Of Schools and the Dream of Quality Education

Iremember back in the day, when I was a teacher in a private institution in Istanbul. The school was part of a conglomerate of schools whose focus was on Islam.

By Maryam Ismail

Published: Tue 7 Apr 2009, 11:49 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:42 AM

This was after the hijab ban and every time the inspectors had came the school was literally turned upside down. First of all, the inspectors didn’t come for just one day; they came for a week or two. They were there all day. They even had their own smoking room. Yes, smoking room. During those days, we did the official programme. Since I was a foreigner, and just the English teacher, I wasn’t sure what that meant—what I did know, was that it was always a stressing time.

First of all, female faculty members, who normally wore hijab in the outside world, were not permitted to wear in school in the corridors, however, they were seen by only the few male teachers (some of whom were family members) inside the school and were not exposed to strangers from outside the schools.

Next come the psychological battles. One of them was the handshake. In general Muslim women don’t shake hands with men. Even in Turkey. So as a test to check the secularism of the school, the inspectors would enter the classroom, walk up to the teacher, and put his hand out for her to shake. I remember that one teacher was so upset she came to the staff room grumbling. Why did he put his hand out, she asked! There were other changes such as the curriculum; even the lesson plans, which were shown to the inspector were all fakes and each teacher had to sign off on them.

The school management saw this as a necessary even to remain open. Their mission of providing a space for students, parents, and teachers who practiced Islam superseded the need to follow the dogmatic secularism of the state. Something similar happened when I first came to the UAE almost 10 years ago.

There was also an inspector incident where for those few days, the classrooms were decorated in Arabic pictures and the halls filled with school-like decorations and then, after the inspection time was over, the pictures came down, and once again the class had its bare beige walls.

These might seem like curious anecdotes, but they have one important element in them and that is deceit. In the first incident, it served to benefit everyone who had a single-minded goal, and the second one was something all together different. It was merely to make the school look good in the eyes of the officials.

I have been to a few schools and I see that for the most part, classes don’t have a school-like feeling. Often classroom decorations are spare, simply aesthetic, colours for the class. It might seem like a minor detail, but for many parents, these seem to indicate learning and, perhaps, for officials as well.

As a teacher, I know that classroom decorations, charts, instructions, and reminders on the walls can enhance learning, create structure, and bring order to the classroom. In essence, they can be powerful learning tools, where students can have reminders of lessons, inspirations, and facts that come in handy whenever are stuck or at a lost for what to do next.

But do pretty walls mean that there is real learning going on? How well can Dubai students compete with say those of Lebanon, Egypt or the United States? This is really hard to say because the situation here is really different. The fact is that within the arena of education, there is not very much need for an educated citizenry, because the majority of its residents are not citizens. So, there is very little incentive to do more than the minimum.

The effort will be all on the owners who may hire and fire at will if they think that their money is in jeopardy. The Dubai School Investigations Bureau (DSIB) states the overall performance of the school, attainment, students progress, personal and social development, teaching and learning, curriculum and school leadership is the criteria that they will use to assess which schools deserve the tuition hikes, they so often demand. Its good that they are stepping in, but my question is how will they ensure that they are getting honest results? What if a school get the desired increase, and then totally flips the script on the parents?

Recently there was such an event. Where the school knew all the time, that they were having acute financial problems and used this as an excuse to demand a tuition hike. Once they got it, they then, cut the staff by more than 20 per cent, refused to take in siblings, and then on top of that fired the long time managers who had made the school great in the first place.

The factor of attainment is schools, such as UAE, is just too hard to maintain. For a variety of reasons, there are very few long-term residents, the switch of a job or an increase of expenses can cause a family to not send their kids to school at all. And then there is always the parent on the hunt for a better school. I myself chose to stay at my kids school. It’s rough out there. Looking for a school is like looking for a home, when you’re homeless.

These schools know they got you over a barrel and seem to take extreme joy from kicking you when you’re down. If you change every time, you can’t see the foot coming, but if you know what to expect, at least you have chance to stop the abuse.

We applaud the effort that the Knowledge and Human Development Authority has taken in creating the DSIB. Yet, from the parents’ perspective, there might be some other pieces to this puzzle called education in UAE hiding under the desk somewhere.

Maryam Ismail is an American sociologist who divides her time between the UAE and United States. She can be reached at: maryam@journalist.com

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