1. Education and well-being in Dubai’s private school sector

In the last decades, the Emirate of Dubai has become a global hub for innovative businesses, and a popular destination that attracts expatriates and tourists from across the world. Dubai’s rapid transformation was impelled and shaped by ambitious Emirate and Federal development plans aimed at building a competitive knowledge-based economy (see Box 1.1).

Education has been – and remains – at the heart of such efforts. A strong education system is considered important not only to develop the Emirate’s home-grown skills, but also to attract a highly-qualified expatriate population. To sustain and advance its economic development and diversification, Dubai’s leadership introduced a number of measures to improve educational outcomes in the late 2000s. This includes, notably, the creation of a private education sector regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), and the introduction of an annual school inspection. Progress has been remarkable. Student learning outcomes as measured by international assessments have improved significantly across all domains. In the last rounds of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, Dubai’s private sector has overtaken the OECD average. This is no small feat given the sector’s rapid expansion.

In recent years, the Emirate has been placing a stronger emphasis on people’s well-being with the aim of making Dubai “an inclusive and cohesive society … that is the preferred place to live, work and visit and a pivotal hub in the global economy” (Government of Dubai - The Executive Council, n.d.[1]). As part of this trend, KHDA and private schools have introduced a number of initiatives to help raise awareness, measure and support students’ and staff’s well-being. Given the central role education and educators have in fostering and supporting empowered, healthy and happy communities, these interventions hold great potential.

This report analyses the well-being policies and practices that KHDA and schools have implemented in Dubai’s private school sector. In order to fulfil this objective, the OECD has taken a holistic view of well-being in education (discussed in Chapter 2); Chapter 3 looks at Dubai’s private schools as a whole, focusing on the school leadership and other key school staff; Chapter 4 focuses on teachers and their well-being, an issue that has been relatively overlooked in the Emirate until recently; and, finally, Chapter 5 discusses student well-being and empowerment. Each chapter will look at strengths and challenges of the approach taken in Dubai, and discuss potential steps that could support higher levels of well-being in the Emirate’s private school sector. As background for the analysis that will follow, this introductory chapter examines some of the most relevant features of Dubai’s socio-economic context and private education sector.

Dubai is one of seven Emirates1 that make up the United Arab Emirates that was established in 1971. Unlike the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s oil and gas reserves are relatively limited (Embassy of the United Arab Emirates - Washington D.C., n.d.[2]). Between 1960 and 1990, most of the wealth derived from Dubai’s natural resources was used to build the city’s infrastructure and develop different sectors of the economy (OECD, 2020[3]). This enabled and, at the same time, drove Dubai to build one of the most dynamic and diversified economies in the Middle East, based primarily on international trade, transport, real estate and tourism (see Figure 1.1) (OECD, 2014[4]) (OECD, 2020[3]).

After high rates of economic growth into the beginning of the 21st century, the Emirate was hard hit by the 2008 financial and real estate crisis (Figure 1.2). As a response, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi provided financial support to its neighbouring Emirate, after which, Dubai experienced a decade of steady economic recovery, although at a relatively slow place (OECD, 2014[4]) (Government of Dubai - Dubai Economy, 2018[7]). This was brought to an abrupt stop by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a significant impact on Dubai and its economy (World Bank, 2020[8]). The collapse of international tourism, in particular, hit many sectors, and contributed to job losses, especially among expatriates, and an overall contraction of GDP by 6.2% in 2020 (IMF, 2020[9]). To mitigate the impact of the recession, the government launched a number of financial stimulus packages (The UAE Government, n.d.[10]). Measures included the deferral or exemption from taxes and fees, and the extension of school licenses, among others.

While forecasts project a fast recovery for the Emirate – Dubai’s GDP is expected to grow by 4% in 2021 (OECD, 2020[3]) – uncertainty around the pandemic’s development, slow inoculation campaigns worldwide and increased fiscal deficits could pose significant risks for the economy (IMF, 2020[9]). In the medium-term, these could have implications for education and student well-being, be it through potential future school closures, or outflows of expatriates.

