Key insights

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” that has been transforming practices across the sector. KHDA’s journey started from within. In keeping with the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) and Dubai’s philosophy and in consultation with local and international experts, KHDA made fundamental changes to the organisation’s strategy and management structure with the aim of fostering well-being in its own working environment and among its own staff. Once the shifts in the organisation’s internal processes and culture had been effectively implemented and understood, KHDA began to look outwards, encouraging a change in focus across the private education sector and inviting other stakeholders, including school leaders, teachers, parents and students, to join their journey.

The destination? To increase levels of happiness and well-being among all stakeholder groups in Dubai’s private school sector. Behind this vision lies a widespread recognition of the importance of individuals’ welfare for strengthening the fabric of UAE’s society, retaining the Emirates’ attractiveness to expatriates, and supporting academic excellence and high levels of productivity.

To achieve this, KHDA leveraged existing initiatives, such as the What Works events, and the Lighthouse project. In addition, the organisation drew on emerging practices worldwide, notably a strengths-based approach, and partnered with a number of institutions and experts, including the International Positive Education Network, and The Wellbeing Lab. To support its new well-being agenda, KHDA also developed various new activities, such as the Dubai School Wellbeing Census, the Dubai [email protected] Wellbeing Survey and the Hatta Wellbeing Campus.

KHDA has not only acknowledged but also deliberately embraced the diversity of the sector. Recognising the limitations of a “one size fits all” approach in a highly varied sector, KHDA has opted against a directive strategy or a narrow definition of well-being (see Box 1), preferring instead to encourage a more “organic” adoption of well-being practices. Under this approach, schools and other education stakeholders have the autonomy to take action based on their own priorities, resources and interests. In this context, KHDA has focused on raising stakeholders’ awareness, and disseminating what has worked – or is believed to have worked – encouraging others to follow suit.

The results have been remarkable in many respects. Initiatives have helped build stakeholders’ well-being literacy and encouraged school leaders, teachers, parents and students to consider and adopt the concept of well-being, not only in the form of daily habits (e.g. regular physical exercise) but also as a long-term commitment for themselves and the sector as a whole. In addition, schools have increasingly adopted a whole-school approach to well-being. Research shows that a comprehensive, whole-school approach to well-being produces a wide range of benefits for schools and school actors (see Chapter 3). Through its multiple data collection tools, KHDA has also built one of the richest education-related well-being datasets in the world, covering self-reported data on students’ and staff’s social and emotional states and physical health.

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, some stakeholders lack the necessary information, skills or resources to implement meaningful and impactful well-being policies and practices. This is particularly common in schools with fewer resources. Faced with significant market pressure, and with limited tools and capabilities to discern what is effective, schools are also increasingly investing in fashionable and visible programmes and tools, such as mindfulness sessions or school gyms. While potentially beneficial, these often come at the expense of evidence-based, sustained and concerted programmes focused on developing a whole-school approach to well-being. 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. 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.

The time has come to translate stakeholders’ awareness and commitment to the well-being agenda into effective change in Dubai’s classrooms and schools. In order to do so, this review argues that KHDA would need to take a new approach to well-being policies and practices, which makes 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 be actively engaged in the development of solutions. At the school level, this would mean linking sector-wide peer-learning programmes, such as What Works, the Hatta Wellbeing Campus and the Lighthouse project, to in-school activities, and facilitating access to coaching and professional development to help disadvantaged schools. For teachers, this would be a matter of developing the networks that support a highly-professionalised workforce, a key pillar of their professional and personal well-being. For students, this would require equipping them with the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions about their own health and well-being, and to empower them to become agents of change.

  • Stronger incentives and strategic guidance on what they should be working towards. First and foremost, this would mean developing a vision for well-being in Dubai’s schools, defining the sector’s priorities and stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities. Embedding this vision in the accountability structure would ensure that it becomes a reference for school quality and encourage the adoption of effective well-being policies and practices. In addition, a long-term strategic plan to enhance teachers’ well-being could help elevate this issue and strengthen the attractiveness of Dubai for high-quality expatriate teachers. This review identifies support for teachers’ well-being as the main area in need of attention.

  • Additional support to build a conducive context that supports well-being and enables Dubai’s private school sector to achieve its goals. Providing schools – and in particular the most disadvantaged ones – with targeted support and capacity-building opportunities could also encourage the development of effective practices and the widespread adoption of a whole-school approach to well-being where they have the potential to have the most impact.

