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Ten Things We’ve Learned over 10 Years of Researching Education in the Region


For the past 10 years, the Al Qasimi Foundation has been researching education in the UAE, the GCC, and beyond. Over this time, we have explored issues related to boys, school quality, teachers, the privatization of education, father involvement, and the growing role and impact of philanthropy in the region. Our research has been a journey of discovery, with one topic leading to the next and then the next. We were asked to reflect on our research journey as part of our 10-year anniversary, and to distill our learning into 10 takeaways. These 10 points offer a glimpse of what we have learned and what we think remain as important issues for students, parents, teachers, and policy makers. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. The education of boys needs to be a priority for every country in the GCC.

Boys’ education was my first topic of study when I returned to the UAE in 2007 to complete my doctoral dissertation. Since my initial study, where I found that girls were not only outperforming boys in every subject and in every grade level but that the experience of schooling was also substantially better for them in public schools, little seems to have changed. Every country in the GCC currently has a reverse gender gap in education. This gap is more visible in international assessments where we see girls in the UAE outperforming boys in all three PISA 2015 domains, with a seven-point difference in mathematics, a 25-point difference in science, and a 50-point difference in reading. Nonetheless, there are still no nationwide policies to address the issue of boys’ under-achievement and the long-term impact of this will have damaging consequences for national development.

2. While the quality of education is improving across the region, it still has a way to go.

Since the region first participated in international assessments (TIMSS 1999 in Jordan), the results from 4 (PISA), 12 (TIMSS), and 7 (PIRLS) countries, respectively, have allowed governments across the region to look more objectively at the quality of their education systems. Sadly, all PISA-participating Arab countries in the Middle East, from the lowest-ranking, Lebanon (376), to the highest-ranking, UAE (433), fell well below the OECD mean of 490. Much of the blame for this has been placed on regional education systems that emphasize rote learning over the application of knowledge and a resistance to learning from failure. The quality of education in the Middle East, and the GCC in particular, remains a concern to all governments, but change will require a long-term perspective and significant modifications to the ways in which students are taught and assessed.

3. Curriculum change needs to be well-thought-out and aligned with changes in assessment.

GCC countries have the resources that allow them to continually change their curriculum, ostensibly with the aim of improving the quality of education. In the last 20 years, there have been more than five significant changes related to curriculum in the UAE such as the Madares Al Ghadi initiative which was introduced in 2007 but then discontinued in 2015. Many of these changes were hastily implemented without adequately consulting teachers, principals, students, and parents. Some changes have lasted but many have not, and it appears that little has been learned or reflected on, at least publicly. By taking a more measured approach to curriculum reform, involving key stakeholders, and ensuring that it aligns with assessment structures, GCC education systems have the opportunity to demonstrate real improvements.1

4. Teachers matter and we need to develop and incentivize them appropriately.

Teachers are the backbone of every education system; however, they are too often marginalized and ignored during the many reforms and changes to local education systems. In addition, teaching has become a low-status profession across the region and thus it is even harder to attract and retain exceptional teachers. An analysis of factors influencing professional satisfaction—at the individual, school, and societal levels—found that the perceived status of teaching shows the strongest statistically significant positive correlation. Countries across the Middle East need to look much more closely at teacher preparation programs, teacher induction programs, and the ongoing professional development of teachers throughout their careers. Unless there is an overhaul of teacher education programs and policies relating to teachers’ employment, we risk losing greater numbers of high-quality current and potential teachers and will virtually guarantee that low-performing education systems persist across the region.

5. Access to education for all non-national children in the GCC needs to be a priority for governments in the region.

Since the discovery of oil, the GCC has depended on migrant workers in order to meet economic development demands. However, many migrant workers at the lower end of the salary scale struggle to find affordable, quality schools for their children. Existing researchshows thatArab and South Asian parents spend the highest share of their household income on private school, at 22.1% and 19.3% of annual income, respectively, compared to Western expats at 10.4%. In some cases, they cannot afford to send their children to school at all. While there are charity schools—free schools for Arabic-speaking children—across the region, these typically have waiting lists. In addition, children from non-Arabic-speaking families can find themselves without any school to attend. According to a 2014 report, over 20,000 Pakistani children from low-income families are living in the UAE but are not attending school. Governments in the GCC need to study this phenomenon and quantify its scope in order to come up with polices and options to ensure that every school-aged child living in the GCC is in school.

6. Non-profit private schools are underrepresented in the region but offer great examples of how we can improve the private education sector.

The dominance of for-profit schools across the GCC has led to a highly-segregated education sector in which the rich are educated with the rich and the poor with the poor. In many cases, the respective country’s nationals are present in every stratum. The profit motive leads to teachers being underpaid and children and families being treated as profit centers rather than people. Researchon the private education sector has found that non-profit school teachers, on average, reported that their salaries were approximately 1.5 to 2 times higher than those of teachers in for-profit schools. They further noted receiving better work benefits and teaching a smaller number of students per class, which is a preference of most teachers. Similarly, non-profit schools have higher levels of parental engagement, higher levels of teacher satisfaction, and offer policy makers in the region a good alternative to building a sustainable and equitable private education sector that will support national cohesion and foster the health of the future teacher workforce. Policy makers should explore incentives and ways to support and encourage the non-profit sector at all price points.