Over the past decades, Dubai’s dynamic economy has attracted a large influx of expatriates from all over the world. The Emirate’s population has increased almost fourfold since 2000 (Dubai Statistics Center, 2020[12]). At 3.4 million inhabitants, Dubai is now the most populous and diverse Emirate in the UAE. Emiratis account for only 7.9% of the city’s population (Dubai Statistics Center, 2020[13]) (see Figure 1.3). The expatriate community is made of over 200 nationalities with the majority coming from Southeast Asia (e.g. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Philippines), although a significant share come from other Arab countries (e.g. Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon) and Western countries (e.g. the United Kingdom). This diversity is also reflected in Dubai’s school population and the structure of the private school sector.

While still relatively small for a young society (see Figure 1.4), Dubai’s school age population (aged 5-19 years-old) has grown significantly – by over 150% since 2005 – and in 2018 made up more than 13% of the Emirate’s total population (KHDA, 2020[16]).

While this report focuses on KHDA as the agency with the main responsibility for overseeing the private school sector, it is important to look at it within the wider governance context (see Figure 1.5), as several other bodies have significant influence over education and well-being in Dubai.

At the national level, the Supreme Council of Rulers is the top policy making body in the country, and the Council of Ministers, or Cabinet, appointed by the President, is responsible for overseeing the implementation of federal policy (Embassy of the United Arab Emirates - Washington (D.C), n.d.[18]). At the Emirate level, the Dubai Executive Council (DEC) is Dubai’s main legislative body, responsible for supervising and guiding government policies and services, with the goal of implementing the UAE’s and the Emirate’s vision (The Executive Council - Government of Dubai, 2021[19]).

Operating under the DEC’s leadership, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) is the key body in Dubai’s private education system. Created in 2006, KHDA is a public entity responsible for overseeing and supporting the private education sector in Dubai, including early childhood education centres, schools, higher education providers, and training institutes. KHDA’s main tasks include: licensing and regulating private schools and institutions, accrediting and authenticating certificates issued by such schools and institutions, approving principal appointments, and school calendars and tuition fees; investigating complaints filed against private schools; defining requirements and standards for high-quality educational provision. The Dubai Schools Inspections Bureau (DSIB) is a semi-autonomous agency under KHDA. It is responsible for inspecting Dubai’s private schools, producing school inspection reports, and disseminating results (Thacker and Cuadra, 2014[20]).

The Ministry of Education (MoE) sets education policy at the national level, including curriculum, assessment and teacher standards. The Ministry oversees and runs public schools across the UAE, which enrol less than 15% of students in Dubai. Other Emirates also have private sector regulators, such as the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) and the Sharjah Private Education Authority (SPEA), which are other important education actors.

Other noteworthy bodies include, at the national level, the Crown Prince Court, the Education and Human Resources Council (EHRC), the Ministry of Health and Prevention, the Ministry of Community Development2, the Ministry of Culture and Youth, and the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation. At the Emirate level, relevant agencies include the Department of Naturalisation and Residence Dubai, the Community Development Authority (CDA), the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), and the Dubai Statistics Center.

In addition to the above, Councils for Happiness and Wellbeing, established in 2016, bring together representatives from government entities, including KHDA, as well as other sectors, to ensure that all plans and activities follow a unified approach based on the National Programme for Happiness and Well-being (UAE Government, n.d.[21]).

National- and Emirate-level development plans have guided education policy in Dubai for the past decades, as described in Box 1.2. Over time, well-being has come to feature prominently in the country’s vision for the future and, in particular, in Dubai’s Plan 2021. KHDA has been among the first government bodies to reflect this trend in its own strategy (see Box 1.3) (KHDA, n.d.[23]), demonstrating a high degree of responsiveness to emerging needs as well as a readiness to act. These are features that have defined the organisation since its early days and that have systematically helped it advance its goals over the years. Moreover, KHDA’s updated strategy map from 2018 reveals a strong commitment to the well-being agenda. Among its six main goals for Dubai’s private education sector, it identifies “[increasing] levels of happiness and wellbeing across all stakeholder groups”, as well as ”[building] a world class quality education system”.

