Seven key questions asked by KHDA
1. How good are the students' attainment and progress?
2. How good is the students' personal and social development?
3. How good are the teaching, learning and assessment?
4. How well does the curriculum meet the educational needs of all students?
5. How well does the school protect and support students?
6. How good are the leadership and management of the school?
7. How well does the school perform overall?