3. Well-being in Dubai’s private schools

What happens in schools is key to understanding whether students, teachers and staff enjoy good physical and mental health, and how happy and satisfied they are with different aspects of their life. School practices and initiatives can help – or indeed, hinder – efforts to build a nurturing environment and positive social relations. A growing body of research shows that promoting well-being in schools can also strengthen teaching and learning, and lead to improvements in these areas.

Recognising the crucial role of schools in supporting well-being, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) has placed well-being at the centre of discussions on education quality. In recent years, the organisation has helped raise school actors’ awareness on the topic and provided them with tools to better understand how their students and staff feel. In addition, KHDA has developed different platforms for schools to convene and learn from experts and from each other. As a result, most private schools in Dubai are now familiar with the issue, as well as with the positive education approaches, and many have introduced activities aimed at fostering the welfare of students and, increasingly, staff.

However, the extent to which schools have prioritised well-being, embedded it into their daily operations and culture and designed and implemented initiatives successfully differs significantly across the sector. Some schools – which the OECD review mission suggests are mostly high-fee institutions catering to wealthier families – have implemented whole-school approaches, in line with what evidence shows to be most effective at supporting children’s development and building positive learning environments. On the other hand, evidence also gained from the OECD review mission suggests that capacity and resource issues have prevented other schools from adopting such comprehensive approaches, or from providing students and staff with the help they need. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has also taken its toll on individuals’ well-being as well as on households’ and schools’ incomes, with particularly adverse effects on the least advantaged stakeholders.

Providing Dubai’s private schools with the guidance and tools they need to develop effective policies and practices will be key to ensure students and staff across the sector are adequately supported in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and the years to come. Policy Objective 3.1 argues that the most important step for KHDA and the sector will be to develop a comprehensive policy framework for well-being in Dubai’s private schools. As will be discussed in Policy Objectives 3.3 and 3.4, schools that are struggling should also benefit from targeted support and capacity-development opportunities. Finally, in the medium term, rethinking the existing regulatory and accountability tools and processes can help both disseminate and embed a new approach to well-being and school improvement across the sector: one that recognises and embraces well-being as a key dimension of a school’s mission and a measure of its quality. Dubai’s accountability mechanisms proved to be key for the sector’s improvement trajectory, and have the potential to be equally important for the Emirate’s well-being journey (see Policy Objective 3.2).

This section presents a brief overview of the research on well-being in schools, including the definition and analytical framework that will be used in this chapter. While Chapters 4 and 5 will focus on teachers’ and students’ well-being respectively, this chapter will focus on what it means for a school to promote well-being, and the main factors associated with a positive school environment.

Well-being in schools is one of those concepts that is both difficult to define and measure, but everyone recognises it when they see it. In a school with a positive environment, students and teachers feel physically and emotionally safe; teachers are supportive, enthusiastic and responsive; the school community is built around healthy, respectful and co-operative relationships; and everyone looks after the school premises and each other, working together to develop a constructive school spirit. While the recipe for ensuring high levels of well-being in a school has many ingredients, two main factors are worth highlighting. The first is the school’s climate, which is defined as a multidimensional construct that represents “virtually every aspect of the school experience” (Wang and Degol, 2016[1]). Researchers have not reached a consensus on what exactly makes up school climate, however four elements often emerge (Thapa et al., 2013[2]; Cohen J et al., 2009[3]; Wang and Degol, 2016[1]):

  • Safety1: includes maladaptive behaviours, (such as disciplinary problems in the classroom) and truancy, as well as the rules, attitudes and school strategies related to these maladaptive behaviours.

  • Teaching and learning: includes aspects of teaching, such as academic support and feedback, aspects of the curriculum, such as civic learning and socio-emotional skills, and indicators of teacher professional development and school leadership, such as teacher co-operation, teacher appraisal, administrative support and the school vision.

  • School community: includes aspects of the school community such as student-teacher relationships and student co-operation, respect for diversity, parental involvement and community partnerships.

  • Institutional environment: includes school resources, such as buildings, facilities, educational resources and technology, and indicators of the school organisation, such as class size and school size (OECD, 2020[4]).

A second factor is required, and it is the policies and practices that purposefully support key dimensions of students’ and staff’s quality of life, including:

  • Student well-being: schools can directly and/or indirectly support all dimensions of student well-being – psychological, social, cognitive and physical (see Chapter 5). Examples of school initiatives that can support students include a well-designed timetable with sufficient breaks and opportunities for physical exercise and social interactions, open spaces for dialogue, provision of healthy meals in the school’s cafeteria, establishment of anti-bullying and anti-discrimination rules, etc.

  • Staff well-being: teachers’ working environments – including job demands and resources – are a key factor shaping their well-being (see Chapter 4). Supportive measures include, for example, adequate salaries and working conditions, opportunities for staff’s learning development, sufficient time for rest (including breaks during working hours and annual leave), open and trusting spaces for dialogue, etc.

International evidence suggests that schools and school systems that have been successful in fostering well-being tend to have certain elements in common. This chapter’s analysis and recommendations build on many of these features.

Research shows that a comprehensive, whole-school approach to well-being produces a wide range of benefits for schools and school actors (National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), 2019[5]; Weare and Gray, 2003[6]). A whole-school approach involves addressing the needs of learners, staff and the wider community through all aspects of school life – from the school’s culture to the teaching that takes place in classrooms. It implies engaging all members of the school community in collective and collaborative action (Department for Education, 2018[7]) (IBE-UNESCO, n.d.[8]). This is illustrated in Figure 3.1 taken from Ireland’s Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice 2018-2023 (National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), 2019[5]).

An important aspect of a whole-school approach is the recognition that individuals have different needs at different times. A combination of universal and targeted interventions, undertaken within the classroom and/or at the school level, can ensure that these needs are effectively met. There are multiple ways of implementing this principle in schools. For example, the Irish Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice proposes a support continuum: (i) whole school and classroom support for all; (ii) school support for some (at risk); and, (iii) school support plus for few (with more complex and enduring needs) (see Figure 3.2) (National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), 2019[5]).

Partnerships between schools and education systems with mental health professionals and medical practitioners are critical. Even in schools and school systems with high technical capacity, certain specialised interventions need to be undertaken by experts. In many OECD countries the school serves as a location for students and staff to access important health services and information (e.g. vaccinations, eyesight and nutrition screening). In other systems, students or staff may be referred to health centres. Regardless of the approach, there is a need for coherence and coordination between health and education authorities and providers.

In institutions and systems where well-being is embedded into the school ethos and vision, stakeholders are committed to common values, aspirations and expectations. This shared vision gives schools a sense of direction and serves as a motivating force for sustained and collective action (OECD, 2016[9]). Under these circumstances, stakeholders will tend to be more attuned to and reflect on the ways in which different practices and interventions – from the school’s curriculum to its physical environment – support or hinder individuals’ well-being. While processes and mechanisms can be put in place to reflect these concerns systematically and deliberately (e.g. performance indicators for monitoring the impact of a new measure), when well-being is a pervasive element of the school’s culture, they are also likely to surface organically as part of informal exchanges (e.g. as part of a group discussion).

International experience has highlighted the value of promoting well-being through all aspects of school life at all times, encompassing every environment, connection and activity that takes place within a school. This means that the teaching and learning that takes place in classrooms should enable students’ cognitive, social and emotional development and build students’ well-being and health literacy (discussed in depth in Chapter 5). In addition, warm, respectful and trusting social relationships should be the norm, helping support individuals’ engagement with school and positive emotions. Finally, the school’s premises and policies should allow and encourage stakeholders to have healthy lifestyles.