KHDA does not provide direct funding to private schools or other educational institutions. School funds come primarily from tuition fees paid by parents or, less frequently, by employers. In 2019/20, the average tuition fee was equivalent to AED 29 057 (United Arab Emirates dirhams) per year (equivalent to around EUR 6 8003) (KHDA, 2020[24]), but there is wide variation in the system (see Figure 1.4), with fees from around AED 3 000 to over AED 100 000 per year (equivalent to around EUR 700 and EUR 23 500, respectively) (KHDA, 2020[16]). These fees closely reflect the income levels of communities, with the low-fee schools serving families in low wage, low-skilled jobs and high-fee schools catering to the children of affluent families (OECD, 2017[25]). In contrast to many OECD countries, there are no redistributive mechanisms (for example, student voucher schemes or school subsidies) to help offset the inequalities that emerge from such market conditions (KHDA, 2020[16]).

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have been confronted by a sudden income shortage or even unemployment. As a result, many are struggling to cover tuition fees (OECD, 2020[3]) and, in some cases, have had to leave the country (BBC, 2020[27]). Schools have, in turn, had to take difficult decisions to make up for lower revenues by, for example, cutting down on non-essential expenses, or laying off or cutting back the salary of their staff. This has had important repercussions on individuals’ well-being. As reported in fact-finding interviews, many teachers and other staff feel worried about their job security – which, in the case of expatriate teachers, is connected to their residency status, thus making the situation even more challenging – or their financial circumstances.

In Dubai’s private education sector, students and families are free to choose the school that best meets their needs. In systems that offer school-choice opportunities for students, school quality is an important factor driving parental choices (OECD, 2019[28]). To ensure that parents have accurate information about schools with which to make informed decisions, the DSIB conducts yearly school inspections and disseminates the results publicly (see Chapter 3). DSIB’s school inspection is meant “to promote transparency about the quality of schools in a system that was seen to be operating in the dark” (Thacker and Cuadra, 2014[20]).

Other factors play an important role in school choice. Parents also select schools for their instructional language, curriculum, geographical location and values, among others. Because of Dubai’s unique job market and demographics, these considerations carry significant weight in parents’ decisions. However, as discussed above, market conditions mean that, for many parents, their choices are limited to what they can afford to pay. This has implications for the quality of schooling they can access (see Chapter 3).

There is a widespread belief – although not an uncontested one (Boeskens, 2016[29]; Urquiola, 2016[30]; OECD, 2019[28]) – that competition between schools can foster innovation and improve school efficiency. The fact that parents may select (or leave) their child’s school supposedly gives schools a compelling incentive to improve the education they provide in order to attract (and retain) students. Schools that cannot do so are driven out of the market. Financial benefits linked to higher DSIB inspection results (e.g. that allows those schools to increase tuition fees) further encourage schools to improve outcomes (see Chapter 3).

However, market competition can also have unintended consequences on individuals’ well-being and on school climate. For example, in order to attract and/or retain parents of students, schools may invest in fashionable well-being initiatives, such as mindfulness sessions, or visible programmes, such as a new school gym. While this type of investment can sometimes be beneficial, they may come at the expense of evidence-based, sustained and concerted programmes focused on developing a whole-school approach to well-being (see Chapter 3). In addition, poor inspection results and/or a drop in enrolment can indirectly impact teachers and staff, for example, through salary cuts, freezes or terminations. This can, as discussed above, be a source of anxiety and stress for staff. As will be discussed in further detail in the next chapters, these issues need to be carefully monitored and addressed to ensure that they do not undermine efforts to strengthen well-being in Dubai’s private school sector.

