Learning from between-school collaboration in Dubai

Can a school learn from another school? And, if so, how exactly? That is the question at the heart of this new study for a general audience that looks at how Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the government entity responsible for overseeing Dubai’s huge private education sector, has encouraged a set of initiatives based on between-school collaboration. All schools in the city-state are invited to participate in these, which allows them to meet, exchange ideas, work with one other, and so benefit from the diversity and richness of the educational landscape around them.

Dubai’s School Systems and the KHDA

Dubai is a remarkable city in many respects, and this is particularly true from an educational perspective. 90 percent of all students are in private schools in 17 different school systems. There are UK, US, IB, Emirati, Indian, SABIS, Pakistani, Russian, Iranian, Japanese, German, French, Philippine, Swiss and Canadian systems, to name a few. It is truly a world in a city. The sector is growing rapidly, too. In just the last seven school years, there have been more than 80,000 new students (a 40 percent increase) and 76 new school openings.

In this context, the KHDA must encourage investors to enter the space. It needs more schools to open, but it must also look to improve quality in the sector. It faces an unusual challenge in doing so: as a public government entity, it cannot easily intervene in Dubai’s private education sector. Unlike the Ministry of Education in the public sector that can mandate changes in curriculum, teacher training, school leadership, the KHDA must try to steer the education sector by developing general policies that apply to all schools.

In 2014, the KHDA invited the World Bank to study a first set of these policies. These related to improving accountability in the education sector through information sharing. The underlying idea was simple: provide stakeholders with more information and there will be more accountability. How? All schools are inspected on an annual basis, and the school ratings are made public. The day the ratings come out, Dubai is abuzz with the news. In the last five years, as a result, enrollment in better schools has increased from 30 to 50 percent. Read more about that World Bank’s study of Dubai’s school performance here.

KHDA’s Collaboration Initiatives and the World Bank's Collaboration Road

In an ongoing drive to improve the sector, the KHDA put into place a second complementary set of initiatives. These relate to encouraging schools to work together to improve together. The KHDA once again commissioned the World Bank to study these initiatives. The new report Collaboration Road: Dubai’s Journey towards School Improvement was launched at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on March 24, 2019. Please follow this link for the presentation (starts at 1:25).

The underlying idea of the second set of initiatives was also simple: schools can learn from each other by working together. To encourage this, the KHDA put into place four initiatives: the What Works, Living Arabic, Lighthouse and Abundance projects. Briefly, these initiatives are opportunities for schools to meet, work together, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.

Why Does Collaboration Work?

What does research and international practice suggest about collaboration? The growing evidence on collaboration, both between and within schools, is quite robust. For examples see studies on building relationships through professional learning communities, learning job skills from colleagues, shaping professional development programs, and reviews on teacher collaboration. Over the last two decades, school-to-school collaboration has been leveraged in school systems as diverse as Canada, China, Singapore, Sweden, England, the US, and most recently, Scotland. These collaborations have generally been between schools in the same school system (with the same curriculum, school organization, and so on), though there have been a few exceptions: for example, the mathematics exchange program between the Departments of Education in the UK and Shanghai has been extended to 2020.

In line with this, the report Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems shows how Shanghai, British Columbia, Singapore, and Hong Kong offer professional learning to their teachers. These four high-performing systems all score near the top in mathematics, reading and science in PISA. Although these systems differ in many ways, central to them all is collaborative professional learning that has become part of the daily lives of teachers and school leaders. With this in mind, the report Collaboration Road pursued its study about collaboration with the working hypothesis: Dubai’s effective schools would collaborate, and less effective schools would not. But this is not what the fieldwork revealed.

What was found?

Online surveys taken from Dubai schools and focus groups in November 2018 revealed that many schools collaborate and in a variety of ways. Whether these schools were well-rated or less well-rated, with fees at high- or low-price points, or schools with very different educational philosophies, they almost all worked collaboratively in some way across schools and within school.