For example, a school may consider introducing relaxation activities to support students’ well-being, in particular before high-stakes exams. While similar initiatives might prove beneficial in some cases, if students’ overall workload and the pressure put on them by teachers and parents remain the same, these activities are unlikely to have any real and lasting impact. In fact, they might even increase students’ level of anxiety and stress if they are left with little time for other important activities. Embedding a comprehensive approach to well-being in schools’ regular activities and planning can help prevent such disincentives or misalignments and be more effective at strengthening well-being in schools.

School actors and, in particular, school leaders, teachers and support staff, often lead the design and implementation of well-being policies and practices. For staff, this can prove to be quite challenging, in particular if they are unfamiliar with the topic or asked to take on responsibilities and tasks they are untrained for. In these cases, high-quality training is key to ensure staff have the knowledge and skills needed to carry out new practices successfully (see Box 3.1 for a discussion on effective professional learning practices). This includes, for example, training on how to help build students’ social and emotional skills. As will be discussed in Chapter 4, professional learning also fosters staff’s professional development and identity, which helps strengthen their well-being. In most cases, training is provided by staff within the school, or in partnership with external specialised experts or centres inside or outside the school.

Effective use of data and evidence by teachers, school leaders and support staff is central to supporting well-being in schools. Information collected through school inspections, student and/or staff surveys, assessments, and other sources support evidence-informed action. Data collection and research tools can help stakeholders identify issues and at-risk groups, and assess the impact of interventions. International evidence and local expertise can also offer important insights into what works (or doesn’t). This can enable the development of appropriate and successful interventions. The process of collecting, reflecting on and exchanging knowledge and data is – in and of itself – beneficial for the school as an organisation, because it helps build collective knowledge and strengthen social ties and collaboration. However, using data and evidence to improve day-to-day practices can be a complex undertaking, and often requires a combination of:

  • structures for regular dialogue and knowledge exchange to be in place

  • systems for monitoring progress and impact to be developed

  • information to be easily available and accessed

  • staff to have the capacity to analyse and use multiple sources of data

  • processes for reflection, self-assessment and evaluation to be established (OECD, 2016[9]).

An analysis of well-being policies and practices in Dubai’s private schools needs first to examine some key features of the sector as well as relevant trends that impact the context in which they operate. This section examines the sector vis-à-vis the analytical framework described above. See Table 1.1 in Chapter 1 for a discussion on the methodology and main data sources used for this purpose.

Dubai’s private schools2 are inspected on an annual basis by the Dubai Schools Inspections Bureau (DSIB), following standards and indicators set out in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) School Inspection Framework 2015-16. Among the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 participants, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a whole had some of the most evaluated schools and stand above the OECD average (see Figure 3.3).

Overall, the current UAE’s school evaluation process compares well to those in well-established school evaluation systems with strong accountability models, such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The key strengths of the DSIB School Inspection approach are:

  • The School Inspection Framework draws on the school quality standards from well-established European evaluation agencies such as Ofsted in England (United Kingdom) and covers some of the key features of a whole-school approach to well-being outlined above (e.g. student-teacher relationships, curricula, partnership with parents and the community).

  • The inspection process encourages schools to reflect on their strengths and issues. This helps foster a culture of self-evaluation and self-improvement.

  • Inspection uses a variety of sources of information (e.g. classroom observations, interviews, classroom documents and school performance outcomes). This enables a more comprehensive picture of schools’ culture and environment, which are key factors in well-being.

  • Evaluation results are made public, and allow stakeholders to compare schools by curriculum type, performance and other criteria. This is particularly important to inform school choice in a large private system.

  • School evaluation results are used to regulate schools’ enrolment policies. A school that receives a score of “weak” in the school evaluation cannot enrol Emirati students.

  • School evaluation results are tied to tuition fees. While all private schools in Dubai receive a similar percentage raise in fees, those that witnessed improvements in the school evaluation results are able to increase fees further than others.

  • The school quality standards have played a key role in creating a unified vision for school quality, with minimum requirements for all schools regardless of sector, fee level or curriculum (OECD, 2019[12]).

Despite the many strengths of the system, there is growing awareness of the need to update the framework and approach to align to emerging priorities and needs. In particular, since the UAE School Inspection Framework was published in 2015-16, well-being has become a much higher priority for the sector. For this reason, KHDA’s leadership and other key stakeholders believe that the framework and process should give greater attention to school’s ability and efforts to nurture students’ well-being and develop a positive environment for all. At the time of drafting, the UAE School Inspection Framework was being revised by the key education bodies in the country. Policy Objective 3.2 raises key considerations that can help inform this process.

The performance of schools has been improving since the first rounds of inspections. While the share of schools described as “weak” fell from 14% in 2008-09 to 3% in 2018-193, the share of “outstanding” schools rose from 3% to 9% in the same time period. This is in line with improvements in students’ average outcomes international student assessments discussed in Chapter 1 (see Figure 3.4).

Evidence from DSIB inspections reveals a link between fee levels and inspection ratings (see Figure 3.5). “Weak” and “acceptable” schools are almost all low-fee schools (i.e. average annual fees below AED 20 000 [United Arab Emirates dirhams], equivalent to around EUR 4 700), whereas the majority of “very good” and “outstanding” schools tend to be high-fee schools (i.e. average annual fees above AED 50 000, equivalent to around EUR 11 800). Many low-fee schools not only struggle to offer high-quality learning opportunities to their students, but also other important services and resources (e.g. career advice, psychological counselling). As will be discussed in this chapter, this has important implications for students’ and staff’s well-being.

In just a few years, KHDA’s “well-being journey” (see Chapter 2) has had a remarkable impact on Dubai’s private school sector. Stakeholders have not only developed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of well-being and its multiple dimensions, but also a greater appreciation for its importance. The majority of schools have developed programmes and activities to support and monitor students’ and, in some cases, staff’s well-being. However, significant differences have emerged across private schools. While a certain degree of variation is natural given the diversity of the system, evidence collected by the OECD review team suggests some reasons for concern. Not only do schools’ visions of well-being differ significantly across the sector, so too does their commitment to the well-being agenda. In addition, there is significant heterogeneity with regards to the quality of school practices.

This review recommends that KHDA leverage its convening power to work with schools to define a unified framework for well-being in Dubai’s private school system. This would help ensure that stakeholders are working towards common goals and that students and staff well-being needs are effectively addressed by schools across the sector.

As discussed in Chapter 2, KHDA has adopted a strengths-based system approach and also drawn heavily on positive education (see Box 2.1 in Chapter 2). In addition to partnering with a number of institutions and experts that promote these approaches, such as the International Positive Education Network, KHDA has also rolled out several well-being initiatives and data collection surveys that are closely related to – if not explicitly aligned with – the positive education approach (see Table 3.1). However, without ever imposing any definition of or specific approach to well-being in the sector, KHDA has been able to raise awareness of the topic among school actors and to introduce a common language around well-being, with which most stakeholders are now familiar.

In the last decade, KHDA has initiated significant policy shifts in Dubai’s private school sector and the UAE as a whole. As discussed in the World Bank’s “The Road Traveled: Dubai’s Journey Towards Improving Private Education” review, the high-stakes accountability structure that KHDA introduced in the late 2010s in Dubai, based on common quality standards and annual school inspections, was instrumental in raising transparency and building a culture of quality and improvement across schools.

