Private schools lead education reform in the Middle East

02 November 2010

Governments are investing heavily in the education sector, but private providers are also playing an increasingly important role in the Gulf

Key UAE education fact

The UAE allocated $2.7bn for the education sector in 2010 – 22.5 per cent of the total budget

Source: MEED

Career history: Ralph Tabberer, Gems Education

1997 Tabberer joined the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in the UK to work in the Schools Effectiveness Unit

1999 Took charge of ICT in Schools and the National Grid for Learning initiatives

1999-2005 Chief executive of the Training and Development Agency (known as Teacher Training Agency until 2003) in the UK. Tabberer was responsible for raising levels of teacher recruitment and the quality of initial training

2005-09 Director general for schools at the DCSF. He advised the education secretary on policy for 22,000 schools in England and managed a budget of £34bn a year.

2009 Became a Companion of the Order of Bath in the New Years Honours List and joined Gems Education in the same year

Ralph Tabberer picked a perfect moment to move from his role as director-general of English state schools to a senior post in the Middle East’s private education sector in April 2009.

I don’t see learning as a battle between state and private education … the modern world is short of great schools

Ralph Tabberer, Gems Education

As chief schools officer and chief operating officer of Dubai-based Gems Education, one of the most well represented private providers of education in the region, he is now witnessing a major drive to improve learning in the region.

Saudi Arabia allocated SR137.6bn ($36.7bn) in its 2010 budget to the education sector, or 25 per cent of its total planned expenditure of SR540bn. This represented an increase of 13 per cent over the 2009 allocation.

In the UAE, education was allocated AED9.8bn ($2.7bn) for 2010, some 22.5 per cent of the UAE’s AED43.6bn budget, while 20.5 per cent of Qatar’s 2008-09 budget was assigned to the sector, equivalent to QR19.7bn ($5.4bn). Oman, meanwhile, devoted 12.3 per cent of its budgeted expenditure to education, a figure of RO791m ($2.1bn).

Figures for Kuwait and Bahrain are not publicly available, but education is estimated to account for about 11-13 per cent of the total state spending in these countries. By comparison, the UK and the US direct 13-14 per cent of their budgets to education.

Private providers in the Gulf

As part of the push to raise standards, private education providers are being encouraged to increase their presence in the region and offer an alternative to the state-run system.

Gems Education, which was established in Dubai, runs more than 25 schools in the UAE and has a presence in Qatar, Jordan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Its international mix of schools offer six curricula (soon to be seven), a major shift from the UK education sector with just one curriculum.

The priority for Tabberer is to provide the highest-quality learning. Gems aims to reach 5 million students by 2024. It has 50 years’ experience to help get this right. “We want to build schools of quality, which are well led and with lessons well taught. We have our own clear vision that schools work where students are respected and inspired, where the schools impart our favourite words, ‘scholarship and character’, and where they prepare young people for university and life,” says Tabberer.

The investment in education is intended to help governments to diversify their oil-based economies. To achieve this, Gems plans to work with regional governments to run state schools. Currently, Gems does not have a presence in Bahrain, but Tabberer says it is an untapped market with huge potential.

Bahrain education leads to opportunities for businesses

In Bahrain, the Economic Development Board (EDB) has recognised the importance of providing good schooling and investment opportunities for businesses. According to the findings of a survey conducted by US polling firm Gallup between February and April 2009 on behalf of Qatar-based non-profit organisation Silatech, 27 per cent of 15 to 29-year-olds in Bahrain are neither attending school nor working.

To prevent a skills crunch further down the line, recent government reforms have included a teacher training programme, a new polytechnic college, improvement of the upper-secondary vocational programme and a quality assurance initiative, which will raise accreditation standards and inspections for the education system. Over the next decade, an additional 100,000 Bahrainis are expected to enter the job market. In October, the EDB held The Education Project event for the second year running. The conference encourages the public and private sector to meet to look at solutions that will plug gaps in the education system.

All aspects of the curriculum matter. In the past, critics have argued that Gulf education has a disproportionate amount of classroom time devoted to Islamic studies, to the detriment of mathematics and science. Gems is using its wide cultural reach to break this cycle. “It’s very interesting when you interact with good Indian schools. What you often find is that they are very science, technology and maths-oriented,” Tabberer says. “Gems currently has eight schools in India and we act on the clear evidence of success provided by research and apply it elsewhere.”

Tabberer says technology forms a major part of the learning offering at Gems. “ICT tools are in all our classrooms. We give our teachers laptops, we have projectors in all our classrooms and a virtual learning platform which we’re building up. We have also got our own management information system, so we are quite like public schools in this regard.”

New ways to hand ICT over to students are constantly being explored. Even straightforward video is being placed in students’ hands. “They are getting better and better now at thinking about how to write an essay using video, how to edit, how to convey messages in pictures, as well as sound and text,” says Tabberer.

Gems is lending its expertise as a knowledge partner for the technology in education event, BETT Middle East, on 21 November. Its involvement in the regional conference and exhibition confirms that private sector education is moving with the times much quicker than public sector education.

“You are accountable very quickly, especially as you become a more prominent group of schools. You recognise quickly the areas where you’re not delivering and you have to address any problems rapidly. I think bigger state systems have the same solutions to hand, but it is too easy to fall back into a more cautious ‘wait and see’ approach,” he says.

Combined public and private efforts in the education sector

Expertise about what makes for a good education has never been at such a premium in the region. Gems uses technology to support and extend learning and its management is keen to do more.

“Many people don’t realise that private providers [of education] are interested and experienced in all areas of the market. They should be allowed and encouraged to contribute more,” says Tabberer.

“I don’t see learning as a battle between state and private education [providers]. I only see that the modern world is desperately short of great schools and that we should not be ideological about providing parents with better options.”

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