Executive Summary

In the mid-2010s, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the government agency that oversees the Emirate of Dubai’s private schools, embarked on a “well-being journey” to increase levels of happiness and well-being across the sector. To achieve this, KHDA leveraged existing and new initiatives, drew on emerging practices worldwide, and partnered with a number of institutions and experts. The results have been remarkable. Most stakeholders have high well-being literacy levels and have appropriated the concept of well-being, not only in the form of daily habits but also as a long-term commitment for themselves and the sector as a whole. However, despite these many successes, KHDA’s approach no longer seems to be serving the Emirate’s private school sector as effectively as it might. In many cases, in spite of their best efforts and intentions, stakeholders lack the necessary information, skills or resources to implement meaningful and impactful well-being interventions. This is particularly common in the most disadvantaged schools. Moreover, limited research evidence and monitoring mechanisms prevent KHDA and others in the system from knowing whether measures that are in place or are being promoted are actually supporting stakeholders’ well-being and what the priority issues/groups are. These gaps are particularly concerning as the sector grapples with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals’ welfare and the Emirate’s economy.

Against this backdrop, the OECD has been asked to analyse the well-being policies and practices that KHDA and schools have implemented in Dubai’s private school sector. This report provides an overview of the Emirate’s journey and offers considerations on how to strengthen current policies and practices. Overall, this review argues that there is need to translate the Emirate’s strong commitment to the well-being agenda into effective change that supports improvements in the long run. In order to do so, this review encourages KHDA to take a new approach to well-being policies and practices, by making fuller use of the policy levers at its disposal to provide schools, teachers and students with:

  • Further opportunities and the conditions to collaborate, learn, and engage in the development of solutions.

  • Stronger incentives and strategic guidance on what they should be working towards.

  • Additional support to build a conducive context that supports well-being and enables Dubai’s private school sector to achieve its goals.

  • Relevant and rigorous information that supports the development of data-led and evidence-informed policymaking across the sector.

School practices and initiatives can help – or indeed hinder – efforts to build an environment and the social connections that nurture and enhance the well-being of students and staff. A positive school atmosphere can, in turn, strengthen teaching and learning. Recognising the crucial role of schools, KHDA has placed well-being at the centre of discussions on school quality. In recent years, the organisation has helped raise school actors’ awareness of the topic and provided schools with tools to better understand how their students and staff feel. In addition, KHDA has leveraged existing platforms for schools to convene and learn from experts and from each other. As a result, most schools in Dubai’s private sector are now familiar with the different dimensions of well-being, and many have introduced activities meant to foster 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 successfully introduced initiatives differs significantly across the sector. While it is unclear how fact-finding mission suggests that it is not widely disseminated. This is a missed opportunity for the sector given its effectiveness at supporting children’s development and building positive learning environments. Chapter 3 offers advice on how KHDA can provide the guidance, resources and tools schools need to develop effective policies and practices that support students and staff.

Recognising that teachers’ cognitive, emotional, health and social well-being have important implications for the performance of education systems, KHDA has helped raise awareness of the issue in Dubai’s private school sector. In addition to initiatives such as the Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Survey and the Teachers of Dubai campaign, KHDA has also provided several opportunities for teachers’ professional collaboration and development. Inspired by KHDA’s efforts, private schools are increasingly providing teachers with tools and information to encourage them to adhere to healthy habits that support their physical and mental well-being, and to help them cope with the challenges that arise from work.

Despite these achievements, evidence reveals some reasons for concern. Teachers in Dubai report some of the highest stress levels across countries and economies participating in the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and many complain of heavy workloads, pressure from school management and parents, as well as short-term contracts. These challenging working conditions might explain the high degree of turnover among teachers in Dubai. Alarmingly, many of these issues are believed to have worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the current socio-economic and health crisis has helped elevate the importance of teacher well-being on the policy agenda, the current state of affairs has also made visible the many gaps in Dubai’s policy framework, and the risks associated with them. Chapter 4 looks at how KHDA – in collaboration with other stakeholders – can build on current policies and practices to ensure the conditions that allow teachers to work effectively and to thrive are present across Dubai’s private schools. As will be argued in this chapter, strengthening teachers’ well-being is not only important from the perspective of human dignity and good labour policy, but it is also key for the performance of Dubai’s private education sector in the long-term.

Since the mid-2010s, KHDA has been a strong advocate for student well-being. Measures have focused on raising awareness on the topic, and collecting data on students’ psychological, social, cognitive and physical states. Following KHDA’s lead, a range of initiatives have been introduced in schools across the sector, aimed at developing students’ health literacy and encouraging healthy lifestyles. While students in Dubai report relatively high rates of life satisfaction on average, evidence suggest that there are some concerning issues within the private school sector, including bullying and schoolwork-related anxiety. In addition, a high proportion of students engage in unhealthy habits on a regular basis, which can put their well-being at risk and have long-term adverse effects on their development. The OECD review revealed the need for stakeholders to draw more systematically on the evidence, complement comprehensive approaches to well-being with targeted interventions focused on priority issues and sub-groups, and engage students in decision-making to foster students’ well-being and sense of agency.

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