  • Relevant and rigorous information that supports the development of data-led and evidence-informed policymaking across the sector. This would require, first, strengthening KHDA’s research culture and capacity to encourage and support a more systematic, data-led and evidence-informed approach to policy development, implementation and regulation within the organisation. By making fuller use of KHDA’s rich dataset and analytical capacity, the organisation would also be able to offer stakeholders the evidence they need to drive change. This may involve adaptations to existing data collection tools, and the development of a clearinghouse platform.

    However, KHDA will not be able to achieve this on its own. The next steps of KHDA’s well-being journey will be demanding and, in many cases, will require engagement with and/or direct action by other players (e.g. government agencies, school governing boards, school leaders, teachers, parents, and students). For this reason, this report provides considerations that have implications for KHDA as well as other actors in Dubai (see Figure 1).

Given the inherently holistic nature of well-being (see full definition in Box 1), the OECD has opted for a broad set of analytical lenses (described in-depth in Chapter 2). The OECD analysis takes into consideration the multiple education stakeholders (see Figure 1) that can impact (and/or be impacted by) well-being policies and practices, the different environments in which they operate, as well as the policy levers and channels (e.g. data collection, regulation tools and processes) available to actors (see Figure 2).

As discussed in Chapter 2, in applying these lenses to Dubai’s private school sector, the OECD analysis has been mindful of and adapted to the specifics of the Emirate’s environment, culture and history. In many cases, this has meant taking the particularities of the UAE’s governance system into account when offering policy considerations to ensure their relevance and appropriateness. In other cases, this meant focusing the analysis on stakeholders on whom sufficient well-being data were available (i.e. school leaders, teachers and students).

In addition, employing the OECD analytical lenses to the Dubai’s context was key to advance the OECD analysis and policy considerations. For example, the categorisation of the Emirate’s existing policies and practices according to the OECD’s classification of policy levers and channels (see Table 2.1 in Chapter 2) helped reveal the strengths in KHDA’s policy approach, as well as missed opportunities. These will be discussed in further detail in the next sections.

In what follows we summarise the key insights of the report’s main chapters. 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, which has been relatively overlooked in the Emirate until recently; and, finally, Chapter 5 discusses student well-being and empowerment. Each chapter looks at strengths and challenges of the approach taken in Dubai, and discusses potential steps that could support higher levels of well-being in the Emirate’s private school 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 developed platforms for schools to convene and learn from experts and from each other. Most private schools in Dubai’s private sector are now familiar with the different dimensions of well-being, as well as with the positive education model, 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. At present, few schools have implemented whole-school approaches to well-being, which evidence shows to be most effective at supporting children’s development and building positive learning environments. Chapter 3 considers the following to be the key policy objectives that can support higher levels of well-being in Dubai’s private schools.

In just a few years, KHDA’s well-being journey 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 student and, in some cases, staff well-being. Naturally, given the diversity of Dubai’s school sector, differences have emerged. While a certain degree of variation is normal, evidence collected by the OECD review team reveals some reasons for concern. Not only do schools’ approaches differ significantly, so too does their commitment to the well-being agenda. In addition, there is considerable heterogeneity with regards to the effectiveness of the initiatives and measures schools implement.

KHDA could encourage the adoption of effective well-being policies and practices by more effectively drawing on its regulatory tools, notably the quality assurance processes. By embedding its “well-being in school vision” in the accountability structures, KHDA could ensure that well-being becomes a reference for school improvement and a priority for school leadership. This would require rethinking the current inspection framework and process, and adapting other compliance and regulatory tools. 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.

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 have included, among others, the Living Arabic, What Works and What Works X events, as well as the Abundance and Lighthouse projects. In recent years, well-being has become a growing focus of these programmes. Moreover, KHDA’s well-being data collection tools 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 apparent success of these initiatives, some schools still struggle to design and implement meaningful well-being policies.

There are a number of opportunities for school leaders and school staff in Dubai’s private school sector to participate in peer-learning and professional development. However, participation in these programmes, such as the Hatta Wellbeing Campus, remains relatively limited. The structure and broad focus of the programmes also means that stakeholders are not always able to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to implement effective well-being policies and practices. Moreover, there are no expectations that school leaders will translate what they learnt into their schools’ daily lives, and no mechanisms and resources to support them in this endeavour.

A whole-school approach requires significant in-school capacity, in particular from the schools’ leadership team and from highly-qualified specialised workers (e.g. psychologists). Many schools, in particular low-fee schools, cannot afford to hire this staff or to access these services. Moreover, at the moment, the roles of non-teaching staff remain loosely regulated and, as a result, practices vary significantly between schools.

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 (e.g. exercise) that support their physical and mental well-being, and to help them cope with the challenges that arise from work.

