School Governance and Happiness in Dubai


What Works had yet another successful collaborative sharing event for schools in Dubai this week: What Works Happiness!

On first glance, one might be surprised that there was a
particular focus on the critical role of good governance
and school leadership with a title of What Works Happiness. But when we consider the influence of good governance on school culture and success, it is highly appropriate that we engaged in this discussion at this event.


It was an interesting dialogue where the influence of the national agenda repeatedly surfaced as all schools in Dubai feel the pressure to meet the targets. During the open forum, stakeholders were candid about the diversity of the Dubai private education landscape and the expectations of good governance imposing on some traditional practices. After respectful dialogue, disagreement and sincere inquiry, what was clear at the end of the day is that change is not on the horizon, change is here – and it is in the interest of all of us to support any and all practices that promote school success for all.

Given this strong message of prioritizing the national agenda that unifies all schools to focus on shared goals, good governance and key school success factors were explored. The participants considered how the collective participation of all key stakeholders in school management could be made a reality in different kinds of schools in Dubai. Specifically, collective accountability repeatedly surfaced in discussions as a means to enhance efficiency, effectiveness and overall performance of schools.

The Education Bureau of the Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Division offers some basic principles for good governance in school boards. Specifically, they call for:

  1. Collective participation and accountability from all stakeholders helping to enhance school governance as well as the objectivity and fairness of administrative management.
  2. Establishing a system of review of effectiveness
  3. Formulating strategies and monitoring performance
  4. Clear responsibility and accountability framework
  5. Compliance with requirements and taking practical action

Although there are a lot more frameworks globally on good governance, they all sh6c9ef529-9fbd-4276-b4f5-1a5493e85ddf.jpgare this founding value of a high level of transparency, data-based decision making and
monitoring of performance. As we know from inspection results, these are elements that are not always evident in many private schools. But as we all unify in our efforts to
support the national agenda, they will be taking centre stage. But not because it sounds good, or there is pressure from the top, but because there is evidence that it makes a positive difference in schools.
Maureen Lewis and Gunilla Pettersson (World Bank) conducted an international study and found evidence that:

 “good governance can serve as an entry point to raising institutional performance in the delivery of education services.”

So how can we help those school leaders and operators who still need to be convinced of the make the shift?


School Choice in Dubai

In a recent conversation with a French mom in Dubai who has three kids of school age, she was explaining a dilemma that she was facing last year. Her eldest son and daughter were doing very well in the French system. They were in the top 15% of their class and enjoyed learning.

Student looks bored in class

She explained that they responded well to the discipline and the homework in the school. But, her youngest son, Frederique, was not responding well to the French approach and did not enjoy school last year. He struggled and his grades were consistently dropping. Despite the best efforts of the mom supporting her son through additional help at home, speaking with the teacher and trying different motivation tactics, Frederique just wanted to leave school!

Their neighbors were Americans and of course, Frederique played with the kids next door after school. Part of kids connecting is connecting about school work. So Frederique became exposed to the project-based work that this school promoted AND… he discovered that the teacher would help the students in school depending on how much they needed it. After seeing the homework and talking about the structure of learning in his new friend’s school, Frederique decided that he did not want to leave school, he wanted to change schools. And so, he informed his mom.

His mom and siblings thought he was really out to lunch! After all, he is French and that is his primary language. Furthermore, he will be going back to France eventually and would need to be able to keep up when he returns home. This request seemed very far fetched to the family who informed Frederique that he needed to make the French system work for him.

After a year of declining grades and decreasing motivation at school, his mom finally registered Frederique in the American school. It only took 2 weeks at his new school before her son rushed home with his first science experiment excited about doing his homework. His siblings rolled their eyes thinking that this kind of work was not their cup of tea at all! (her words). They believed that this approach was not “strong” enough and that they preferred their school. They were very articulate about their own gratitude that they would not be joining their brother at the American school.

It was obvious to the mom, the American approach was better suited to her youngest son, but not to her other two children. However, accommodating this difference did mean that there might be implications for the family so that Frederique could stay in the American system until graduation. In addition, she recognized that her youngest son would most likely be on a different path to post-secondary than her other two children and this was a concern.

But is this really an issue?

Perhaps if Frederique continued in a school where he kept getting lower and lower grades and becoming disengaged from school, the issues that the mom and family would be addressing would have  been far more serious.

The school choice offered in Dubai allows for this kind of diversity and brings differentiation to a new level. 

There is a lot of talk about 21st century learners needing to be tech-savvy and critical thinkers. There is a lot of attention being given to the notion of differentiation and the potential of personalizing learning on a large scale using technology. There seems to be less discussion and debate on the potential of school choice in the way this French family in Dubai responded to their reality and context.  It would seem that Frederique displayed critical thinking skills and creativity in thinking outside of the box to resolve his situation.

Dubai affords a different level of differentiation and choice because of the open-market education sector. There are issues with a market of education, especially for pro-public advocates who have a multitude of valid concerns. But one very distinct advantage that it can offer is the one that Frederique and his family found in this unique system.

It seems that Dubai is the perfect Petri dish to study the privatization of education on a micro-global scale!

