Navin Valrani, CEO, Arcadia Education

Dubai can show the world how schools need to be reopened

Schools in Dubai continue to excel in their distance learning provision relative to their peers across other cities. 

Leadership teams are now strategically putting together contingency plans based on various scenarios for the first term of the 2020-21 academic year, as investors get ready to open up their wallets to support their respective communities through these challenging times. To figure out how the future may play out, one can find the answer by revisiting an economist spoke about in an A level Economics class (yes, I did love A level Economics!).

Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, arguably the most influential economist in modern times, is typically commended for his work on monetary policy. However, many are unaware that the scholar did have quite a radical view of how K-12 education should be run in the United States. In 1955 (65 years ago!), he wrote an article titled "The Role of Government in Education" where he proposed a relatively alien concept at the time: school choice. While the debate on school choice still rages on in the US, it seems that a city 11,000km away was listening to Mr. Friedman and got its school landscape spot on to weather the storm we are facing today. The city is Dubai.

As Dubai opened up its education sector to foreign investors, schools offering varied curricula at a range of price points began to spring up. With the added benefit of a city that was growing at a frenetic pace, investors enjoyed returns while giving parents a choice as to the education that was most desirable for their children. A zipcode never became the sole determinant over the choice of school for a Dubai parent. Friedman would have been proud.

However, little did Friedman know that in the year 2020, we would be amid a pandemic, and the very policy he proposed to improve student outcomes would be the one best suited to ensure the survival of the school sector. By opening up the school sector to private investment, Dubai has allowed for market forces to improve student outcomes. It has also now gained a partner that will innovate its way out of this crisis. The public-private partnership that exists in the school sector in Dubai is its trump card: schools moved in record time to distance learning and will also be able to open up in record time while keeping our students safe. The reason I say this with such confidence is for the exact reason that Friedman proposed school choice: parents will determine what is best for their children. Should a school not be able to deliver on its commitment to keep its students safe while learning will suffer the wrath of market forces: parents choosing to switch schools that can live up to the promises that are needed to be made during these times.

Opening schools is vital for various reasons, ranging from student learning to social collaboration to the more economic reason of getting parents back to work. However, school investors now need to lead the way with ensuring that they keep their buildings safe while their educators get ready to deliver a blended learning pedagogy. The partnership approach between the public and private sector that has so carefully been engineered by the most forward-thinking regulator in the world, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), now needs to take its collaboration to a new level, one that allows for an exchange between regulators, investors, educators, parents and students that will lead to the opening up schools safely for our students.

The time has come for Dubai's education sector to shine again, showing the world how schools should open in September.

Navin Valrani

Navin Valrani is the CEO of Arcadia Education and a member of the Board of Overseers at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.