The Emirate’s development and the education sector’s impressive expansion in recent decades (see below) have attracted investments from large schools and school networks such as GEMS Education and Taaleem (KHDA, 2020[16]). Private schools’ revenues are reported to have reached AED 8.6 billion per year (KHDA, 2020[24]). However, the COVID-19 crisis disrupted the sector in many ways, and the medium- and long-term effects of the pandemic on the sector’s profitability and growth remain unknown.

Moreover, concerns have been raised regarding the prominent role of for-profit providers. Their dominance means that “financial returns, rather than a belief in the importance of education for both the individual and society, begin to influence discourse in the education sector overall” (Ridge, Shami and Kippels, 2016[31]; Gallagher, 2019[32]).

To effectively meet students’ and staff’s well-being needs, education systems need to provide – or draw on – specialised services and support, for example, psychological counselling, nutritional advice or career guidance. This type of service can be provided by specialised school staff and/or by external experts within or outside schools. It can be targeted at a specific student or student group, or at the whole-school body, and be provided for free or at a fee. Internationally, school systems have dealt differently with these options. The same is true for Dubai. The types of services that are provided by schools also vary considerably across Dubai’s private sector.

As the Dubai private school sector expanded, the number of specialised clinics and experts has grown substantially in recent decades. These are, for the most part, private institutions and individuals that provide services and/or resources for a fee, and many on a for-profit basis. Unlike what is observed across OECD countries, there are no public alternatives or mechanisms to subsidise access to these services in Dubai. As a result, disadvantaged stakeholders and schools often find it difficult to access key services, which can significantly hinder their well-being journey (see Chapter 3).

The issue of access to specialised clinics and professionals has become even more pressing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, evidence suggests that individuals’ mental health deteriorated, indicating a growing need for specialised support (OECD, 2020[3]) (OECD, 2021[33]). Second, with lower incomes, schools and families are even less likely than before to be able to afford these services. Third, social distancing measures may have led to the disruption of mental health services, in particular those that are face-to-face, even if many services have been quick to adapt (e.g. moving to online formats).

In interviews with the OECD review team, stakeholders also raised concern regarding the qualification of some alleged experts and clinics, as well as the effectiveness of some of the tools and programmes in the market.

Dubai’s economic development and population growth have led to a remarkable expansion of the school sector (see Figure 1.7.). This trend has been particularly strong in the private sector, which now makes up 76% of the total number of schools (KHDA, 2021[26]) and 90% of the total student population in the Emirate (KHDA, 2020[16]).

Access to public schools is largely limited to Emiratis4, leading to a high demand for private education amongst the expatriate population. Another factor behind the sector’s recent expansion is the flow of Emirati students to the private sector. Emirati families are increasingly opting to – and being encouraged to (Arabianbusiness, 2017[44]) – enrol their children in private institutions, where they can access what is considered to be higher-quality education, an international curricula, and/or bilingual instruction (Gallagher, 2019[32]). As a result, almost 60% of Emirati students living in Dubai now attend a private school (KHDA, 2020[16]).

There are over 15 different curricula on offer in Dubai’s private school sector. The most popular curricula (i.e. the International Baccalaureate (IB), Indian, UK and US curricula) account for over 90% of the total private student population (see Figure 1.8). Niche curricula, such as the German, French or Russian curriculum, target specific communities and account for a much smaller number of students (KHDA, 2020[16]).

In Dubai, private schools have considerable discretion over resources, staff recruitment and professional development, school calendars, testing schedules, assessment and admission policies, language of instruction, pedagogical approaches and course offerings. Internationally, private institutions also enjoy a higher degree of autonomy than public ones, although government-dependent private schools5 are usually required to comply with government regulations to a greater extent than independent private schools.

Nevertheless, there are increasing efforts to establish national standards for quality in the Emirates, across the public and private sectors. For example, the introduction of the national assessment, the Emirates Standardized Test (EmSAT) Achieve, as a national requirement for Emiratis to enter tertiary education in the UAE, together with new equivalency arrangements for international qualifications, reflect a drive to establish more consistency in the system (Gallagher, 2019[32]) (OECD, 2019[46]). For private schools, this means that they must comply with national and local regulations, including the recently introduced licensing scheme for teachers (see Chapter 4 and Box 1.4) and the UAE Moral Education programme (see Chapter 5).

