Private Education and Market-Based Accountability

Last week, the International and Private Schools Education Forum (IPSEF) had its first ME forum at the World Trade Centre in Dubai. It was an all-day event with senior leaders from key organizations in the region including the Chairman of the Board of Directors and Director General of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai, the CEO of Taaleem, the CEO of The Indian High School, the Private Schools Manager of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the Regional Director of CfBT and the list goes on and on.

The discussions were interesting and pushed the envelope of the role of private education today and tomorrow with respect to quality and business indicators. The scene was set with bold statements from Dr. Al Karam who reminded the audience that the number of private schools globally are increasing as governments struggle to improve centralized large inert systems through high-cost initiatives. He put forward the idea that the smaller scale of private schools that cater to local community needs are more efficient and readily able to adapt and improve.

Given Dubai’s unique characteristics of a majority expatriates (+80%) , a majority of Emiratis (58%) opting out of the public system for the private system, and diverse local needs (+13 curricula) …. Dubai has been an incubator for alternative educational policies by practical necessity.

Actually… so is Abu Dhabi.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council has announced that it will inspect public schools for the first time (2012/13) to assess their quality of education alongside private schools as part of the new Irtiqa’a programme.

This was expected.

What was not expected was that Abu Dhabi would share the results with the public! Mariam Saqr, Manager of School Inspection and Monitoring at ADEC stated: The aim of this programme is to enhance the performance level of schools by creating a competitive environment.

Notable in these policies is that the provision of education is being addressed through strategic approaches that are aimed at improving quality and raising standards in private schools with expectations to influence public school quality using market-based accountability practices.

The idea behind market-based accountability is straightforward. Accounts are provided to the consumer based on key indicators so that consumer make choices that push providers to better meet the needs of the consumers at a price point they can accept. The results are what matters.

In practical terms, parents need good independent information to make informed choices about schooling. So when parents are unhappy with the service of the school, they will take their children and their enrolment fees to a different school that does meet their needs (demand) provided they have a feasible option. Feasibility includes a number of factors including sufficient choice (supply) and affordability.

Some devout public-school supporters find this model abhorrent. Indeed, in a recent exchange with an individual from the US, he stated that the case study of Dubai does not help us to deepen the debates on the issues of public-private education!

I tend to agree with Ralph Tabberer, the Chief Education Officer for GEMS, a member of the World Economic Forum (Community of Global Growth Companies), who accurately summed up the situation: Dubai is an outlier. But one that cannot be ignored!

Perhaps Ralph has a more international understanding of the role of private schools with President Bill Clinton opening GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi in 2011, with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya announcing that GEMS will build its first school in Africa in 2011, and with GEMS opening 6 for-profit schools in England over the next two years (2012). This does not even begin to note the alliance of this largest operator of private schools in the Eastern Hemisphere with New York based Edison Schools, the largest manager of public sector schools in the U.S. and the U.K.

Given that private school enrolment is increasing at more than twice the rate at public schools in OECD countries, and that there is a 58% growth in private school enrolment in primary schools compared with just a 10% growth in similar public schools (UNESCO), one would have to thrust their head and neck into the sand to avoid seeing the reality of private education today and tomorrow!

Dubai is indeed an outlier. The test of opportunity, supply, demand, regulations, commercial and consumer protectionism will decide if Dubai will breed pioneers or profiteers to create further opportunities in the education market. In any case, time will tell if this outlier will serve as a Malcolm Gladwell story of success, or simply offer a case that demonstrates what happens when private education is the normative state practice.

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