By David Lepeska
Doha // Qatari first lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned launched this week’s inaugural WISE Summit with clear objectives. “Innovation in education should become an achievable and executable process,” she told hundreds of educators, academics and experts gathered here to discuss the future of education. “Innovation stems from the society and is not imposed on it – it should therefore be a part of the identity of educational institutions."
Innovation may soon be part of the scholastic identity in Qatar, where an ambitious, six-year-old reform programme has begun bearing fruit. In several dozen new government-run schools teachers have shown greater engagement and students tested higher than peers at standard public schools.
“The reform has achieved important successes in its early years,” said a study released this month by the Rand Corporation. “Independent schools have been showing clear progress in applying new student-centred curriculum and teaching methods.”
In a region with few high-achieving school systems, and millions of knowledge-hungry youths, this tiny nation’s new schools offer hope.
The seeds of Qatar’s billion-dollar reform programme, “Education for a New Era”, were planted in 2001. At that time, some 70,000 K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) students attended government financed and operated public schools that could impart the basics but little more.
Seeking to better prepare Qataris for post-secondary education and careers in a globalised economy, the government tasked the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, to analyse its schools and make recommendations.
Rand found a woeful public school system and laid out three options for reform. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani chose the most ambitious – a comprehensive structural reform that would encourage innovation, accountability and variety within independently managed, publicly funded independent schools – and asked Rand to help implement the programme.
Advisers from the Centre for British Teachers and the US-based Charter Schools Development Center helped new school managers design learning programmes and developed an advanced curriculum centred on Arabic, English, science and mathematics. In 2004, the first dozen schools opened their doors. Increased demand led to the opening of a few dozen more schools by 2006.
Progress followed. “This is just a much better learning environment,” said Jan Wilson, director of professional development at Qatar’s new Supreme Education Council (SEC), which runs the independent schools. After 15 years helping the United Nations rebuild school systems in war-torn countries, she joined the SEC in 2003 and helped replace the traditional school system.
A two-year study by the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute, a joint partnership between Rand and the Qatar Foundation, was released last month and describes more demanding yet more supportive classrooms.
“The leadership teams are well-trained and have a good understanding of what they have to do and the teachers are much more secure and knowledgeable,” added Ms Wilson, pointing out the value of the annual assessment tests given to all students at the new schools. “The tests show a year-on-year improvement across the schools.”
At the Abu Baker Asdeeq Independent School, a boys’ middle school in Doha, the conference room shelves are lined with row upon row of binders – comprehensive profiles of all 650 students. Some 70 per cent are Qatari, according to the vice principal, Fareed Yaghi, and the rest from neighbouring countries.
“Everything is different from the other school,” said Abdullah Yousef Deyab, 14, an Abu Baker 9th-grader who attended a ministry-run school until a few years ago. “The students, the teachers, the whole way of learning – this school is much better.” The teenager is not sure what profession he would like to pursue, but he wants to study at a US university.
That’s a possibility. The number of Qatari students in the US increased by 35 per cent in 2008 – the fastest growth rate in the Gulf, according to the latest Open Doors Report from the New York-based International Institute for Education. About 1,000 Qataris are now studying at US institutions within the US and at Education City in Doha. Some of these students graduated from Qatar’s new independent schools.
Yet Qatar’s success remains a regional exception. “The divide between education and employment has not been bridged and the quality of education continues to be disappointing,” said a 2008 World Bank report on education reform in the Middle East and North Africa. “Despite considerable growth in the level of educational attainment, there continues to be an ‘education gap’ with other regions.”
Qatar’s 106 independent schools have begun narrowing that gap. The government eliminated the ministry of education and by September next year, will have also eliminated all its traditional public schools. By that time, the SEC will be operating 180 independent schools, with the possibility of more to come.
Yet the initiative has not been perfect. School leaders have had difficulty explaining to parents how their schools differ from traditional public schools.
Too many policy changes have slowed administrative progress, and classes in English have lagged because of little proficiency among teachers and students.
Most troublesome has been a shortage of Qatari teachers. “Local capacity is limited by numbers,” said Ms Wilson. “There are just not enough Qatari teachers in the country.” She has partnered with Qatar University to attract more, but that’s not the only hurdle.
Female Qataris are willing to teach in part because it provides a secure, gender-segregated workplace. Qatari males take a different view. “Qatari men just don’t want to teach,” said Fareed Yaghi, vice principal of Abu Baker, where six of the 50 teachers are Qatari.
That may change as the independent schools take root. For now, Qatari educators must content themselves with small, daily revelations. “Today the student parliament requested more time for exams, they told me one hour is too short,” Mr Yaghi said. “I’ll have to talk to the teachers – they may be right.”
-- originally appeared 20 Nov 2009, in The National (www.thenational.ae)