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.