In 1979, one year after Dubai College had opened, the American new wave band Talking Hands released their album Fear of Music containing a now iconic track called Heaven. In the song the band describe a kind of Promised Land which happens to be a bar, and the bar is called Heaven. There is a party and everyone is there, and everyone will leave at exactly the same time. And in Heaven the band plays their favourite song not just once but all night long and it is hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun.
On 30th November 2019, I happened to find myself in just that bar in the company of some 250 Dubai College alumni, both staff and students, including Conceicao Sousa, our former caretaker of 36 years, Tim Charlton, our founding Headmaster, Tony Foulger, our founding Bursar and his daughter Sarah as well as Ian and Bernie Brooks, who established the Dubai College London reunion in November 1988 among many other significant staff and students of yesteryear. This reunion was my first despite approaching my 9th year at the school and it felt like a momentous occasion to visit.
I recently stumbled across a store room at the back of the auditorium in my school which looked like a SMART board graveyard. The bulbs in their projectors had long since dimmed, the software is now obsolete and their eventual function, as a glorified projection screen, has been replaced by simple LCD screens across the school. And yet like many of us desperately hoping for edtech’s much vaunted solution to teachers’ (delete as appropriate) marking load / reporting / feedback / assessment / admin / differentiation / creativity / work-life balance / love-life I await the latest edtech initiative as the potential salvation to education’s woes.
However, does anyone remember inBloom, iBooks 2 (or even iBooks1 for that matter), SharpScholar, TutorSpree or KNO? No, nor me. According to the techedvocate these are some of the biggest edTech failures of the last decade. These edtech startups, despite being backed by some of the industry’s biggest names (The Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation and Apple to name but two) have sunk without a trace. Too often a big idea backed by a big marketing campaign trumps the received wisdom of those on the front line.
Students educated at international private schools are among the most powerful on the planet. Their power, however, does not (simply) come from their socio-economic status or vicariously through the leadership positions which their parents hold or indeed the leadership positions which they themselves may go on to hold when they graduate from university.
Their power comes from the breadth of their horizons and the access which they have been given to this world through the globally recognized credentials they earn at school, the self-confidence they develop among articulate peers, parents and staff and the social capital they acquire through their real-world connections.
To know yourself, to know the options available to you and to know how to fulfil your needs and wants puts most privately educated international school students in a position beyond the reach of many. As a consequence, now, as much as any other time in human history, our students must recognise that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.
Undeniably the twin drivers of an educational hierarchy and a free market have raised the quality of education in Dubai over the course of the past 11 years. If we assume that it has not become easier to achieve the top ratings then it is a global success story that 70% of students are now educated in Good, Very Good or Outstanding schools, compared to just 30% of students a decade ago. And yet we risk institutional isomorphism across the UAE’s schools if we fail to deviate from the norm.
The UAE Unified Inspection Framework has codified and standardized what we would almost certainly agree are the central tenets of a quality education system: students’ achievement, their personal and social development, their innovation skills, high quality teaching and assessment, a broad curriculum, the protection, care, guidance and support of students as well as the quality of the leadership and management.
Every great civilization from the Egyptians, through the Persians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans right the way up to modern day western and eastern civilisations owe their very existence to education. Yet schools which started out as mechanisms by which to efficiently and effectively share advantageous knowledge which grew civilisations in the first place are often taken over by political paymasters who use them as breeding grounds to support their ambitions. Ideologically speaking there is very little that education has not been asked to do: propagate religion, train workers and promote nationalism to name but a few functions of schools gone by.
However, we live in an age of enlightenment when we know more about how students learn and the unprecedented challenges facing us in the future than perhaps at any other time in the history of mankind. For this reason we can feel confident that education as ideology can now be replaced by education as science. However, this will require a greater voice and activism from school leaders if we are to assert the primacy of the school as the locus of understanding for what makes a great education. Unfortunately, as Rob Higham, Senior Lecturer in Education at UCL, writes, ‘school leaders may talk the language of vision but the space in which they can lead may be narrow’. Government policy priorities measured by league tables and inspection regimes strangle real leadership of learning as headteachers are forced into strategic compliance.
Management guru Peter Drucker is quoted as saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” and most companies, institutions and governments spend much of their time managing exactly those things which they are asked to measure; for without measurement you cannot ascertain improvement, right? Maybe. But what if we’re measuring the wrong stuff? And what if the things we should be measuring cannot easily be measured? Should that stop us trying?
The fact that something is easily measurable does not necessarily mean that it should be the thing which occupies our management time. In recent weeks I have found myself repeatedly coming back to a quotation by violinist Stephen Nachmanavotich which appears in Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s book ‘The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity’.
“If we operate with a belief in long sweeps of time, we build cathedrals; if we operate from fiscal quarter to fiscal quarter, we build ugly shopping malls”.