Effective teaching is at the heart of a successful education system and there is a growing recognition that supporting teachers’ professional learning and strengthening their well-being is critical to improve outcomes for all. Teachers are an important focus of this report: Chapters 3 and 5 discuss the role of teachers in supporting well-being in Dubai’s private school sector, and Chapter 4 focuses on the state of their own well-being. This section presents a brief overview of the teaching landscape in Dubai that will inform this analysis.

In Dubai’s private school sector, virtually all teachers are expatriates, with more than half coming from (by population size) India, the United Kingdom or Egypt (see Figure 1.9). Less than 1% of private school teachers are Emirati. There are a number of factors that explain this composition. First and foremost, the diversity of the sector means that teachers need specific qualifications or profiles (e.g. training in the Pakistani curriculum or proficiency in French). Second, there is a certain reluctance among nationals to join the profession. Among Emiratis, a teaching career is not considered prestigious (Gallagher, 2019[32]), because of its low social status, a flat career structure (i.e. the absence of opportunities for professional advancement in the classroom) and the low remuneration compared to other opportunities in the public sector.

The expatriate nature of Dubai’s teaching workforce means that most teachers in the Emirate were trained in their home countries. According to PISA 2018, 86% of students had teachers that reported studying abroad6. Given the diversity of expatriate teachers’ backgrounds, it is likely that the teacher training and education programmes that they undertook in their home countries also vary considerably, not only in format and content, but also in quality and approach. Informed by their different training and home cultures, teachers are likely to use different kinds of instructional practices, hold different expectations for themselves as professionals and for their students, as well as have different understandings of well-being. As will be argued in this report, this diversity must be taken into consideration more systematically when designing and implementing well-being policies and practices to ensure their effectiveness.

Although there is no simple correlation between teacher qualification levels and teaching quality, this can have implications for teachers’ status, their content-mastery and the future of the profession (OECD, 2019[47]). The qualification profile of Dubai’s private teacher workforce is comparable to that of the OECD. Nearly half of Dubai’s private sector teachers (47%) – compared to the OECD average of 46% – have pursued studies beyond a bachelor’s level. This share is lower among female teachers (35%) than male teachers (52%).

In addition to high-quality initial training, opportunities for effective induction, mentoring and continuous professional learning can significantly improve teaching practices and retention (OECD, 2019[47]). The need for strong induction and professional development arrangements is particularly important in Dubai, given a highly mobile and international teaching population (see Chapter 4). According to TALIS 2018 results, most private schools in Dubai provide teachers with professional development support and opportunities. Nearly three-quarters of teachers in lower-secondary have participated in induction activities in their current school (71%). This figure is higher than in the UAE (59%) or in OECD countries (29%). Mentoring is not as common. Only 29% of lower-secondary teachers in Dubai’s private systems report having a mentor. This is significantly higher than the OECD average of 9%, but lower than the UAE average (42%). In addition, 98% of lower-secondary teachers in Dubai participated in some form of professional development prior to the survey in 2018.

Despite overall high rates of participation in induction, mentoring and continuous professional learning opportunities, there is some indication that the quality of these programmes is in not always adequate to meet the needs of Dubai’s teacher workforce. Few schools offer a sustained period of mentorship that is characteristic of induction systems in high-performing countries. Schools’ induction programmes also tend to be focused on practical concerns and administrative procedures and fail to prioritise the intensive pedagogical coaching and direct feedback that supports their practice. Evidence suggests that the training on offer tends to be of limited quality and relevance to their practice (Gallagher, 2019[32]). Addressing these shortcomings will be important not only to improve the quality of teaching in the Emirate, but also to reduce teacher attrition, help new teachers integrate into the local teaching community and strengthen their professional identity (see Chapter 4).