In 2017, KHDA played a central role in raising the issue of inclusion across the country and changing schools’ practices. Dubai’s Inclusive Education Policy Framework established quality standards and guidance to schools on how to support the inclusion of students with special education needs and disabilities (often referred to as “people of determination” in the UAE) in mainstream schools. The Framework was enforced by drawing on KHDA’s regulatory arms, in particular, school licensing and accreditation.

More recently, KHDA has relied on its convening role to inspire collaboration in the sector. Through What Works and What Works X events, the Lighthouse project and other initiatives, KHDA has helped connect schools and encourage peer-learning and dissemination of effective practices (to be discussed in further detail in Policy Objective 3.2).

These examples demonstrate KHDA’s power to influence the sector and steer change. As part of its current well-being journey (see Chapter 2), KHDA has been relying on many of the same strategies and policy levers. For example, KHDA has leveraged its collaborative platforms and international partnerships to develop stakeholders’ well-being literacy through seminars and presentations. As a result of these efforts, most schools embraced the well-being agenda to some degree, with many adopting the positive education approach and a few implementing a whole-school approach. Despite these achievements, this chapter argues that KHDA’s “organic” approach may be nearing its limit in many respects and that, to succeed in the next steps of its journey, KHDA will need to consider new strategies, which require in turn a re-examination of the organisation’s priorities, activities and stakeholder engagement methods.

As established in Law No. 30 (2006), KHDA’s mandate does not attribute any role to the organisation with regards to student well-being, or well-being in schools, more generally. Nevertheless, over time, its role and mission have evolved. One notable example is that KHDA’s most recent strategy map now includes “increasing levels of happiness and well-being across all stakeholder groups” as one of the organisation’s six objectives (see Box 1.3 in Chapter 1). However, in many respects, KHDA still opts for a more cautious approach, possibly because they are wary of being perceived as overstepping boundaries. This concern is understandable, and should not be dismissed. In a decentralised and relatively autonomous system (see Chapter 1), one of KHDA’s most important leverages is its influence, and this depends on its ability to develop and sustain positive and constructive relationship with schools. A clearer mandate for KHDA on supporting well-being could not only help KHDA to fully embrace its new role, but also support its acceptance by stakeholders in the sector.

While schools and other stakeholders seem to share a broad understanding of well-being and of a strengths-based approach – it is left to schools to develop their own visions of well-being. As a result, schools have developed very different perspectives. For example, social well-being (defined as the quality and depth of social interactions) is perceived very differently across schools. Schools have also opted to recognise and prioritise (or not) different well-being dimensions. Evidence from the fact-finding interviews revealed notably that, while most schools have a well-rounded and comprehensive approach to well-being, some have focused almost exclusively on one of its specific elements (e.g. students’ and staff’s physical fitness or students’ cognitive development). The emergence and co-existence of different understandings of well-being is natural, in particular in such a diverse ecosystem, and not an issue per se. However, allowing some schools to sustain a narrow or superficial vision of and approach to well-being, one that overlooks key dimensions of individuals’ quality of life (e.g. social relations, working conditions) or specific stakeholder groups, could have detrimental impacts on students’ and staff’s welfare.

Approaches to well-being also vary significantly in depth and relevance in Dubai’s private education sector. Some schools interviewed by the OECD – mostly advantaged schools with highly-qualified staff and access to external support – had adopted holistic and whole-school approaches to well-being, which as discussed above, is linked to a wide range of benefits for schools and school actors. Others however have adopted a more compartmentalised approach, introducing well-being activities as an add-on to regular schoolwork and activities. In these cases, stakeholders may not take well-being practices as seriously or prioritise them to the same extent.

A framework for well-being across private schools in Dubai is needed to ensure a common understanding of well-being among stakeholders and elevate its importance in school policies and practices. A shared vision would also give schools a sense of direction. In addition, it could provide orientation to national efforts to revise the school inspection framework (see Policy Objective 3.2).

KHDA should consider developing a framework that sets out principles, standards and definitions, specifies stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities, provides guidelines to schools and outlines goals. The Dubai’s Inclusive Education Policy Framework can serve as a blueprint for a policy framework for well-being in schools, both in terms of the process of development and of the end document itself. The experience of OECD countries and economies, such as Ireland (Box 3.2) and Wales (United Kingdom), might also serve as a source of inspiration for this exercise.

In developing a policy framework for well-being in schools, KHDA should consider the following:

  • Consulting schools and other key actors to define a common vision: Similarly to what was done with the Dubai Inclusive Education Policy Framework, KHDA should consult with key Dubai agencies such as the Dubai Health Authority, as well as school actors, parents and the local community to ensure that the vision for well-being in Dubai schools reflects the views of key stakeholders and is appropriated by all stakeholders. While this is challenging in Dubai’s culturally diverse school system where definitions and priorities may vary across communities, it is particularly important for the success of the sector’s well-being journey.

  • Defining quality standards and indicators: The policy framework should define what it means for a school to support and achieve high levels of well-being among students and staff. Standards, indicators and descriptors help clarify expectations for schools across different domains. The indicators should be aligned with the Dubai Student Wellbeing Census (DSWC) and Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Surveys. In the medium term, they should also be aligned with the Inspection Framework (see Policy Objective 3.2).

    The South Australian Wellbeing for Learning and Life Framework may serve as an interesting model for KHDA, as it establishes three main quality standards (“Engage”, “Empower”, “Inspire”), under which there is a set of sub-indicators and descriptors.

  • Defining roles and responsibilities: The policy framework needs to clearly define schools’ roles and responsibilities in ensuring the well-being of students and staff. These responsibilities should also be reinforced through KHDA’s regulatory processes (see Policy Objective 3.2). The policy framework should also define the role and responsibilities of schools, KHDA and other governmental agencies in supporting student and staff well-being in schools. For example, it will be important to determine whether psychological counselling should be provided by schools and if so, whether to impose a requirement for the number of qualified psychologists a school would need to employ.

  • Providing guidelines on implementation: The policy framework should also include guidelines to help schools design and implement meaningful well-being policies. See the full recommendation in Policy Objective 3.3.

As the private sector regulator, KHDA can play a key role in keeping schools motivated and accountable for supporting the well-being of students and staff. Drawing on its compliance and regulatory tools more effectively, KHDA can encourage adoption of effective well-being policies and practices, such as a whole-school approach to well-being, and ensure that well-being becomes a genuine priority for schools. This will require rethinking the current inspection framework and process, and adapting other compliance and regulatory tools. The next section discusses the opportunities and areas for improvement upon which KHDA can base its efforts.

Similar to established school inspection systems in OECD countries, the UAE School Inspection Framework includes indicators related to student well-being, such as student health, socio-emotional development and relationships with adults in the school (see Table 3.2). These indicators are accompanied by descriptors. The high stakes associated with the school inspection and, with meeting or not the standards set in this Framework, have helped elevate the topic in Dubai and ensure that schools consider issues of students’ well-being seriously in their planning and activities.

A new UAE School Inspection Framework is currently under development. While stakeholders reported that the new framework will have a stronger focus on student well-being, the revised document was not publicly available at the time of drafting. The OECD review team was therefore unable to examine or assess its appropriateness.

DSIB inspectors draw on schools’ DSWC and Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing survey results during the yearly school inspection visit. Rather than focusing on schools’ average results, the discussion is structured around what schools have learnt from the data, how they have used it in their school plan, and how they have evaluated what they have done. This approach is meant to help schools reflect on their performance and to integrate well-being actions within school regular planning and self-evaluation practices.

