Interview: Muhadditha Al Hashimi
How did private schools in Sharjah respond to the various challenges arising from the pandemic?
MUHADDITHA AL HASHIMI: The pandemic led to widespread social and financial hardships that affected families and companies. However, private schools in Sharjah responded appropriately to the crisis. Most schools did not reduce teacher salaries and refrained from making non-teaching staff redundant. Some schools extended financial support to struggling families through tuition discounts and flexible payment schedules, while providing the necessary equipment for remote learning. All these actions followed recommendations by SPEA, which – in line with government decrees – also directed schools not to increase tuition fees and temporarily prevented teaching staff from being laid off.
With a view to preventing the spread of the virus after on-site classes resumed in September 2020, SPEA issued mandatory rules to ensure the health and safety and students and staff, and train school personnel on the correct implementation of precautionary measures to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 in schools. Among other requirements, we prompted the formation of committees in every school to detect and manage Covid-19 cases. Furthermore, many health and safety courses were developed and some were made mandatory for school staff.
To what extent is technology driving permanent changes in education provision?
AL HASHIMI: The switch to remote teaching was swift thanks to the high level of preparedness of private schools and the UAE’s infrastructure. In May 2020 SPEA, in partnership with a UK education inspection firm, evaluated more than 100 private schools in the emirate to assess the distance-learning services provided to parents and students. The evaluation consisted of three levels – developed, partially developed and not developed – with 70 schools categorised as “developed” and zero as “not developed”. Since then, SPEA’s Continuous Improvement Department, which includes international education advisers, has been helping private schools to strengthen their remote-teaching capabilities. The pandemic has also sped up major changes that were already under way. Before the health crisis, schools sometimes used online tools to manage coursework or distribute resources; however, the current focus on lesson delivery has encouraged schools to develop their capabilities to train teachers and deploy new modalities of online, offline or hybrid education.
In the near future school curricula, timetables and schedules will have to adapt to the different modalities of teaching, with music and physical education posing particular challenges. SPEA and the government are engaging with several players, including at an international level, to design forward-looking education policies. In this regard, an important step was taken during the pandemic to facilitate the transition towards the future of education: the creation of the Sharjah Education Academy, a public entity to upskill teachers and school leaders to navigate major ongoing challenges.
Where do you see opportunities for investors in K-12 education, and how are the authorities working to widen the participation of private players?
AL HASHIMI: In addition to public efforts, the emirate values the contributions of investors in education. While the K-12 segment has been growing rapidly – four new schools opened in 2020, for instance – private investment is still needed. SPEA is currently developing data platforms for potential investors to identify opportunities and allocate capital. New opportunities will emerge across various areas of K-12 and associated services, allowing for alternative business models. As we expect remote learning to remain an integral part of the education landscape, SPEA and other entities are identifying a list of requirements to issue licences for digital schools in order to create a well-ordered market driven by innovation and quality instruction.
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