Better integration of special needs pupils in mainstream schools needed in UAE

High turnover of staff is another challenge schools in the UAE face, a former inspector said

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JAN 10 – 2018 :- Dr. Bogusia Matusiak Varley, Education Adviser speaking during the ‘Journey to Excellence’ Conference on School Improvement and Innovation held at Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai.  (Pawan Singh / The National) For News. Roberta

Principals and teachers need to do a better job of including children with special needs in mainstream schools if they are to improve their annual rankings, a former inspector told an audience of principals and teachers Wednesday.

Dr Bogusia Matusiak-Varley, director of the Gulf Education Services, also said that there is often a mismatch between how principals view the quality of their schools and the actual outcome of the pupils’ performance.

“My experience of working and supporting schools is that you can’t make the progress unless your assessment of what you do in school is accurate,” said Dr Matusiak-Varley. “A lot of our assessments don’t add up. Your outcomes aren’t high enough. Your self-evaluations are too rosy. A lot of you still evaluate from the heart and not from the framework.”

Private schools in Dubai are audited annually by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority’s Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. In Abu Dhabi, the Department of Education and Knowledge inspects schools about once every 18 months. The education regulators use a school’s inspection grade as a factor in determining whether the school qualifies to raise tuition fees. The reports are also published online to help inform parents about the schools’ strength and weaknesses. Since the Government began auditing private schools in 2009, the number of failing schools have continued to shrink, as more schools move up in the rankings.

“They keep you on your toes,” Vijay Mathu, former principal of Abu Dhabi Indian School. “They have done a good job, whether it’s the KHDA here or Adek in Abu Dhabi. I feel I have done my best but when an outsider tells you, look, this is where you are going wrong or this is where you are going slightly off track, that makes a positive impact and that has helped us improve the schools very much.”

But one area of continued deficiency continues to be inclusion of children with special education needs, Dr Matusiak-Varley told an audience of about 150 school leaders gathered for the Journey to Excellence conference in Dubai hosted by Yardstick Educational Initiatives in association with Gulf Educational Services.


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“That is really something we need to address,” said Dr Matusiak-Varley. “My experience as an inspector always is that pupils with special educational needs are given a watered-down version of the curriculum and that’s why they’re not making progress. Can we please let these students surprise us? Give them the opportunity to surprise us and stop constantly limiting the kinds of objectives that we give them.”

Dr Matusiak-Varkey also identified high turnover of staff as a major challenge educators face as they work toward meeting the objectives of the National Agenda.

“You put in so much to train your staff and the next year they go into the school next door and get promoted,” said Dr Matusiak-Varkey. “It’s another issue that we have to face, sustainability.”

Principals in the audience said that low-income schools simply don’t have the financing to support the resources needed to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

“That is a challenge to a lot of low-income schools, middle income schools, but hats off to the schools which, in spite of having very low fees, are still able to maintain a certain standard,” said Mr Mathu, who has more than 25 years of experience working in Abu Dhabi’s schools. “A majority of the schools which are in the high-performing bracket — outstanding and all that — are the ones which are charging phenomenal fees.”

But Julian Williams, principal at Springdales School in Dubai who previously worked in Malawi, one of the most economically-challenged countries in the world, cautioned educators not to allow limited resources to get in the way of delivering a high-quality education.

“Curiosity, the need for discovery within the students themselves is the greatest resource that we as teachers can actually utilise,” said Mr Williams. “The most effective teaching, in my view, comes from building a relationship with students and understanding how they learn as individuals. It’s not been really about the kind of money that has been spent.”