Schools seem to approve of DSIB’s use of the DSWC evidence. In interviews, school actors reported that using their survey results to evaluate them would be unfair, because they believe that many factors associated with well-being are beyond their control. However, many complained that inspectors tend to give limited attention to plans and programmes developed to support students and staff’s well-being. This may be due to the limited emphasis placed on well-being in the current inspection framework.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of DSIB has shifted from an external evaluation role to one of support and guidance. In 2020, during school closures, KHDA and DSIB set up a distance learning evaluation tool to monitor and assess schools’ performance and to provide guidance to schools on how to carry out their activities virtually. Unlike the usual school inspection process, the distance learning evaluation tool emphasises students’ well-being as a central objective for schools, placing it at the same level as students learning outcomes. The new evaluation tool paves the way for a new UAE School Inspection Framework that places student well-being at the centre of schooling and as a key mission for all schools.

KHDA gives visibility to schools with strong well-being practices to encourage action and elevate well-being in the education policy debate. Schools with promising or consolidated programmes have been invited to share their experiences with other schools through the What Works events and What Works X webinars. For example, one school rated as “outstanding”, which pioneered a positive education approach, was invited to discuss their journey in a widely viewed What Works X webinar. In 2016, three schools were awarded the Happy and Healthy School Award for their well-being initiatives. This came with a prize and media coverage4. At the national level, the Well Schools Network awards the Well Schools Mark for distinguished schools to highlight their outstanding efforts in promoting positive education and well-being (UAE Ministry of Education, n.d.[19]). In a highly competitive market such as Dubai’s private school sector, public recognition and publicity can serve as strong incentives for schools. However, without clear indicators of quality and selection criteria, there is a risk that KHDA is not always able to select and showcase relevant or effective examples.

Although the current UAE School Inspection Framework includes some key indicators on student well-being (e.g. socio-emotional development, physical health and relationships), these are mostly seen as factors that support learning. As is the case in inspection frameworks in OECD countries, students learning progression and academic results are considered schools’ main objectives; and student well-being is, at best, a secondary goal. Moreover, while the Inspection Framework covers most of the domains in the DSWC, the indicators differ substantially across both, which may lead to confusion (see Table 3.2). For example, indicator 2.1.2 of the Inspection Framework focuses on the behaviour of students and their capacity to be self-disciplined, to respond to others and to resolve difficulties, while the DSWC mentions other socio-emotional skills, such as emotion-regulation and life satisfaction. It is unclear whether revisions to the Framework will address these misalignments.

Despite growing evidence of the importance of teacher well-being for students’ development and learning, few School Inspection systems pay adequate attention to the matter. This is also true of Dubai. Teacher well-being is not referred to explicitly in the current UAE’s School Inspection Framework. As work to revise the UAE School Inspection Framework is ongoing, there is an opportunity for UAE stakeholders to introduce and emphasise this issue in the next version of the Framework. As will be argued in Chapter 4, teacher well-being deserves greater consideration from Dubai’s school community. Giving schools a clear mandate for ensuring the welfare of its staff – in combination with a sector-wide teacher well-being strategy (proposed in Chapter 4) – could help ensure a comprehensive and coherent approach to well-being. In recent years, some education systems in the OECD have been taking steps in a similar direction to the one proposed here. For example, since 2019, England’s (United Kingdom) Ofsted Education Inspection Framework has required inspectors to examine staff well-being as a measure of leadership and management’s effectiveness (Box 3.3).

In interviews with the OECD review team, many teachers and school principals explained that the inspection is a source of anxiety and stress for the school body. According to stakeholders, there are two main reasons for this. First, because schools need to repeatedly show high performance in the inspection process and, in some cases, obtain quick improvements. The latter can be particularly challenging, given that improvements take time to concretise. Second, because the preparation involved (e.g. collecting the documents and evidence to be reviewed and discussed during the inspection visits) can add to teachers and school leaders’ already heavy workload. Given that school inspection takes place every year, school staff devote a considerable amount of time to this (see Chapter 4).

Moreover, the focus on preparing for inspection and on supporting students’ learning in core academic subjects can limit the time schools devote to less valued domains, such as well-being. A narrow focus on students’ demonstrable achievement (i.e. scores in standardised tests) can also lead schools to overlook the abilities and attitudes that enable students to develop as life-long, self-directed learners.

DSIB school inspectors are highly-qualified officers, with years of training and experience in evaluating teaching and learning practices as well as school planning and policies. However, at present, few have the skills, knowledge and tools required to assess or guide schools’ well-being policies and practices. Stakeholders also reported that few inspectors are familiar with the positive education approach and well-being initiatives that are currently being rolled out in many of Dubai’s private schools. As the inspection framework is revised to align with the well-being in school policy framework, DSIB should pay close attention to training its staff and ensuring their understanding of the well-being indicators as well as the policies and practices that can support staff and student well-being. For example, the Welsh School Inspectorate, Estyn, provides inspectors with guidance handbooks and regular conferences in various areas of well-being and effective school practices (see Box 3.4).

As is the case elsewhere, parents in Dubai give a lot of importance to their children’s academic achievement and progression, recognising this as a means to secure a bright future. However, school leaders and teachers reported that managing expectations and demands of overly involved, intrusive parents can be strenuous. Moreover, stakeholders reported that school owners and governors often prioritise schools’ academic outcomes as a way to attract enrolment and, in doing so, raise revenue and profit. For example, reports suggest that school owners frequently ask school leadership to raise instruction time of core subjects and reduce breaks or extra-curricular activities (e.g. theatre, music). In contrast, considerably less emphasis is placed on issues and programmes that are seen as non-essential, but that are critical to supporting students’ and staff’s well-being. Fortunately, many of these trends have reportedly lessened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as awareness of the importance of well-being has grown.

Parents have a lot of power over private schools in Dubai. Their views can influence school activities and planning significantly. Ensuring parents and others in the local community are aware of the importance of well-being for children’s holistic development and future will be critical for well-being in school to become a reality.

KHDA can play a direct and indirect role in educating parents and local actors on the importance of well-being in school:

  • Establishing an awareness-raising campaign to inform parents and local communities about well-being. This communication strategy can include videos explaining why well-being matters and the role of schools in this task (defined in the policy framework for well-being in schools, as discussed under Policy Objective 3.1). Organising in-person meetings and/or webinars can give stakeholders the opportunity to ask questions. The communication strategy should show the importance of well-being in improving learning outcomes and future life opportunities for students. This would help alleviate some parents’ concern about well-being activities taking time away from learning core subjects.

  • Encouraging and guiding schools to better engage with parents on well-being. Such support can take various forms. For example, KHDA can leverage What Works X to disseminate successful case studies and practices. Through its brokerage platform, KHDA can also make resources available to schools (e.g. brochures and testimonial videos).

As discussed in Chapter 1, the UAE School Inspection Framework and the DSIB’s school visits have encouraged greater transparency and strengthened school quality in Dubai’s private sector in recent years. Aligning Dubai’s accountability and incentive structure with KHDA’s vision for the sector will be a key step to foster a culture of well-being across the sector. This will be particularly important in the Dubai private school context, where school inspections can have high stakes for schools.

When reviewing the accountability and incentive structure in Dubai’s private sector, consideration should be given to:

  • Undertaking a thematic review of well-being: Based on the experience from the 2020 DSIB virtual school inspection reviews and the well-being in schools framework (see Policy Objective 3.2), DSIB should consider undertaking a thematic review of school well-being practices and policies. The information collected could be brought together in a sector-wide report, and also help inform the other steps proposed below.

