The UAE: proactive initiatives in positive education

Fiona Thomas examines how education in the UAE continues to move away from the structured, traditional learning approach and leans more towards the development of the wellbeing of all involved in the field, including students, teachers and principals. She reports back from GESS Dubai 2019

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– the must read for HR, global managers and relocation professionals.Each Emirate has a structured education policy based on the UAE Federal Government education policies. Perhaps the best known is Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). The KHDA is responsible for implementing top international educational practices in Dubai. Its intelligent reporting of every international private school provides details of the effectiveness of the school’s educational parameter. Instrumental in progressing Dubai’s excellent education sector towards a knowledge-based economy and schools offering high levels of quality education based on the various international curricula, school choices are now a matter of transparent research, most of which is carried out by the KHDA.

Well-being of students

Of importance is the well-being of students leading ‘to students flourishing at school and in life’. The KHDA’s second happiness census (2018) measured social and emotional well-being, relationships, engagement and learning, physical health, lifestyle and after-school activities. A total of 181 schools took part in the census and, overall, 92 per cent of students felt confident about their schoolwork and 81 per cent felt happy. These statistics are impressive and show that the 170 different nationalities attending schools in Dubai are working together effectively.2019 is the UAE Year of Tolerance and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and ruler of Dubai tweeted, “Tolerance is the cornerstone of advanced societies, intellectually and humanely, and is one of the tools of empowering civilisations and ensuring stability and the flourishing of nations.”Diversity and tolerance are promoted in schools and, in the 2018 happiness census, 83 per cent of students believed that teachers and students treated each other with respect in their school and the same percentage believed that people cared about each other in their school. Marco Longmore questioned whether kindness was worthy of ‘examination’. The headmaster at Dubai’s Brighton College spoke enthusiastically about this personality trait and the development of kindness in students. Bearing in mind the various issues that affect students who are moving within international schools, uprooted from family members as well as close friends, kindness is a trait from which everyone would benefit.

The benefits of kindness for all

The KHDA recognises the benefits of being kind, not only to others but also to oneself, and is developing international best practices in health and well-being for the education community. Zen Kahn, CEO of Education 1st Recruitment and Consultancy, is excited by, “the fact that, to obtain a teacher’s permit in Dubai, all principals and teachers are required to attend a KHDA well-being course; this is to ensure the individual health and general wellbeing of all.” Principals very often absorb the stress from teachers, so helping principals to develop techniques towards promoting health and well-being protects them and supports their own happiness and general health.Kahn also mentioned that the work done on “their own wellbeing through these initiatives filters down to their staff and students. The support and respect given to teachers and principals by the KHDA are represented in the KHDA school initiatives; the focus on staff wellbeing which, in turn, leads to an effective team within schools.”

The impact of social media

Raya Bidshahri, founder and CEO of Awecademy talked about the emotional issues students deal with on a daily basis, which “can be magnified for students living in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar faces.” It takes time for their new situation to be accepted; a situation that the parents see as a positive step financially. Bidshahri suggests that “a little kindness goes a long way and particularly as social media is becoming the norm in developing relationships with peers. However, the downside of social media can be seen in newspapers worldwide with consequences such as depression, body image issues and self-harm.” Bidshahri believes that, as a newcomer to any situation, but particularly an individual in a foreign country, or indeed anywhere they feel out of place, “a strong supporter or ally is imperative; someone who is a good listener and makes no judgement.” The KHDA requires a doctor to be employed by each school, but there is no requirement for counsellors to be available in schools.

A safe environment

The UAE is the safest country in the world (CEOWORLD 2018) where visitors, residents and citizens live side by side in harmony. The education system reflects this statistic and there are policies to underpin it. For example, the KHDA safeguarding policies ensure that there is a reporting system in place for incidents of abuse. Again, this exemplifies the work done by the KHDA to develop best international practices.Given the above statistics, it is no surprise that the benefits of ‘positive psychology’ were highlighted by many of the presenters at GESS Dubai 2019, who recognised the value of positive education. One such presenter, Gilda Scarfe, founder and CEO of Positive Action UK, was delighted with the response at GESS Dubai to her presentation ‘Positive Education: Empowering Students and Teachers to Flourish’, which closely matched some of the KHDA viewpoints. Scarfe looked at the American psychologist Martin Seligman’s statement, “Positive education is defined as education for both traditional skills and happiness. The high prevalence worldwide of depression among young people, the small rise in life satisfaction, and the synergy between learning and positive emotion all argue that the skills for happiness should be taught in school.” Scarfe was encouraged by, “Dubai’s proactive initiatives in positive education, all benefiting teachers and students alike.”

Promoting the arts

The private education landscape is changing and the development of programmes to encourage students’ interest in arts, music and dance are being recognised. Fiona Cottam, principal at Hartland International School, Dubai, has introduced drama as a subject and believes the programme offers students a sense of belonging, confidence, the ability to project themselves on and off stage, as well as learning the value of music, drama and dance throughout their lives. Hartland pupils, supported by Cottam and teacher Lynsay Ansell, entertained GESS visitors to dramatic stage plays in the GESS talks Arena. At the end of their performance, Cottam asked the actors to confirm their nationality and language spoken. Even in the small group who acted out ‘A Performing Arts Pun on VAT in Schools’ at GESS Dubai 2019, there were six different nationalities working towards one common goal.The Diverse Dance Mix (DDMIX) programme, which follows national curriculum PE guidelines, is a dance fitness programme that ‘gets children moving’. Dame Darcey Bussell DBE and founder of DDMIX spoke of “fostering empathy through dance” with an eclectic audience. Again, this type of exciting exercise programme supports the beneficial well-being and initiatives that are now being seen in many Dubai schools and are key in the KHDA’s movement towards healthier and happier school environments.

Virtual reality

Away from the health and well-being aspect of GESS Dubai, virtual reality (VR) really stood out from the crowd. Steve Bambury, head of Digital Learning and Innovation at Jess School, Dubai, held immersive workshops and presentations throughout the three-day event to help simplify this technology for the visitors.Bambury is currently working on a formal policy regarding the length of time students should be allowed to use the VR headsets but, “suffice to say that it is dependent on the age of the students and the nature of the experience. In primary school, I wouldn’t expect kids in KS1 to do a VR experience that lasts more than a couple of minutes, whilst in KS2 you can probably push that up to around five to 10 minutes. In secondary, the same progression applies and only our sixth form students are ever allowed to moderate their own VR usage.” A responsible attitude by all should be recognised as a necessity in the use of VR within or outside a classroom setting.The winner of the award for Innovation was Immersive VR Education for its Engage VR platform. Based in Waterford, Ireland, David Whelan, one of the founders, was very much ‘hands-on’ during GESS Dubai 2019. There has been much research on immersive VR online education, showing that there is an 80 per cent retention rate compared to traditional methods, a significant variant. Student university fees can be high and using this VR immersive online technology provides a social education platform where three-dimensional objects can be recorded, along with voice and movement, among other aspects of a presentation or learning scenario. VR is also beneficial in one-to-one tutorials at any distance.GESS Dubai 2019 captured the interest of all visitors and the exciting presenters and exhibitors proved that education is continually evolving, along with initiatives and innovative ideas.
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