Comment: The road to outstandingJanuary 14, 2018, 3:40 pm GMT
School inspections are an integral part of achieving the UAE's Vision 2021 with respect to high quality education. The National Inspection Framework itself is a testament to the country's commitment to putting in place a robust system for on-going school improvement. However, the reality is that to date, only 17% of schools have achieved a ranking of Outstanding. This means at least three things: 1. Achieving outstanding is possible, 2. Models of excellence exist that can benefit the rest, and 3. There are a lot of schools that need to improve before 2021.
In February 2017, Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group's (ADUKG) education division published a white paper entitled Road to Outstanding. The publication qualitatively describes best practices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi's Outstanding-ranked schools. Through a detailed analysis of school inspection reports, the publication serves as a guide to struggling schools of what outstanding schools do right.
The following highlights provide a summary of seven key findings that differentiate an Outstanding school from others:
Outstanding schools are described in the inspection reports as being deeply self-reflective and highly attuned to their school's needs. For example, outstanding school principals interviewed during this study acknowledged that by their own personal assessment, their school has much to improve to be truly outstanding. It is an ethic of constant self reflection where leaders are critically aware of their own gaps, they systematically address barriers, and they encourage all stakeholders parents and students in particular to contribute constructive criticism.
Descriptions of school leaders in outstanding schools reflect a collaborative form of leadership where each stakeholder plays a role in the success of the school including parents and students. Outstanding school principals have fostered a sense of communal responsibility, beginning with transparency and involving everyone in setting priorities and celebrating successes. Senior and middle leaders have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and all stakeholders are equally held accountable for targets and key performance indicators.
One significant point is that senior leaders trust and rely on middle leaders to play a substantial role in overseeing the quality of teaching and learning a key differentiator often lacking in low performing schools.
There's something different about the energy in outstanding schools it's infectious. Many inspection reports cite examples of positive reinforcement like "Caught ya doin' good" instead of reprimanding misbehaviour. Students are described in the reports as empathetic, responsible, and mature initiating campaigns and taking responsibility for their own learning. But much of this comes from the mentorship and opportunities awarded to students from the leadership and teachers. Outstanding schools are described as providing opportunities for students to lead decision making and to actively partake in conflict resolution.
Vigorous Tracking of Student Progress and Attainment
Tracking attainment is a substantial part of the UAE school inspection process and outstanding schools take this part very seriously.
Outstanding schools are described as having "sophisticated systems for tracking progress", clearly communicated expectations for all teachers and students, and formative feedback is constant and individualised. Data driven instruction is more than a buzz word in outstanding schools, they have systems in place for data to be regularly gathered, analysed in small and large teams, action plans around informed decision-making for how to address gaps, and celebrations for staff and students based on achievements.
Curriculum is Diverse
What inspectors are looking for in a strong curriculum is for a school to create learning maps that illustrate how learning outcomes are going to be achieved across the school year. Outstanding schools are noted to have well planned and structured progression that a) meets the needs of their particular student demographics, and b) addresses the specific areas of under-performance identified in the previous school inspection.
A well planned curriculum also includes action plans to differentiate for gifted and talented (G&T) and special education needs (SEN) students. Lastly, with the UAE's push toward reinforcing national identity and moral education, outstanding schools map cross curricular links that are meaningful.
Teaching is dynamic
This is a foundational marker of an outstanding school. The quality of teaching and learning in outstanding schools is described as being "imaginative" and terms such as "inspiring learning environments" are written in some reports. Others state that teaching is a "dialogue, not a monologue" and overall teaching is consistently identifed as being inquiry-based, using effective open-ended questioning and collaborative problem solving.
For most outstanding schools there is mention of sharing best practices within the school, a strong professional development programme, and an on-going monitoring of good practice through professional learning communities.
Arabic and Islamic is work in progress
It was not a surprise that none of the Outstanding-rated schools have achieved excellence in Arabic and Islamic Education. Both subjects are evidently a work in progress across all schools to improve the quality of teaching and learning, increase the professional development support provided to teachers, build capacity of middle leaders to better support departmental oversight, and develop more relevant and engaging learning resources for students.
What is acknowledged in many of the inspection reports are the initiatives being put in place to improve Arabic and Islamic Education by Outstanding schools, such as sending select teachers to pursue an iPGCE and others fostering collaborations between language departments within the school.
For schools on the road to Outstanding, the findings of this report provide a roadmap on the tangible strategies and broad emphasis that some schools have focused on to achieve outstanding. As the UAE continues to strive toward education excellence, these best practices serve as positive case studies that a) mediocrity is unacceptable and b) that outstanding is possible.
Dr Nadeem Memon, Director of Education Consulting, Knowledge Group
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