    A recent Estyn’s report [Wales (United Kingdom)] offers an interesting example of the type of focus the inspection process could have and how the information collected can be disseminated (Estyn, 2019[23]). A thematic inspection on well-being would provide Dubai’s leadership with high-quality qualitative evidence on the issue, allowing to complement the quantitative evidence KHDA already collects.

  • Advocating for a strong emphasis on well-being in the new UAE School Inspection Framework: KHDA and DSIB can play a central role in raising the issue of student and staff well-being with the Ministry of Education, the body responsible for developing and issuing the new UAE School Inspection Framework. KHDA and DSIB can advocate for greater emphasis to be placed on well-being as a key dimension of school quality. While the new school inspection framework is still in review and the current UAE School Inspection Framework is still in use, an additional module could be added to the DSIB inspection supplement, enabling inspectors to look at some key indicators of student and staff well-being. This module could be refined and included in the UAE School Inspection Framework at a later stage.

  • Reviewing school inspection frequency: given stakeholder reports that school inspection is a source of considerable pressure and is very time consuming for staff, DSIB should consider lessening the frequency of school inspection visits. After over a decade of inspections, most schools in Dubai have developed a culture of self-improvement and achieve adequate outcomes. The school sector is sufficiently mature to enable a shift towards a greater reliance on school self-evaluation. In the short term, DSIB can space out inspection visits (e.g. every three years rather than annually) for schools that reached “good”, “very good” or “outstanding” marks in the previous inspection round. Gradually, this can be rolled out to all schools reaching at least the “acceptable” mark.

  • Continuing to reward and give visibility to schools with effective well-being practices: KHDA should maintain its programmes that give visibility and reward schools with effective well-being practices. Once the new UAE School Inspection Framework is in place, indicators for well-being can be used to identify successful cases more accurately.

  • Training and providing guidance to school inspectors on how to engage with schools on their well-being practices: DSIB should invest in training inspectors on well-being practices to ensure that they are able to engage with schools meaningfully and assess the quality of their programmes. Box 3.4 provides some examples of the types of resources that DSIB might develop for its own staff.

In an effort to improve the quality of education provision in Dubai’s private education sector, KHDA has put in place a set of initiatives to encourage schools to work together and to learn from each other. These include the Living Arabic, What Works and What Works X events, and the Abundance and Lighthouse projects, among others (Thacker, Abdo and Nichifor, 2019[24]) (see Chapter 2). In recent years, well-being has become a growing focus of these programmes. Moreover, KHDA’s surveys offer relevant information on the state of students’ and staff’s feelings and habits to help schools design and implement targeted and effective responses. Despite the popularity of these initiatives, some schools still struggle to design and implement meaningful well-being policies that go beyond awareness-raising. These scho3ols require further guidance and support to create a more positive environment that benefit students and teachers. This means helping schools identify key issues that need addressing and supporting them to design policies and practices that are integrated into regular school activities. Notably, some low-fee schools may also require additional resources to meet their students and staff’s needs.

There is an expectation – including, as part of the school inspection process (discussed in Policy Objective 3.2) – that schools make use of the evidence from the DSWC and Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Surveys to make changes. The school inspection process is taken seriously by schools and is one of the most influential instruments shaping school practices in Dubai. Having a clear, consistent signal that a positive environment is core quality dimension is an essential anchor for any improvement effort.

To help schools in this mission, KHDA provides schools with a detailed breakdown of their DSWC survey results. In school-level reports and an online dashboard, responses are disaggregated across different measures (e.g. social and emotional well-being, relationships and learning in school and at home) and respondents’ key characteristics (e.g. gender, nationality). Based on respondents’ responses, overall results are broken down by performance levels – e.g. high, medium, low in the case of the DSWC (see Figure 3.6) – which enables stakeholders to perceive how serious an issue may be, or identify a specific group that is really struggling. This can help schools select the most important or urgent issues that need action, select the most adequate measures and determine the groups that require targeting.

Schools are also able to see how their DSWC results compare to the Dubai average or to relevant benchmarks (e.g. schools following the same curricula). Being able to see how they perform in comparison to peers can encourage change. Information on high-performing schools can also be used to design peer-learning activities. Moreover, data from different cycles allow stakeholders to monitor and track trends and even – with the adequate tools and procedures – analyse the impact of measures.

KHDA also conducts regular workshops for schools’ well-being champions about the DSWC survey, including on how to administer the census, read their results and use the data to action change. KHDA also invites local and foreign experts as well as schools to speak to peers about their experience using the information from the survey. As extra support for schools, in the 2020-21 academic year, KHDA organised follow up clinics, offering well-being champions an additional opportunity to run-through the different ways in which to access and unpack the DSWC results, and to ask specific questions.

Through the Living Arabic, What Works and What Works X events, the Abundance and Lighthouse projects and other initiatives, KHDA provides private schools with numerous opportunities for collaboration. Findings from the World Bank’s “Collaboration Road: Dubai’s Journey towards Improved School Quality” review and the OECD fact-finding mission suggest that these initiatives are quite popular among school stakeholders, and have become a reference in the UAE and the Gulf region (Thacker, Abdo and Nichifor, 2019[24]). School principals interviewed by the OECD review team reported appreciating the opportunity to connect with other school leaders and learning from their experiences. The fact that these programmes have developed a culture of peer-learning across schools is particularly remarkable given the highly competitive nature of Dubai’s private sector (see Chapter 1).

As well-being has become a priority for KHDA and the sector, its coverage in peer-learning activities has also expanded. At present, well-being is a regular topic in the What Works conferences and the What Works X virtual events (see Box 3.6). In these seminars, schools share promising well-being practices, and experts are frequently invited to discuss specific topics (e.g. positive education, mental health disorders, and bullying) and potential interventions. Since 2019, the Lighthouse project, a peer-learning programme for principals has also focused on well-being (see Policy Objective 3.4).

KHDA provides access to tools, resources and guides to help schools design activities and plans that can support students’ and staff’s well-being. KHDA recently launched the New Days New Ways portal – formerly known as “Inthistogether” – which features websites, activities and other tools that organisations from the UAE and elsewhere provide free of charge. This includes, for example, the resources developed and offered by the International Positive Education Network (IPEN), the Lighthouse Center for Well-being and the Crown Prince Court. The platform also serves as repository for the What Works X webinars and tools shared during these events. The resources on display on the portal come with a brief description and categorised by stakeholder audience, although more detailed guidance could prove beneficial for users (e.g. recommended target group, requirements, context for use), in particular for school staff that have limited training and experience on the topic. Additionally, expanding the offer of resources in other languages, and in particular in Arabic would be an important step.

In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the move to distance learning led to a significant shift in the DSIB’s approach towards school inspection (discussed in Policy Objective 3.2) and, consequently, to inspectors’ practices and engagement with schools. Instead of carrying out the regular inspection process, DSIB’s inspectors took on advisory and support roles. During school closures, DSIB inspectors made weekly check-in calls to schools to monitor and discuss the main issues stakeholders were facing with regards to distance learning and student and staff well-being. Inspectors also helped connect struggling schools with other institutions and provided guidance and support.

This shift has been observed in other high-stakes inspection models, such as Scotland and Wales (United Kingdom). While it is still too early to tell whether these changes will be permanent, some researchers and policymakers argue that there is a value to rethinking the role and purpose of external school evaluation in the medium- and long-term (Chapman et al., 2020[28]; Ehren, Chapman and Montecinos, 2020[29]).

