By Mohammed Iqbal
The development of private schools in Qatar is interlinked with the history and demography of the large expatriate populations here. The pioneering private schools in the country were established by Pakistanis and Indians, the two major South Asian communities to land on the Arabian coast more than half a century ago.
Pak Shama, a Pakistani school established in 1968 is said to be the first private school in Qatar. The succeeding years saw the establishment of several schools catering to different expatriate communities and international schools targeting Qatari and non-Qatari students.
The number of private schools has now grown to 123, according to the recently released Schools and Schooling in Qatar 2010-2011 Report of the Supreme Education Council (SEC).
This includes 75 international schools, 24 private Arabic schools and 24 community schools.
They together have 96,165 students, which is higher than the total number of students in Independent schools (85,863), as shown by the report. The report has put the total number of students in “community schools” at 21,056, a figure that is disputable if all the expatriate schools have been classified as community schools.
For instance, the seven Indian schools alone have more than 25,000 students on their rolls. Many Arabic private schools, serving different Arab communities can also be described as community schools. The classification of private schools into the said categories has always been vague and problematic. And so is the treatment of these schools putting them all in one basket.
Qatar established laws to regulate the private education sector about three decades ago. The erstwhile Ministry of Education had a separate department for private education. This was later replaced by the Private Schools Office at SEC, after the abolition of the Ministry and establishment of the Supreme Education Council, as the regulatory authority in education.
The SEC has now embarked on a major initiative to raise the standards of all private schools parallel to the ‘Education For a New Era’ initiative that resulted in the transformation of all government schools to independent schools. A new law on private education is in the making taking into account the changes and new requirements in the sector.
The importance of private schools in the educational development of the country was clearly articulated in the National Development Strategy 2011- 2016 issued last year.
“Understanding the dynamics of enrolment of Qatari children and children of expatriates is important for interpreting recent changes in Qatar’s education and training system and planning for its future. With the rising number of expatriates, their children now constitute the majority of students at all levels of education,” says the NDS document.
It also noted that the number of Qatari students in private international schools has surged at all levels, with the implementation of new reforms in primary education. Overall, Qatari enrolment in private international schools now ranks second after public schools, ahead of private Arabic schools.
“The switch reflects the increasing importance of non-Arabic schools, the majority providing instruction in English,” said the document.
The NHS underlined the fact that raising the standard of both private and independent schools to international levels was necessary to attract a more skilled workforce to the country.
To achieve this goal, the SEC has established a set of standards and requirements for private schools that encompasses all areas ranging from school buildings and facilities, qualification of teachers to academic and curriculum standards.
“The minimum standard we expect from private schools is that of the Independent schools. We cannot accept anything less than that,” Fauziya Al Khater, director of the Private Schools Office told The Peninsula.
“We had given three years for these schools to meet the SEC requirements, which will end this academic year. Most schools have successfully met the requirements. There are a few that have lagged behind, mainly in terms of facilities and qualifications of the teachers. They may be given some more time if there is a real readiness to rectify their status. Otherwise they will face legal action,” she added.
Such claims cannot be exaggerated, looking at the steady transformation that private schools have undergone over the past few years. Many schools that started in small villas and portacabins have moved to new purpose-built premises and many others are in the process of doing so. Schools are also busy upgrading their transport services, following strict instructions by the SEC to ensure the safety and quality of the school buses.
To improve the academic standards of private schools, the SEC announced two major initiatives - the Qatar National School Accreditation (QNSA) and the professional licensing for teachers.
All private schools are required to obtain a recognised international accreditation or the national accreditation. To qualify for the accreditation, schools have to fulfil all the required academic, educational and infrastructure standards.
More than 30 schools have already been nominated for accreditation and many more schools have applied for that.
“Schools that have not yet started the procedures to obtain the accreditation must do it by the next academic year,” said Al Khater.
A professional licence has been made mandatory for all private schoolteachers to ensure that only qualified teachers are employed by these schools. This move was widely welcomed, but the project has been put on hold at least in the case of the community schools.