This section will examine the issues of students’ access, student learning outcomes and equity in Dubai’s private schools. This analysis provides insights into the capacity of the sector and its sub-sectors to support students’ development, a key dimension of their students’ well-being, referred to as their cognitive well-being (see Chapter 5). Moreover, this investigation reveals important differences across the sector and the student population that will be further explored in the next chapters. Policies and practices aimed at supporting students’ well-being must take these disparities into consideration.

As Dubai’s student-age population has grown, enrolment in private schools has increased significantly. The total student population has nearly tripled since the early 2000s and reached 286 588 (see Figure 1.7. above). At the same time, the number of Emirati students has also increased three-fold, making up around 11% of the student population (KHDA, 2021[48]). Dubai and the other Emirates record rates of school enrolment close to those of OECD and benchmark countries (see Figure 1.10).

Student learning outcomes can be an important source of information regarding their cognitive well-being as well as their ability to participate effectively in today’s society, as lifelong learners, effective workers and engaged citizens (OECD, 2019[50]). Dubai’s outcomes in international assessments are better than all Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, including the UAE average, and slightly above the OECD average. However, average scores are below top-performing systems, such as B-S-J-Z (China)7 and Singapore (Figure 1.11) (OECD, 2019[45]).

Results from the latest PISA cycle reveal that 12.3% of students in Dubai’s private sector are high performers in reading, higher than the OECD average (8.7%). “Top performers”, as they are known, perform at or above Level 5 in the assessment, meaning that they can creatively, critically and autonomously apply their knowledge and skills to a wide variety of situations, including unfamiliar ones. On the other hand, while slightly lower than the OECD average, approximately 20% of students perform below Level 2 in reading (OECD average: 22.6%), a level of minimal competency. This is concerning because it suggests that a large share of students do not attain the basic skills they will need to succeed in future studies and life (OECD, 2019[45])(Figure 1.12).

Dubai’s private sector has seen its PISA performance improve across all domains8 (see Figure 1.13). Students’ outcomes in the assessment increased by 15 score points in reading, 18 score points in mathematics and 9 score points in science since 2012 (OECD, 2019[45]). It is important to note that this progress is taking place while the sector is simultaneously enrolling more children. Students’ performance in other international assessments, such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), have likewise improved significantly in the last decade. In contrast, the UAE average has remained relatively unchanged (Mullis et al., 2020[51]) (Mullis et al., 2017[52]).

Changes in average performance can result from improvements or declines in performance from different student groups. An in-depth analysis of Dubai’s trend performance suggests that the increase in the share of top-performing students explains Dubai’s performance improvement in PISA. Between the PISA 2012 and 2018 cycles, the private sector witnessed a drastic improvement in reading (where the share of top performers more than doubled) and mathematics, and a slighter increase in science (equivalent to 6.5, 4.7 and 1.7 percentage point improvements respectively) (see Figure 1.14) (OECD, 2019[45]). In the meantime, the share of low performers decreased across all domains: by 0.8 percentage points in reading, 5.2 percentage points in mathematics and 2.7 percentage points in science. This suggests improvements in students’ cognitive performance in the recent decade.

As observed in, there are considerable differences across Dubai’s private sector (Figure 1.15). In PISA 2018, students enrolled in US and, in particular, MoE curricula schools attained much lower scores in reading, mathematics and science than their peers following other curricula, and in comparison to the OECD average. On the other hand, students following the UK and Indian curricula are performing similarly to 15-year-olds in Canada and Estonia.

PISA 2018 results indicate that students learning outcomes can also vary significantly according to their (Figure 1.16):

  • Socio-economic background: internationally, socio-economically advantaged students tend to outperform students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is also the case in Dubai, where students from advantaged households, as measured by the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status (ESCS index), scored 527 points in reading, compared to 450 points by disadvantaged students. The 77-score-point difference is slightly lower than the OECD average (89 score points).