KHDA’s Abundance programme offers Dubai’s schools rated by DSIB inspections as “outstanding” or “very good” the opportunity to share their knowledge and best practices with others (KHDA, 2020[27]). In addition to encouraging peer learning, this initiative aims to foster a sense of community across the sector, breaking down silos and reducing schools’ isolation. For schools that are invited to participate, it can also be a very rewarding experience that both signals their role and status in the community and offers them an opportunity to assist others.

However, it is important to acknowledge that practices that work in the top-performing schools, which tend to have high-fee tuitions, can’t always be replicated in other schools. Inadequate resources and capacity constraints can often prevent low-fees schools from accessing key services or tools, or from rolling out certain measures and programmes successfully. To ensure that all schools are able to implement effective well-being practices, it is therefore crucial that peer-learning opportunities be complemented by targeted coaching and other forms of support.

School actors often struggle to use the data to effect change and inform their activities. The DSWC and Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Surveys school reports and dashboard provide high-level descriptive analytics, which, while helpful, provide schools with limited guidance – and no personalised advice – on what issues are more urgent or important and need to be prioritised. In interviews with the OECD review team, stakeholders also mentioned other concerns, including that the surveys did not ask the right questions, the results did not come in a timely fashion, the reports and the DSWC dashboard were not user-friendly, and the training provided by KHDA is relatively basic and repetitive.

KHDA has worked on and is continuing to work on addressing many of these issues, in particular those regarding data visualisation. In the meantime, many schools have implemented additional surveys, including the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey and self-developed surveys, to get hold of what they consider to be more disaggregated, informative, timely and actionable evidence. This points to a need for KHDA to consult with stakeholders and examine their own surveys in relation to those conducted by schools, as a means both to make them more meaningful but also to improve efficiencies within the sector.

Evidence also suggests that school leaders and staff need further support and guidance not only to read and interpret the data they receive or collect, but also to know how it can (or cannot) be used to effect change. This is particularly true for disadvantaged schools that tend to have more limited internal capacity.

As is the case elsewhere, many schools in Dubai struggle to integrate well-being meaningfully in their regular planning and activities. Very few schools interviewed by the OECD review team had a comprehensive whole-school approach to well-being. While research indicates that this approach can be particularly successful in supporting students’ cognitive and non-cognitive development and overall well-being, as well as staff’s quality of life, it can be very challenging to do so. A whole-school approach to well-being often requires a high level of resources and capacity. This may explain why schools that have successfully implemented a whole-school approach in Dubai’s private sector tend to be high-fee, to be doing well in other areas of school quality and recognised as “outstanding” or “very good” by the DSIB school inspection.

Instead, many schools interviewed by the OECD review team set-up discrete activities targeting one or two issues related to well-being, often outside of school regular hours. Stakeholder interviews also revealed that many well-being activities schools have introduced are not backed by evidence or reflect issues the school community faces. This is concerning for the schools and the sector overall, because this type of approach is unlikely to be successful at promoting well-being and could lead to a waste of resources.

Existing school collaboration and peer-learning initiatives are meant to provide motivation and inspiration to school leaders and educators to action change. However, with no processes or guidelines in place to ensure alignment or continuity between the learning that occurs between schools and in-school professional development and learning, it could prove difficult to promote effective cross-fertilisation of ideas. For example, there is no expectation that principals who participate in the Lighthouse project share the learning with their staff, or implement what they have learnt in their schools, nor are there any tools to support them in this endeavour or mechanisms to monitor whether they have followed up on their learning. By not explicitly linking peer-learning and professional development that take place outside and inside schools, there is a risk that schools with little in-school capacity or a weak culture of improvement will not action change. This is particularly concerning as these schools are most likely to be serving disadvantaged student populations.

Despite their best efforts, financial, technical and human resource constraints may prevent some schools from successfully meeting their students’ and staff’s well-being needs, in particular if they face complex issues or have particular needs that require specialised support. For example, low-tuition fees schools are often unable to provide staff the time and/or training to, for example, develop and implement a whole-school approach to well-being. Their resources to hire qualified staff that play a key role in designing and carrying out well-being activities or providing specialised care (e.g. psychologists) also tend to be limited.

The shortage of free or subsidised health or educational services in Dubai aggravates this issue. At present, there are few centres or professionals offering children and adults key services, such as coaching, therapy or guidance. Not only is the current offer unable to meet the sector’s demand, but there are very few free or affordable alternatives. This issue affects students from low socio-economic backgrounds the hardest. As discussed in Chapter 1, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have further magnified this issue. Not only is revenue likely to fall for many schools, as families are unable to pay their tuition fees or leave the Emirate altogether, but the crisis may also trigger or worsen symptoms of mental disorders in children, adolescents and adults, who will require additional and potentially more specialised care

Schools in Dubai’s private sector will require further guidance as well as granular information to successfully design and implement well-being policies and practices that are able to foster students’ comprehensive development and enhance schools’ environment. This is particularly important given the magnitude of the cultural shift that is taking place in Dubai. It can be very challenging for institutions to move from a predominantly academically driven model to a more balanced approach that values and promotes students’ and staff’s well-being in combination with academic excellence. KHDA can provide the direction and support these schools require by building on the successful programmes and tools developed over the years.

KHDA may consider the following actions to strengthen in-school capacity and understanding:

  • Adapting the DSWC and other data collection tools to ensure KHDA and schools have access to the data they need to make improvements. See Chapters 4 and 5 for the full recommendations.

    • Giving schools access to their well-being data: KHDA could give schools access to their raw data. The school data dashboard that KHDA has developed could be leveraged for this purpose. Giving schools access to their raw well-being data and encouraging them to explore the results can not only lead to the development of more effective practices, but can also help build in-school capacity. Inquiry-based learning, in particular when done within the schools and as part of regular school activities is among the most effective professional development tools there is (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017[10]). If this recommendation is taken forward, it is important that students and staff results be anonymised, otherwise there is a risk that stakeholders will lose trust in the instruments.

  • Providing processed data and personalised analysis of schools’ strengths and challenges in DSWC and Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Survey school reports and the school data dashboard: Schools would benefit from more personalised analysis of their results (e.g. key strengths and challenges) and processed information (e.g. indicators and indexes). This can be made available in the reports and the school data dashboard. This is particularly important for schools with limited capacity, who may be otherwise unable to read and understand their raw data.

  • Revising the content and/or target of the workshops provided by KHDA on the DSWC. KHDA might consider targeting the weaker schools, helping them build analytical capacity and the evidence-based approach. Activities might start with small interventions around a particular issue, such as student bullying or teacher stress (see Chapters 4 and 5). For example, participating schools might receive support in scanning the DSWC dashboard to identify and understand one or two priority concerns/opportunities. Afterwards, they would be helped to identify relevant and effective interventions that could help address these issues.

    Adjustments to the content of the DSWC workshops could also be made based on KHDA’s experience with the DSWC clinics – or future ones, should they be maintained. The issues and questions that emerge as part of the clinic’s Q&A sessions offer valuable information of the type of additional guidance and support schools may required. KHDA might also consider exploring the Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Survey as part of these workshops.

  • Developing guidelines for a whole-school approach to well-being: Many schools in Dubai require explicit guidance on how to integrate the dimensions of well-being in their regular planning and activities in a meaningful manner and create the structures and working practices within the school that enable collaboration and development. As part of the policy framework recommended in Policy Objective 3.1, KHDA should consider developing accompanying guidelines on how to implement a whole-school approach on well-being (see introduction for some key features of a whole-school approach to well-being). These guidelines should offer a degree of flexibility for schools to adapt a whole-school approach to their needs.