Despite these achievements, quantitative and qualitative 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 help 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 government departments, Dubai’s private schools, the school governors, and teachers themselves – 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, low levels of teacher well-being are not only harmful to teachers, but also to students’ achievement and well-being. Strengthening teachers’ well-being is therefore 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. The following policy objectives are considered to be the most important to support KHDA and Dubai’s private sector in this endeavour.

While there is growing recognition of the importance of teachers’ well-being in Dubai’s private sector, for the most part, existing policies and practices do not cater to their specific needs and circumstances, and few explicitly target teachers. As a result, teachers often find these initiatives unsuitable or insufficient both in terms of format and focus. This policy gap is concerning given that Dubai’s teachers face high levels of stress and employment instability, among other issues – concerns that have escalated during the pandemic. By developing a sector-wide strategy, KHDA can help build the impetus and commitment across private schools to strengthen teacher well-being, much like it did in the past with regards to school improvement and collaboration.

One of the key features of high-performing education systems is the existence of a highly-professionalised teaching workforce. An important dimension of professionalism, in teaching as in other jobs that require specialised knowledge and skills, is giving teachers a leading role in defining policies related to their practice, development and career. This implies the existence of fora – such as teacher professional bodies and networks – where teachers can collectively reflect upon and shape such policies and practices. For teachers, participation in such fora can create a sense of ownership of their work, identity around knowledge and skills, and agency and responsibility for the profession’s development. This can not only support teachers’ practices, but also foster their well-being. Since the mid-2010s, KHDA’s efforts to strengthen collaboration across Dubai’s private school sector have led to the development of professional networks of teachers. Evidence also points to a strong collaborative culture among teachers within schools (Figure 3). In addition, through social media campaigns and other initiatives, KHDA has helped raise awareness of and appreciation for the important role that teachers play in Dubai’s education system. However, for the most part, the types of collaboration that are common in Dubai fail to promote a sense of professional agency that supports teachers’ well-being and high-quality teaching. Teacher representatives and teacher organisations are also rarely invited to take part in policy debates at the school, sector or national level.

Dubai’s private schools offer, for the most part, clear career paths and relatively generous salaries and benefits to teachers. Attractive working conditions are important in a context where nearly all teachers are expatriates. In addition, an increasing number of schools have been setting up programmes to support students’ and staff’s well-being. Nevertheless, evidence collected by the OECD review team suggests that some school practices and environments may be negatively impacting teachers’ well-being. Pressure from school management and parents, heavy workloads, as well as uncertain contractual conditions have left many teachers feeling stressed and anxious, and a significant share report wanting to leave the school in which they work. While rare, there are also reports of malpractices. These issues – many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – can have significant detrimental effects on teachers’ quality of life and on teaching and learning. Moreover, in the medium- to long-run, this could damage the attractiveness of the Emirate for expatriate teachers. Efforts are therefore needed to improve and regulate teachers’ working conditions as a way to strengthen teachers’ well-being and ensure the sustainability of Dubai’s education system. By collaborating with other federal governmental institutions in the UAE, the private sector, teacher professional organisations and Dubai’s schools, KHDA could help support decent working conditions across the sector.

Since the mid-2010s, KHDA has been a strong advocate for student well-being. Measures have focused on raising awareness on the topic, promoting a strengths-based approach, 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 (see Figure 4), evidence suggest that there are some concerning issues within the private school sector, including bullying and schoolwork-related anxiety. Also, a high proportion of students engage in unhealthy habits on a regular basis. For example, data from the 2020 Dubai Student Wellbeing Census (DSWC) suggest that between around half of Dubai students rarely get a good night’s sleep (KHDA, 2021[2]). This 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. These policy objectives are discussed in greater depth in the section that follows.

Policy Objective 5.1 argues that KHDA could draw more effectively on the rich evidence base on well-being it has built, as well as on other sophisticated instruments at its disposal, including the DSWC and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), to inform policy development and implementation. This would require strengthening KHDA’s research and analysis capacity and mining the data available. Mobilising this systematically throughout the policy cycle – before, during and after a policy is implemented – will enable KHDA to build an evidence-led approach to policymaking, which can support more effective and impactful interventions. With stronger research and analysis capacity, KHDA will also be in a better position to support private schools by providing relevant data and evidence on what measures work.