  • Gender: as is the case in most OECD and benchmark countries, in Dubai’s private sector, girls have better outcomes in reading, whereas boys tend to perform better in mathematics and have similar performance levels in science.

  • Nationality: the performance of immigrants/expatriates differs across countries. In countries with less selective migration policies, the parents of expatriate students tend to be less educated and work in lower status jobs. Their children tend to lack the resources that national students enjoy and perform comparatively worse (OECD, 2015[53]). In contrast, in countries with more selective migration policies, such as Australia and Singapore, expatriate students score at least at the same level as national students. The UAE falls between these categories – as migration policies allow both highly-educated and low-skilled migrants to enter the country, but only those with higher social status are allowed to bring their families.

    In the UAE and Dubai, the distinction between expatriate students (that is, those born to parents who are not Emirati) and national students (whose parents are Emirati) is particularly important to understanding student outcomes. As observed in Figure 1.16. PISA 2018 results show that nationals underperform relative to expatriates in all domains.

The next chapters will resume this discussion. Chapter 3 will recommend that KHDA work with other Dubai government agencies to support low-fee schools and disadvantaged students. Chapters 4 and 5 will highlight the potential of more systematic data analysis, such as the one conducted in this chapter. Greater visibility on the state of student and teacher well-being in Dubai’s private school sector will enable KHDA and other stakeholders to identify the sector’s and/or individual school’s main priorities.

Stakeholders in Dubai’s private school sector are committed to achieving the highest standards and there is a collective and constant drive for improvement and innovation. According to anecdotal evidence, parents hold high expectations for their children’s progression and achievements. Results from PISA’s student questionnaire indicate that students also set ambitious goals for themselves. Over 80% of students expect to complete higher education (ISCED 5A or 6) (OECD average: 69%) (OECD, 2019[45]). However, data show some differences across students, with Emiratis reporting lower expectations for their future. Only 70% expect to complete a university degree. High aspirations can incentivise stakeholders to work hard to reach their goals and, in turn, encourage improvements. For example, longitudinal studies have demonstrated that students with ambitious objectives tend to be more determined and focused, which can support higher achievement levels (OECD, 2017[25]). However, this mentality can give rise to – as it seems to be the case in Dubai – a high-pressure culture, which for many stakeholders is one of the main sources of their stress and anxiety (see full discussion in Chapter 5).


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← 1. The UAE is comprised of 7 Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.

← 2. In 2016, the UAE government created the post of Minister of State for Happiness. Following the Cabinet reshuffle in 2017, the Minister of State for Happiness also incorporated the “well-being portfolio”. In the 2020 cabinet reshuffle, the "Quality of Life and Happiness" portfolio was transferred to Ministry of Community Development.

← 3. Based on the exchange rate from 8 November 2021 (1 AED = 0.23546 EUR), https://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert/?Amount=1&From=EUR&To=AED.

← 4. While there are some exceptions, for the most part, expatriate students are not able to attend public schools. Emirati students do not pay any fees to attend public schools.

← 5. A government-dependent private school receives 50% or more of its core funding from government agencies or its teaching personnel are paid by a government agency. The term “government-dependent” refers only to the degree of a private institution’s dependence on funding from government sources, and not to the degree of government direction or regulation.

← 6. It is unclear how teachers understood this question. Therefore, teachers who reported undertaking their studies abroad may be referring to having completed their entire degree in another country or studied abroad for a short period of time.

← 7. In 2019, four provinces/municipalities of China that participated in the study – Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (B-S-J-Z).

← 8. In PISA 2009 cycle, Dubai participated as a separate economy, while the other Emirates participated in PISA 2009+. The PISA 2009+ participants administered the same assessments and were subject to the same technical and quality standards as their PISA 2009 counterparts. However, the PISA 2009+ assessments were administered in 2010. The data from Dubai and the other Emirates have been merged in the PISA 2009 database and are reported as a single entity: the United Arab Emirates. With the exception of Dubai, data cannot be disaggregated at the Emirate level.

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