Passion for learning in desert heat

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Roy Blatchford on inspecting schools in Dubai

The Dubai skyline exceeds expectations. Its buildings appear to defy gravity and refract the desert sun with a shattering intensity. It is said that a quarter of the world's construction cranes are congregated here, many in suspended animation courtesy of the global slowdown. Echoes of Ozymandias and his "vast and trunkless legs of stone" resonate.

Overstated opulence and understated poverty lie together uncomfortably. Yet it is not only the hotels that Dubai is trying to make world class. The clarion call of its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, sounds familiar: "Education, education, education."

The Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau is busy auditing every establishment, public and private, in its jurisdiction. All curriculum models are here - United Arab Emirates, Indian, international baccalaureate, German, Iranian, US, Russian, Philippine, Japanese. But my interest is captured by the government-run schools.

Journeys to them start in rush-hour traffic and end down dusty tracks best negotiated by 4x4s and a driver with a good horn. Welcomes begin with hundreds of handshakes in the playground, followed by black coffee and sweetmeats in the principal's office - and it's only 7am.

Inspecting and reviewing schools via an interpreter arrests one's seasoned eyes and ears. Leadership and management, teaching and learning, students' personal development - the essential ingredients don't change from Dubai to Mumbai, New York to London. Yet cultural nuances matter profoundly.

In one school, I watch a skilled team of teachers of English. They make me look afresh at my own language. Native speakers of Arabic, with few resources beyond a lacklustre textbook and battling to be heard over the incessant air-conditioning, they impress with their passion for the subject.

In a desert climate, children react to torrential rain the way UK pupils respond to a few inches of snow: a mad dash for the playground to soak themselves. Attendance is down in one school, says the welfare officer, "because it rained yesterday". We know it rained because whole hallways and corridors are drying out.

At another school, Tuesday morning sees suspension of the normal timetable for mixed-age learning activities chosen by the pupils. Some are dual storytelling in Arabic and English; some are running a fruit stall; others cut up fresh fish; still others create brightly coloured artefacts linked to their Islamic studies.

Assemblies, held outdoors, are student-led, unashamedly nationalistic and rooted in Islam.

What images am I left with? Primary pupils marching with rifles as part of the curriculum; short plays enacting the Middle East conflict that challenge my own prejudices; feeding back inspection findings to a team of women in burkas; joyful children hungry for learning and with a passion to learn English; teachers, creative as they are the world over; a society seeking to modernise without Westernising. I look forward to my return.

Roy Blatchford is director of the National Education Trust.

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