Asked about this, Al Khater said she was not in a position to clarify since licensing comes under the Evaluation Institute at SEC.
Such issues indicate that the reform initiative has its teething problems. The main challenge is to understand and identify the difference between the various types of private schools that follow different types of curricula, academic schedule and teaching methods.
Asked how the SEC would overcome this challenge, Al Khater said: “What we are doing is to lay down the basic standards and requirements that every school has to follow.”
However, a lack of understanding about the nature of different schools have often caused confusion among the academic community.
Teachers’ licensing is one example. SEC would require an army of experts to verify the documents and certificates of teachers working in different private schools, before issuing the licences.
“The SEC had held several meetings with the schools to explain the licensing procedures but finally we were told to stop the procedures,” said the principal of an Indian community school.
SEC’s instructions to private schools regarding teaching of Arabic, Islamic history and Qatar history have also become a source of confusion for many schools.
It took several months for the SEC to clarify on the decision. Finally it was explained that all private schools must teach Qatar history, while the other two subjects are mandatory for schools that have Qatari students on their rolls. It was also clarified that schools with non-Qatari Muslim or Arab students should also teach Arabic and Islamic studies, if they request for that.
Even after the explanation, many private schools could not start teaching Qatar history because they were not provided with the material to teach the subject.
“We are ready to teach the subject but we still don’t know what to teach. We need the books in English,” said the principal.
Al Khater told The Peninsula that books for Qatar history in English and Arabic will be made available to all private schools by coming September.
“We have already provided the resources to the schools and the books will be ready by September. All the schools that have not yet started teaching the subject must do it by the next academic year,” said Al Khater.
The SEC’s recent circular unifying the holidays of all the independent and private schools have also put several private schools in a dilemma, since they have already announced the holidays before the SEC decision came out.
“Our academic year begins in April, while the Independent Schools and most other schools start their academic year in September. Our vacation schedule is also different from that of the Independent Schools. We hope the SEC would consider such differences before taking such decisions,” said the principal of another Indian schools, seeking an exemption from the new rule.
These are problems that can be overcome through proper communication and a more professional approach. But there are bigger issues such as the increasing commercialisation of private education. The SEC has tightened rules regarding school fees following repeated complaints about schools charging exorbitant fees. No school is permitted to impose any fee or charges on the students without approval from the SEC. However, it is doubtful whether this rule is properly enforced. Many schools have been inventing new techniques every year to extort money from students, with or without the knowledge of the authorities. There are wide disparities in the fees charged by different schools providing more or less similar services and following the same curriculum. It can not be said that schools charging a higher fee are providing better services.
The physical standards and infrastructure of the schools have improved significantly, thanks to intervention by the authorities, but it is to be studied how much this has helped improve the quality of education. The poor quality of classroom coaching is a major factor forcing students to rely on private tuitions. Many parents are spending more amounts for private tutors compared to what they pay as tuition fees. The poorly paid private school teachers are promoting tuitions as a way to make some extra money. In many cases, the teachers are offering tuitions to their own students in the evenings in the privacy of their homes. This has become a vicious circle making it extremely difficult for students to perform well in the examinations without the support of private tutors.
The so called community schools are supposed to serve the interests of the respective communities but there have been criticisms that they have degenerated into commercial ventures, with profit as the only driving force for their managements. The community has no role in the running of most of these schools although the SEC rules stipulate that the parents and community representatives should be involved in decision making.
Many private schools are now introducing new learning techniques such as e-learning which come at an additional cost. The idea is to make learning more interactive and interesting to students, but many believe that this is more an image-building exercise for the schools and yet another way to fleece the parents. Such experiments cannot succeed without qualified and adequately trained teachers but most of these schools are relying on the same old staff who are entrenched in the old methods of teaching.
The SEC will have to look into all such issues when it goes ahead with its ambitious reform initiative. The issue often becomes complex due to the complexities in dealing with the diverse expatriate communities. With private education becoming more and more expensive in the country, SEC must make sure that private schools deliver the desired results.