At present, student well-being initiatives in Dubai’s private school sector tend to be relatively broad in scope and address a wide audience. While there is considerable evidence supporting a holistic approach to well-being, relying exclusively on comprehensive policies can be inadequate to address some key challenges, and to reach specific population groups. For this reason, Policy Objective 5.2. suggests that Dubai’s current well-being approach should be complemented by more targeted initiatives. Greater visibility on the state of student well-being in Dubai’s private sector – based on an in-depth analysis of the evidence available (see Policy Objective 5.1) – will enable KHDA to identify the sector’s and/or sub-sector’s main priorities. With a greater understanding of the key areas and target audiences, KHDA will be better positioned to develop and implement fit-for-purpose and targeted policies. This has the potential to raise the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of measures. In addition, with clearer targets, KHDA will be better able to monitor and measure programmes’ impact, which can enable improvements and support greater accountability. By communicating the main well-being priorities to others in the sector, KHDA will also provide much-needed guidance to schools and school-level stakeholders. Being able to focus their efforts and resources on key issues and/or groups will be particularly important for schools at a time of budget constraints.

Finally, Policy Objective 5.3 explores the issue of student empowerment in Dubai’s private school sector and how this can support the Emirate’s well-being agenda. Empowering students to be informed decision-makers when it comes to their own lives and well-being and allowing them to be agents of change not only promotes individual, but also collective gains. International experience has shown that education systems and schools can play a key role in this endeavour: first, by developing the competencies students require to become responsible and informed individuals who are able to make decisions for the good of themselves and their communities; and second, by offering some of the first opportunities for them to actively participate in societal conversations and to engage in decision-making.

Once again, Dubai’s private education sector has been ahead of the curve in many respects. Students’ voice – directly captured and disseminated by the DSWC – have been the backbone of Dubai’s well-being policies and practices. There are some examples of well-being initiatives being co-led by students (e.g. the Dubai Student Wellbeing Summit), although they remain rare. There are also multiple initiatives in Dubai’s private schools aimed at raising students’ awareness and encouraging healthy habits. In order for the next steps in KHDA’s well-being journey to bring about long-term improvements, students will need to be invited along as partners. For this reason, Policy Objective 5.3 argues that engaging students in policy discussions and decision-making in a more deliberate and inclusive manner can not only help empower them, but also ensure that well-being interventions are more effective.

Other steps can help enhance children’s quality of life in the short-, medium- and long-term. Notably, ensuring students develop strong well-being and health literacy can help set them up for success. High-quality evidence on students’ current level of knowledge and skills in this area could help inform sector- and school-level initiatives.

Figure 5 puts forward an action map of the key steps – proposed in this report – that KHDA and other stakeholders could consider to strengthen well-being policies and practices in Dubai’s private school sector. Implementing the proposed actions would require a shift in KHDA’s approach to well-being policies and practices, with greater attention being given to smart policy design and implementation practices (e.g. strategic vision and orientation; regulatory mechanisms and standards) and to building a conducive context that supports well-being. This does not imply that KHDA should leave behind the successful initiatives and programmes it has carried out in the past years. On the contrary, the next steps of Dubai’s well-being journey will require building on past successes and lessons learnt, and striving for improvements.

It should be noted that the proposed actions are not equally important nor equally urgent. In the short-term, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals’ welfare will require stakeholders’ immediate attention. For this reason, the OECD review highlights the urgent need for increased and improved support services to individuals and schools that need them the most. In the medium- to long-term, however, other policy actions might be more impactful to strengthen well-being in the Emirate. Notably, efforts to define a common vision and goals for the sector, and to build them into Dubai’s accountability and incentive structures have a particularly significant potential to encourage effective change in schools and classrooms.

As the main audience for this review, the action map has focused on the actions that KHDA could take forward. However, this report has proposed several steps, including some of those highlighted below, that would require engagement with and/or direct action by other agents (e.g. school governing boards, other government agencies). KHDA’s leadership and authority will be key to influence the sector and steer the necessary actions.

As an immediate next step, KHDA might consider organising stakeholder consultations to discuss ways forward. A collective discussion with key stakeholders around this report’s diagnosis and proposed actions could serve as an opportunity for the sector to identify key issues and concerns, and to agree on the next steps, including which are immediate priorities and which are long-term goals, as well as stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities. If successful, this type of approach could be adopted for other of the policy considerations proposed in this report (e.g. defining a common well-being vision).

References

[2] KHDA (2021), Distance brings us closer - Dubai Student Wellbeing Census Results 2020, https://www.khda.gov.ae/CMS/WebParts/TextEditor/Documents/DSWC2020Infographic-En.pdf.

[4] OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Database, https://www.oecd.org/pisa/data/2018database/.

[3] OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What School Life Means for Students’ Lives, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/acd78851-en.

[1] OECD (2019), TALIS 2018 Database, https://www.oecd.org/education/talis/talis-2018-data.htm.

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