KHDA might draw on the Welsh Framework on embedding a whole-school approach to emotional and mental well-being, which offers detailed guidance to schools and other stakeholders on how to develop a whole-school approach, outlining the different steps and considerations. The document also provides an overview of the research and the rationale for the whole-school approach to well-being (Welsh Government, 2021[30]). Other interesting models include the Irish Well-being Framework (see Box 3.2) and the New Zealand [email protected] toolkit, which provides schools with tools to reflect on well-being in their schools and act on this self-evaluation.

  • Explicitly linking peer-learning activities outside of schools with in-school professional development: KHDA should create the expectation that school leaders who join peer-learning activities and events later share their learning with others in their schools by regularly highlighting the importance of knowledge transmission. Another mechanism that may be considered is inviting more mid-level school management to join the programmes, which would allow them to support school leaders in this task.

  • Developing a clearinghouse or knowledge brokerage platform where schools can access relevant and objective research evidence, and useful resources and tools to support their well-being practices and initiatives. See Chapter 5 for full recommendation.

Some schools in Dubai struggle to implement meaningful and effective well-being policies and practices. While this is in part a result of school staff’s and leadership’s limited understanding and training, it is also often correlated with schools’ funding levels. By playing a more active role and offering targeted support to low-fee schools that lack the necessary resources, KHDA can ensure all private schools fulfil their duty of protecting and nurturing children in Dubai and providing adequate working conditions for the staff, regardless of the schools’ socio-economic profile.

KHDA should consider establishing a team responsible for supporting schools improve the quality of learning and strengthen students’ and staff’s well-being. Members of this unit should have the necessary training and resources, and work in close collaboration with other Dubai agencies, such as the Dubai Health Authority (DHA). In the area of well-being, the KHDA school improvement unit can be responsible for:

  • Drawing on the inspection results and well-being surveys to identify schools in need of support: Drawing on the student and staff well-being surveys and the school inspection results, the DSIB and KHDA should determine which schools have persistent or severe well-being issues in the key well-being priority areas identified by KHDA (see Chapter 5). These schools should then be referred to the newly established KHDA school improvement unit, which would offer targeted support and guidance to help the schools address their specific issues. Some of the types of support that the schools may benefit from are listed below.

  • Facilitating access to coaching and in-school professional development: KHDA can play an active role in identifying and disseminating appropriate coaching and professional development services to help low-fee schools that are struggling to address their students and staff’s well-being needs. DSIB inspectors should raise awareness for these services in their discussions with schools.

  • Working with other Dubai government agencies to ensure access to free and affordable health and counselling services: Limited in-school resourcing can often prevent students and teachers from accessing key health and social services. KHDA should therefore seek the assistance of other agencies in Dubai such as the Dubai Executive Council and the DHA to explore providing free and/or subsidised health and counselling alternatives to these communities. For example, KHDA may take inspiration from Finland’s experience where school health staff (nurses) and psychologists are available at the municipal level to support schools. This staff make regular school visits to conduct health screenings. Schools can also refer students to these individuals in need of counselling or diagnostic (OECD, 2013[31]). KHDA can also partner with private centres and experts to ensure access to affordable services to the wider community.

  • Pairing schools with whole-school approaches to well-being to schools that are struggling: Similar to the Abundance programme which encourages collaboration and sharing of best practices by schools rated “very good” and “outstanding”, KHDA should consider pairing schools that face important well-being issues with those that have developed successful whole-school approaches to well-being. Peer-learning activity might take place through observation visits and collaboration on projects. In the short term, KHDA and DSIB can use the survey results to identify good and struggling schools. In the medium term, once the UAE School Inspection Framework is revised, inspection results can be used to identify schools.

At present, there are a number of opportunities for school leaders and school staff in Dubai’s private schools to participate in peer-learning and professional development. Activities focus on issues related to well-being, as well as other topics. However, participation remains relatively limited and does not always guarantee that stakeholders will develop the necessary skills and knowledge or that they will implement effective well-being policies and practices in their schools.

As previously discussed, a whole-school approach to well-being requires significant in-school capacity, in particular from the school leadership team and from highly-qualified specialised workers (e.g. psychologists). Many of Dubai’s private schools, in particular those that charge low tuition fees, are unable to invest in the necessary human resources or in the training, tools and services their staff requires. With limited resources and in-house capacity, these schools are often unable to provide staff and students with the support they need, much less to develop a whole-school approach to well-being. This section suggests ways in which KHDA can strengthen schools’ leadership and staff’s capacity and, in doing so, help disseminate a whole-school approach to well-being.

KHDA has set up promising programmes to support principals’ professional learning and foster their own well-being. The most notable of these initiatives is the Lighthouse project, which brings together school leaders to research a specific topic in groups. Each group is assigned a contact person in KHDA who is responsible for facilitating the activities. The Lighthouse project started in 2016 and focused on a particular theme each year. In 2017 and 2018, it focused on issues related to character strengths and well-being. An inquiry-based approach, such as the one used in the Lighthouse project, has proven to be an effective method for professional development for teachers and school principals (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017[10]), because it helps break school principals’ isolation and promotes collaboration and peer-learning. Moreover, KHDA organises the Hatta Wellbeing Campus, yearly retreats for school principals to help them connect with each other and with the KHDA staff and learn more about well-being. Principals are reported to appreciate the initiative and see it as a recognition of their value. As part of the Hatta Wellbeing Campus, principals also take part in informal coaching.

Several private schools have appointed a staff member to oversee well-being matters, including the implementation of the DSWC. Well-being champions, as they are known, tend to be staff who have been selected or who have volunteered. Many are school counsellors or psychologists, that is, staff members with experience and expertise in issues related to students’ socio-emotional development. In addition to their regular job, as well-being champions they are responsible for helping schools integrate well-being considerations in their regular activities meaningfully and successfully.

The role of champions has considerable potential for strengthening the well-being agenda across the sector; within an individual school, champions can raise awareness of the topic, foster a school culture around well-being, and at the sector level, ensure coherence and coordination between schools.

Private schools in Dubai are overseen by a governing board, made up of independent individuals with a specific set of skills or areas of expertise. These individuals usually comprise owners and investors, school leaders, parents, students and other members of the community. Given the private sector’s complex governance and funding structure, school boards play an important role in setting the school’s strategic direction and ensuring accountability (KHDA, n.d.[32]). Until recently, members of the board have focused predominantly on strengthening schools’ educational performance and financial conditions, which is believed to have contributed the sector’s recent improvement trajectory (see Chapter 1). Partnering with school boards could prove to be equally important for the sector’s well-being journey.

Across the sector, many school governors are already endorsing the well-being agenda. However, some are reported to be predominantly concerned with maximizing financial profits and tend to be less open to investing in practices and policies that they perceive to be unnecessary and expensive. Ensuring that all governing boards are on the same page and fully committed to strengthening well-being in schools will be key. While KHDA has a role to play in this regard, in terms of raising awareness and creating the necessary incentives (see below), this cultural shift will also require significant changes from school governing boards themselves.

At present, the Lighthouse project focuses on relevant topics for school leaders’ professional learning. The thematic focus changes on a yearly basis and is informed by international evidence on the factors that matter for school effectiveness. While school leaders seem to appreciate the programme and benefit from their participation in it, the current design has a few limitations that hinder its effectiveness. First, the thematic focus is not chosen based on observed or self-reported information on school principals’ and leadership teams’ current capacity and needs. This creates a number of risks, including that the training offer is not as relevant as it might be, or that schools’ gaps remain unaddressed.