7. Public education needs to be nurtured and supported in order to build national cohesion among nationals of different income levels.

With the growth of the private education sector, many nationals are now taking their children out of public schools to attend private schools. According to the KHDA, over 50% of Emiratis attend private schools in Dubai. This leads not only to class division between nationals based on income levels, but it also strips the public sector of key parent advocates. Public schools across the region are increasingly seen as schools where you only send your children if you cannot afford a private school. However, public education systems are essential to building and fostering a national identity and good citizens. They are also great equalizers and help students learn from each other, empathize with others, and meet those who they might not meet in their normal social circles. In the early years of the UAE, the children of the Rulers of every emirate attended public schools with the children of everyone else in the community, connecting them with the people and their concerns. Public education needs to be a source of pride for every country in the GCC, worthy of development investment and critical to ensuring the long-term success of all citizens.

8. Fathers are integral to their children’s success in education but need to be far more involved.

Father involvement in education in the region is perhaps one of the most understudied research topics in education. Across the GCC, the belief that mothers should take care of child-rearing, including their children’s education, has led to fathers being conspicuously absent from their children’s education. However, our research on father involvement finds that the more involved fathers are in their children’s education, the more successful those children are not only in education but in life. Accordingly, our research highlights that participants who perceived their fathers as being more positively involved in their lives during childhood and adolescence tended to report a greater sense of self-esteem. The overall mean score of father involvement was significantly correlated with self-esteem (r= .47, p < .01). In particular, survey items about being an accessible father, responsible parental involvement, and positive emotional responsiveness were correlated with increases in self-esteem. All governments in the region need to actively look at ways to incentivize and promote greater involvement of fathers in schools and in education in general. More research on the patterns and trends of father involvement should complement government efforts and programmatic work.

9. To achieve sustainability, philanthropic activity in education in the region requires more coordination and research.

In the past 10 years, there has been a tremendous surge in philanthropic activity across the region, helping millions of children in numerous countries. However, there is a lack of coordination in the sector leading to the duplication of some efforts in particular areas and the neglect of others. Research looking at 11 state-funded foundations in the UAE found that more than half work in the area of education and youth. In particular, education programs targeting high-achieving Emirati youth are found across the country, which exist alongside many other opportunities for gifted youth sponsored by different ministries, local government agencies, and other entities. As a result, this oversupply of opportunities for gifted youth may lead to competition among organizations whose mandates focus on a very limited pool of beneficiaries. Similarly, an analysis of 65 foundations operating in the education sector in 11 MENA countries has demonstrated that much of the giving goes towards similar populations (those in higher education, secondary, and primary school) and is given largely for programmatic work or scholarships.2 Conversely, there are very few programs targeting at-risk male youth. In addition, there is far too little support for research by philanthropic organizations, and this will hamper efforts to improve the education sector of the region as programs and initiatives will not be based on evidence but on emotion. Great coordination between donors and more investment in research will undoubtedly lead to an improvement in philanthropic activity and reach.

10. Vulnerable youth need far greater attention across the GCC to help them access and thrive in education.

Whether boys, stateless individuals, refugees, or students from low socio-economic families, there needs to be both an acknowledgement and response to the educational challenges facing students who are at-risk of dropping out or not attending school at all. In a survey of Emirati male secondary school dropouts, respondents whose fathers were retired, unemployed, or dead were 19.1% more likely to have dropped out than those whose fathers were employed either in the government sector (ministries, army, or police) or private sector. As issues relating to drug use, crime, and other societal issues emerge, it becomes critical that all students who do not have the support or wherewithal to attend and thrive in school need assistance to ensure that they, their families, and society in general benefit. The GCC has, for too long, been seen as a place where there is only great wealth and no great needs. However, research that looks at youth from disadvantaged backgrounds demonstrates the real struggles that exist in the region. Findings from the UAE have confirmed the strong impact of socio-economic factors on the likelihood of boys continuing secondary education. Research found that a 1% decrease in family wealth is associated with a 21% increase in the probability of dropping out of school. From issues relating to multiple marriages to neglect, to poverty, and to poor quality education, many students face incredibly difficult situations daily in education systems that are not geared toward supporting or even acknowledging them. Governments in the region need to have policies and programs in place to better support and engage these students so that they can become fully contributing members of society.


This blog was written by Dr. Natasha Ridge with support from David Dingus & Max Eckert.

References for Forthcoming Publications:

Ridge, N., & Kippels, S. (in press). The growth and transformation of K-12 education in the United Arab Emirates. New York City, NY: Springer.

Ridge, N., Kippels, S., & Bruce, E. (in press). Education and philanthropy in the Middle East and North Africa. In N. Ridge & A. Terway (Eds.) Philanthropy in Education: Diverse Perspectives and Global Trends. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.