Have you ever had the opportunity to visit a school abroad?
On 20th to 23rd February 2018, I had the pleasure of visiting Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to work with colleagues at GEMS Wellington International School. This blog captures my experience and thoughts about the things that I learnt …
Over the 4 days I visited Dubai, I had the pleasure of working with teachers on 21st/22nd February. It was an incredible experience and I would like to take a moment to thank the leadership team and principal, Ruth Burke for looking after me and making my entire visit comfortable and welcoming.
Throughout two days, I met with senior and middle leaders, teachers, support staff and students in various events, meetings and lessons around the school. GEMS Wellington is a truly ground-breaking learning environment that provides exceptionally high standards of education to all the students. The facilities are phenomenal and it was so inspiring to observe students in foundation stage through to sixth form.
GEMS offers the National Curriculum of England from Foundation Stage to Year 11 and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, courses and careers programme in Years 12 and 13.
Although I would like to celebrate the vast range of work GEMS Wellington provides, my brief was to support the school’s teaching and learning agenda – digging into research, evidence and the psychology associated with teaching and learning. Threaded throughout all of this was the underlying objective to understand teacher wellbeing; reduce workload and increase impact. Therefore, although there is no doubt that this is truly an ‘outstanding’ school securing the best outcomes for every child, this post focuses solely on what challenges the school is doing to support teaching and learning. This is clearly a good sign of a ‘listening leadership team’; here are my initial thoughts on the key challenges I observed.
I would assume with most fee-paying schools, that “if I’m paying for it” brings a particular expectation from the parents that teachers must deliver and respond. My first provocation having worked in both the state and private sector, is if a parent sends their child to state school and is also paying their taxes, doesn’t the taxpayer paying for their child’s education pay for an education too?
Research suggests that outcomes between state and private schools in England are broadly in line with one another. If so, doesn’t this suggest our assumptions of paying for an education versus value-for-money should be re-evaluated?
The most surprising point I learnt here, was not that I was surprised by anything about the fee-paying nature of a private setting, but to have ‘expectations from parents’ reinforced in terms of its impact of teacher workload and as one example, access to teacher emails with the assumption that a child’s teacher should be available 24/7 to answer any questions. I see this at state school level in my son’s primary school and throughout my teaching career when computers reached teachers’ offices and classrooms; teachers responding to parental emails night and day …
Most readers will understand why a teacher would want to move abroad. Lucrative salaries, working conditions, paid for apartments, health care, annual return flights and cheaper costs of living, but what are the downsides? Well, teaching staff on the whole were very positive about working in Dubai, but other than missing your loved ones, workload exists in Dubai.
Context is critical here as this is only one example, but I was not surprised to discover that of the 250+ teaching staff, the school has to recruit 10-20% new teaching staff every year. Digging into the reasons, workload wasn’t a standalone issue for leaving and of course would be subject to the individual. Generally, teachers are given a two-year contract and I am confident that this will be coupled with planning issues for the leadership team, but what surprised me the most of all, was that the UAE are also struggling to attract and retain teachers. There are a number of research articles …
Tax-free salaries are no longer enough to attract and retain the best teachers, recruiters say as they urge headteachers to focus on providing better career opportunities. Reports in the media have identified rates of anywhere between 20 per cent and upwards of 60 per cent in some cases!
It appears as though marking is the greatest burden for every teacher, regardless of setting. In the past 6 months, I have had this issue confirmed time and time again. As schools and school leaders, we have a duty to consider assessment and examinations, but where marking is concerned and [should be] designed to improve the learner, we need to challenge not only parental and external expectations of marking and effective feedback, but our own habits.
Is there any evidence to suggest marking by coloured pens and using a particular frequency improves learning? Particularly when imposed on all teachers in one school? It may improve evidence / outcomes, but is that ‘actually’ learning? Note, this was not the case at GEMS where I discovered autonomous processes between key stage and department, as well as a wonderful idea introduced by the new head of science (secondary): “Our science teachers do not mark.” Here is an example in which the student does more work than the teacher …
Finally, my favourite topic: school accountability. Firstly, I’m all for high standards and being held to account, but in England not under the current inspection framework. But, and there is a but, so please hold back on the social media sound bytes exclaiming “Teacher Toolkit loves OfSTED!”. It is clear OfSTED in England are listening and are clearly ahead of most, but I was shocked to discover that the school – assuming any UAE school – is inspected annually by the English equivalent of OfSTED.
The process lasts for one week and I think from memory, a good period of notice is provided. Note, the school received its inspection two weeks before my arrival. On top of this, the school has a supportive peer-to-peer review system.
During my two days I was made aware that a teacher was asked to “evidence progress in an exercise book” to help with the inspection process. It was clear in this instance and on many other teacher training occasions, that teachers are starting to be driven more by external preferences rather than what is best for their workload and for their students.
I leave you with my recommendations shared with the school leadership team which I think will also apply in every school:
- Allocate one member of the senior leadership team to tackle all staff emails. Each time a colleague shares a message, bat it back with this reminder: “All staff message are to be shared in the X bulletin and must reach X by this time.”
- As well as this, communicate with parents how long a teacher has before they are expected to reply to an email. 72 hours is a very reasonable turnaround which also factors in the weekend period for much-needed downtime.
- Communicate to parents what classwork and homework will ‘not be marked’ and share this mantra time and time again.
- Introduce a research-lead champion to disseminate the latest research into bite-sized summaries for all teachers.
- Share this research with parents are various events so that they are aware of the most effective teaching and learning strategies. Even if they are (or aren’t) paying for an education, every school must challenge parental perceptions and expectations of what they experienced over 20 years ago.
- Finally, reduce the amount of meeting periods teachers are expected to attend. Workload issues can dramatically disappear overnight is meeting are well-managed, succinct and give teachers time to complete tasks within the allotted meeting time.
Despite these challenges that face GEMS Wellington, they are doing an incredible job for their students, their staff who work there and for the local region as a whole. It was a privilege to be invited and spend a short time influencing the workload and research-informed debate. I am reassured their reflective and open approach will soon find them sharing many ideas with others.