Even in the brave new world of education, you can't beat discipline and rigour

Michael Lambert assesses the changes to the education system

Despite the high costs of education, it is still a high priority for parents in the Emirates, who are happy to cut back on other expenditure such as holidays to ensure they can afford it. Reem Mohammed / The National
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These are exciting times for the UAE education sector. As this newspaper reported last week, the country's schools will follow a new common education system in a major shakeup.

The changes are the result of directives from President Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

In the first instance, these modifications target the country's public schools, but also include increased focus on schools offering Western curricula.

So why now and what will be the impact?

Most of us will now be aware that the Government quite rightly has ambitious plans for the educational outcomes of the UAE. In fact, the UAE Vision 2021 aspires for the country to be ranked in the top 20 highest performing countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and to be ranked in the top 15 highest performing countries in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).


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So where do we currently sit?

According to the latest league tables, the UAE currently ranks 49th in the world for Maths, 48th for Reading and 48th for Science in the Pisa tests and 39th and 30th in the Maths and Science elements of Timss.

However, these rankings do not tell the full picture. When you breakdown the national performance in these tests by curriculum, it becomes very clear that the British and IB curriculum schools in the UAE significantly outperform these rankings, whereas the performance of the public schools is significantly behind.

To give this some context, if the UAE achieved its rankings on British schools alone it would be in the top 15 for both Timss and Pisa. If the UAE achieved its rankings on the Ministry of Education schools alone, it would be very close to the bottom of all the countries which participated in both the Pisa and Timss tests. It is clear that a brave and radical approach to the public national curriculum is needed and the new Emirati Schools Model has been presented as the answer.


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The details of this include a "rich curriculum, excellence in student skills and courses, as well as high quality of education in full alignment to the expectations of the vision of the UAE leadership for the education sector", which seem like an excellent place to start.

However, whilst the truancy rate in public schools has improved since the 2010 Pisa tests, it is interesting to note that the UAE ranks 5th in the world for the percentage of students who skipped a day of school or more in the two weeks prior to the 2014 Pisa test.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon families and teachers within the schools to foster better student engagement, in addition to straight curriculum changes. Professor John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute in Australia, a man described by the Times Educational Supplement as "possibly the world's most influential education academic", has spent much of working life ranking various influences related to learning and achievement. What is interesting to note from his research is that the curriculum and student skills rank far below teacher efficacy and teacher expectations when it comes to raising standards.

A new study by the New Schools Network in the UK also pointed to the efficacy of school culture, in addition to the curriculum, when it came to outcomes. Schools that have strict discipline, smart uniforms, longer school days, competitive sports, classics and all three sciences are more likely to have pupils do well, it found, whereas schools with a casual uniform or no uniform at all and a relaxed attitude to low level disruption in the classroom fared worse.

It seems that any brave new world of education may well need to take into account the tried and tested systems of traditional schools if raising attainment is the end game.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College

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