Second, the Lighthouse project focuses mostly on content knowledge (e.g. the different dimensions of positive education). Building an in-depth understanding of the key components of well-being and its underlying factors is important, but school leadership also need to develop more practical skills. For example, in what concerns this report, it is clear that principals need know-how on the best strategies to implement a whole-school approach to well-being.

Counsellors, psychologists, nurses, and other pastoral care staff play a key role in supporting students’ and staff’s well-being. For this reason, it is important to ensure that these positions are regulated and that staff receive adequate training, support and oversight.t. At present, the Dubai Community Development Authority is responsible for the licensing and re-licensing of staff counsellors and psychologists. School compliance visits also monitor schools’ adherence to existing requirements and the impact of their work on students.

Nevertheless, the quality and length of pastoral staff’s training can still vary considerably across schools and curriculum types. For example, while some school counsellors are trained in child or developmental psychology or psychotherapy, many have more general profiles. Some schools have high student-to- pastoral staff ratios, while others may not even have an in-school psychologist. This heterogeneity is a shortcoming of Dubai’s private school sector to the extent that some schools may be unable to support their student and staff needs.

Moreover, many of the individuals in these types of jobs report being overwhelmed by their workload. For example, the majority of well-being champions maintain their other functions and, as a result, many expressed difficulties in juggling their multiple responsibilities. Counsellors said that they often struggled to meet existing demands.

Principals play a central role in leading change and coordinating action across the school. The success of a whole-school approach to well-being depends to a great extent on school leaders’ capacity to identify their school’s main strengths and challenges, soft skills necessary to encourage collaboration among school actors, and ability to action change. This requires significant content knowledge, know-how, as well as soft skills and attitudes.

Targeted training and opportunities for peer-learning can provide school leaders with the necessary knowledge and skills. However, at the moment, not all school principals in Dubai’s private school have access to such training. Peer-learning opportunities provided by KHDA, while valuable, tend to focus predominantly on broad content knowledge and on school principals’ own well-being rather than on the practical skills they require to implement a whole-school approach to well-being effectively. Complementing the existing programmes with training, resources and peer-learning focused on practice can support the dissemination of a whole-school approach to well-being in the sector. KHDA can help facilitate this.

KHDA can consider the following actions to help principals develop their competencies in leading well-being activities in schools:

  • Updating KHDA’s school governors’ guide to ensure that Governors Boards endorse the sector’s well-being agenda, encourage and monitor well-being policies and practices in schools. Revisions could be made to the existing guide to include a definition of well-being in schools (based on Policy Objective 3.1), as well as the role of school governing board members in this regard.

  • Surveying school principals’ training needs on well-being and use results to refine the Lighthouse project and other initiatives: At present, KHDA has limited information on school principals’ and leadership teams’ main challenges and needs. Data collection could be carried out as a complementary module of the DSWC and/or as part of the school inspection visit. The former would allow a more systematic compilation of information and may also put school management more at ease than a survey led by inspectors. The information should be used to define the focus of the Lighthouse project and other initiatives.

  • Appointing thematic experts to help guide and facilitate peer-learning as part of the Lighthouse project: To strengthen the relevance of the Lighthouse project, KHDA may appoint well-being experts to help coach Lighthouse participants. Such guidance would help improve the quality of peer-learning and also incentivise groups to go deeper in their research and learning.

  • Setting the expectation that school principals share learnings with the school staff: KHDA should set clear expectations that the Lighthouse project and Hatta Wellbeing Campus participants should share their learnings with the school body. For example, as part of the Lighthouse project, school principals could be asked to implement or trial findings from their group work in their school context and involve other school staff in the process.

Schools require qualified specialists, such as school counsellors and nurses, to identify, monitor and address issues faced by students and staff and broader school-level concerns. At the moment, the qualification and roles of non-teaching staff often vary significantly between schools. KHDA should work with schools to professionalise the role of school counsellors, psychologists and other key well-being actors.

  • Setting guidelines defining the roles and responsibilities of school counsellors and other key non-teaching staff: KHDA should define the key competencies expected of school counsellors and other key non-teaching staff to guide schools in the hiring, appointment and appraisal process. These guidelines should also clarify expectations for the roles and responsibilities of these staff in overseeing well-being activities at schools. In the medium- and long-term, these guidelines can also be used as reference in the school licensing process. Existing guidelines should be revised and updated, as needed.

  • Reviewing experience and qualification requirements of school counsellors, psychologists and other key well-being actors: KHDA should work with other government agencies, such as the DHA and the Dubai Community Development Authority, to review existing requirements for specialist well-being-related non-teaching staff (e.g. student-to-staff ratios, qualification and years of experience) to ensure they meet Dubai’s private school needs. For example, KHDA may consider introducing student-to-staff ratios. Reviews such as these should be undertaken regularly.

  • Promoting peer-learning networks for school counsellors and other well-being actors: KHDA should use its convening power to facilitate peer-learning between school counsellors, school psychologists and other key actors to share their experiences and learn from each other. The peer-learning network could be structured around key events and well-being topics and facilitated by professionals with relevant experience and expertise. KHDA can leverage existing networks, or create new ones. In the future, the same model can also be used to focus on other issues, if desired.

At present, most schools have appointed an individual staff member to oversee well-being policies and practices – the well-being champions. They have been key to move the well-being agenda forward. However, the next steps in Dubai’s well-being journey will require even greater efforts from schools, and well-being champions will not be able to take the next steps alone.

Implementing a whole-school approach to well-being, in particular, can be a major undertaking and requires all staff to be on board. A well-being committee with elected representatives from the entire school community, including teachers, non-teaching staff, students and parents, can help promote greater coordination, and ensure that all aspects of school life as well all school actors are being taken into account in the schools’ well-being policies and practices. As will be discussed in Chapter 4, this will be an important step in promoting teacher well-being. In addition, a well-being committee with representatives from key school stakeholders can help empower school actors at an individual and collective level, in particular, teachers and students who have been less active in Dubai’s journey so far (see Chapters 4 and 5).

  • Organising internal deliberations on the purpose and basic structure of the school well-being committees. While schools should be given some degree of flexibility, it is important that KHDA – in consultation with key stakeholders (e.g. current well-being champions) – reflect on the purpose of the well-being committee, its role, potential organisation structures, whether the committee reports to or is part of the school’s governing board and if so, how this would take place, and types of selection methods (e.g. biannual election), and whether it should be mandated or optional.

  • Consideration should also be given to the communication strategy used to disseminate this idea across the sector. KHDA could, for example, leverage existing programmes (e.g. a series of What Works events).


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← 1. PISA 2018 questionnaires cover several dimensions of school climate. Reports have grouped these aspects into three broad spheres: (i) the student disruptive behaviour, (ii) teaching and learning, and (iii) school community, and (iv) the institutional environment. Note that the “safety” sphere is renamed as student disruptive behaviour in PISA reports as only maladaptive behaviours are examined in the questionnaire.

← 2. The DSIB publishes a supplement to the UAE School Inspection Framework, which covers a range of additional dimensions including assessments, literacy outcomes, moral education and inclusion policies.

← 3. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DSIB school inspection process was curtailed in 2019/20 and no schools were inspected in 2020/21. For this reason, the review has drawn on the latest available data from the DSIB school inspection.

← 4. This award has been discontinued.

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