The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) support these findings. Figure 1 reflects how teachers across the world tend to work, whether they place importance on content knowledge (knowledge), working alone (autonomy), or working collaboratively (peer networks) in their professional lives. So, as the figure shows, collaboration is used to a great extent in two countries known for their high performance, China (Shanghai) and Korea (the blue circles), which corroborates the research. And yet, on the other hand, there is little collaboration seen in another well-known high performer, Finland (red circle). Further, and more paradoxically, teachers in Malaysia state that they work together extensively (yellow circle), and yet Malaysia is not yet known for its performance. So there does not seem to be a clear correlation between collaboration and level of education performance.]

Figure 1 How teachers across the world tend to work

Figure 1 How teachers across the world tend to work

Source: OECD, 2018


What’s the bottom line about collaboration?

The bottom line seems to be this: it is the quality, not the quantity, of the collaboration that is important. And this is what matters in Dubai.

Three policy-relevant takeaways from the study

Point #1. Collaboration is an effective and inexpensive option for teacher professional development when it is well-structured. With the launch of the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, attention in the Education Global Practice has turned, now more than ever, to developing human capital. This is a complex issue that involves aligning many actors and issues, as the World Development Report of 2018 has clearly shown, yet at the heart of the matter, one factor stands out: the teacher. No school, as the now well-known maxim goes, can surpass the quality of its teachers.

If the quality of teaching and learning depends on teacher effectiveness, then a significant issue in any school improvement process must be teacher improvement. The central challenge lies in introducing teachers to new, different ways of teaching and seeing them adopt these successfully to become more effective. Teachers who have been used to doing things in one way for some time, can learn to do things differently, but only if given the necessary tools and enough institutional support. Teachers need to be supported in implementing these new approaches in their classrooms. There are many ways to do this: through teacher mentors, coaching, and by establishing professional learning communities. The whole point of doing so is to enable collaboration between teachers to occur more frequently and more easily.

Remarkably, as teachers collaborate, their sense of self-efficacy and job satisfaction actually increases (OECD, 2018). A clear lesson, then, is that the old model of a single-teacher-in-solo-practice needs to evolve toward a new paradigm where teachers continuously develop their content knowledge and pedagogical skills through collaborative practice embedded in the daily fabric of their work, whether this means benefitting from collaboration with colleagues within their own schools or with others in other schools.

That said, the collaboration must be well-structured; it is essential that ground rules be followed for it to be successful (discussed on p.40 &41 of the report).

Point #2. Collaboration promotes a focus on local solutions and offers a way to implement them. There is a trend in education reform to look to high-performing systems for answers. For example, Shanghai, Singapore, and Finland are often cited. But it is important to keep in mind that what works in these systems may not always work well in other contexts. Much can be lost in translation. Instead, successful local initiatives need to be identified because learning from them represents a pragmatic way forward for education reform policy. There are great schools in any system and great teachers in any school. It is not enough to identify good practice; it is essential to find ways to transfer that knowledge effectively. The opportunity to collaborate with effective schools is crucial, and Collaboration Road suggests that collaboration can be an effective mechanism to facilitate this knowledge transfer throughout Dubai’s school systems.  

Point #3 Collaboration promotes accountability. The first World Bank study of the KHDA considered how the KHDA had adopted policies to strengthen accountability at the system level. Information about school ratings that were made publicly available increased this. Now, promoting collaborative practice is, interestingly, also a way to promote accountability – this time at the actor level. Indeed, many high-performing systems that promote collaborative practices also observe high peer accountability. As teachers work with each other, whether providing feedback on effective practices or discouraging ineffective ones, the interaction that takes place is driven to some extent by peer pressure. A participant’s respect for and desire to be in line with colleagues leads to change.

Collaboration, then, in Dubai should not be seen as a new policy stance on the part of the KHDA but rather as an evolution of their position on accountability. It represents another way, another policy lever, to introduce accountability into the system in a continuing quest for improvements in school and sector quality.


Simon Thacker

Education Specialist

Abdo Said Abdo

Education Specialist

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