Conversations about Teaching and Learning with PISA 2012 on the Side

Yesterday in Dubai’s Academic city, KHDA hosted What Works Maths and Science at Zayed University. Last year, this series of knowledge sharing events brought together hundreds of school leaders, teachers, and key community leaders to discuss what is happening in the private education sector of Dubai. Given the number of education events in Dubai, the natural question is:

Why would you create another education event in Dubai?

The difference with What Works is that the discussions are not about the business of education as with the larger vendor-driven shows. This event is about the content and delivery of teaching and learning considering the effect on student engagement and achievement. What does this mean in practice?

For example, the conversations is not about what technology to purchase, but about:

when and how various ICT solutions are being integrated into teaching various curricula? How they are enhancing learning? what is the effect on student achievement?

This distinction is not trivial. Salespeople were not present reminding me of Rebel XD’s performance (when he set the the Guinness world record for fastest rapper) pitching materials to schools to ensure sales KPIs. Instead, the community of educators was focused on their core services trying to find ways to offer better opportunities to learn for their students.

Having been present at What Works since the first one, we anticipated this environment and prepared by reading the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 where Dubai ranked 42nd in maths, 43rd in reading and 40th in science. The planned sessions about successful approaches to teaching and learning of math and science in Dubai’s schools could have easily been overshadowed by the Dubai PISA 2012 report which was handed out by KHDA upon entering the venue.

Usually, when these kinds of results are first released, sideline conversations take over. Principals would be boasting about how 85% of Dubai’s students reported being happy at school (above the global average of 80%). Professionals would be discussing the difference between the results of Emirati and non-Emirati student averages in all subjects, the comparison of results of the different curricula, and the ranking of each Emirate with Dubai (Mean Score: 464) topping the list and Umm Al Quwain closing the list (Mean Score: 398).

So why did the community of educators focus their conversation on the teaching and learning of math and science?

The culture of What Works that has been cultivated over the last academic year is about the practice of quality educational delivery. The very first event did see a lot of chatter about the Dubai inspection results; however, over time, the results have only become fuel to drive attention to the core issues.

Yesterday, the Dubai educational community did not seem to find the PISA information shocking or worthy of great discussion. Their reactions were that of professionals who had their perceptions confirmed and their direction reaffirmed. The conversations were deeply rooted in the practice of improving classroom teaching and learning.They recognized that in trying to identify the learning activities and approaches that they could promote in their schools to close the gap and improve learning, they were addressing the core issues that were relevant to their roles.  

If we view the event through the framework presented in Building and Connecting Learning Communities: The Power of Networks for School Improvement, then we might notice a cross-school culture of collaboration. The conversations were reflective of a space where relational trust had been established, capacity building was occurring and collaborative practices were budding. 

It seems that the event’s focus on sharing of professional knowledge and promoting collaborative inquiry might be changing professional ideas and practices. The focus was clearly on professional practices and attention to the PISA 2012 results has been appropriately left for another conversation with a different audience. Perhaps the UAE PISA 2012 results should be led by policymakers at the federal level since it does implicate all of the Emirates and raises critical issues relevant to the nation.

Ajyal Salima: Can Creating Shared Values with Nestle Middle East help Dubai avoid an obese generation?

Last summer, the UAE was declared the 5th fattest country in the world! The UAE Ministry of Health warned that the inactive lifestyle coupled with poor eating habits of children will make a large section of the population obese by the with the effect on health care being a primary concern. According to Laila Al Jassmi, CEO of Health Policy and Strategy Sector at the DHA:

 Health education for school children is an important part of our public health strategy to ensure we have a healthier future for our children. The Dubai Household Health Survey conducted by the DHA shows that almost 60% of the population does not have sufficient fruits and vegetables to remain healthy and only 19% exercise to remain healthy.

This academic year, Nestlé Middle East has cooperated with the Dubai government to bring a Healthy Kids Program to life in Dubai. There are a number of local institutions on board with HRH Princess Haya Initiahealthy_kids_logo_dec_2011tive for the Development of Health, Physical Education and School Sports, Dubai Health Authority, Dubai Education Zone all deeply concerned and dedicated to changing the predicted outcome for today’s kids – so that they may escape a life of diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related diseases.

Today, health education has become part of the mandated curriculum in schools. From the destructive effect of smoking and drug abuse to how to live well and respect your body, kids are learning healthy habits. The research shows that educated kids grow up to be adults who:

  • Take better care of themselves both physically and mentally
  • Are better equipped to understand the concepts of susceptibility and risk
  • Promote a healthy lifestyles by modelling good behaviours, and
  • Are at lower risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, cancer, obesity, and cardiovascular disease (CVD)

The “Healthy Kids” programme will target 29 government schools over the next two years. This is a great start. Ramping up the program will require a real commitment and a collaborative effort from multiple stakeholders. So will the decision to monitor and evaluate the impact of the program before this generation reaches adulthood and it is too late!

Health education is a critical element to the overall development of children. It is essential to ensure that these kids are being given every opportunity to build the right wellness habits. As more and more decision makers invest time, money, people, curriculum, and a host of other resources in health education, it is important to ensure that the results are being closely followed.

For Nestlé Middle East, the Dubai Healthy Kids Program (Ajyal Salima ) helps them meet their Corporate Sustainability KPIs. With all the research that Nestlé conducts, is any of it supporting the monitoring of this program in Dubai? Is there an impact evaluation planned with the government of Dubai?

For Dubai, the KPIs are more serious … it is the safekeeping of its children.