Inside the KHDA’s (quirky, Google-like) inner sanctum

If you’re a mum of school-aged children in Dubai, you’ll have heard of the KHDA inspectors. You’ll realise that if you don’t want to know what ranking your child’s school has received (unacceptable, acceptable, good or outstanding), you’d better keep your fingers in your ears at the school gates.

You might also have noticed that all the stops are pulled out when the KHDA calls. Stories abound of equipment arriving just before inspections and promptly disappearing afterwards; extra teachers – even painters – being brought in the week before; and students being drilled on how to put up their hands (left if they know the answer, right if they don’t).

From the outside, Dubai’s regulatory authority for education looks like a fairly ordinary office building, out in the desert.
From the outside, Dubai’s regulatory authority for education looks like a fairly ordinary government building, out in the desert.

How prevalent these tricks are is unknown, but I can vouch for the fact that when Son1’s school was inspected earlier this year, I agreed to spend a lunch-hour sitting under a palm tree reading to any child who’d listen – just as the inspectors, who look for parent engagement as a sign of a quality school, happened to be in the vicinity.

So who is this body that has ALL THIS power? Whose reports cause Dubai’s schools to go in and out of fashion, and grants them the right to raise (already expensive) school fees? Today I got the chance to find out (more in the Q&A below). Even if you don’t live in the UAE, or have no children, keep scrolling: my visit to the Dubai government’s amazing KHDA-plex in Academic City was truly illuminating, and anyone would be forgiven for thinking they’d actually stumbled across Google HQ.

On the inside, you discover the KHDA offers staff and visitors a crazy array of perks, from yoga classes, kung fu and tai chi to a chef who makes delicious food and entertaining spaces like this one.
On the inside, you discover the KHDA offers staff and visitors a crazy array of perks, from yoga classes, kung fu and tai chi to a chef, who makes delicious food, and stylish hospitality spaces like this one.
Right in the middle of the main concourse, you’ll find this piano – which anyone can play, and everyone stops to listen to.
Right in the middle of the main concourse, you’ll find this piano – which anyone can play, and everyone stops to listen to.

Just keep in mind this is a government regulator, a department of education … because it gets better and better.

A very quick peek in here revealed a phone charger point. Just as quirky was the yellow budgerigar in a little aviary upstairs.
A very quick peek in here revealed a phone charger point. Just as quirky was the yellow budgerigar in a cage upstairs.
I’m not quite sure what goes on in here, but it was called the water room. Next, we walked past two office-workers in a glass room running a call centre. “They’ve been holed up in here for a while,” our guide told us. “They don’t know it yet, but things are being re-designed so that they’ll soon be sitting in the middle of a forest.”
I’m not quite sure what goes on in here, but it was called the water room. Next, we walked past two office-workers in a glass room running a call centre. “They’ve been holed up in there for a while,” our guide told us. “They don’t know it yet, but things are being re-designed so that they’ll soon be sitting in the middle of a forest.”
Treadmill workstations are located all over the building. These facilities allow staff to work while exercising, and they can do presentations from exercise bikes. There’s no claiming you don’t have the right shoes: one of the treadmills is high-heels friendly.
Treadmill workstations are located all over the building. These facilities allow staff to work while exercising, and they can do presentations from exercise bikes. There’s no claiming you don’t have the right shoes, either: one of the treadmills is high-heels friendly.
The Thrive activities schedule offers free stillness classes, hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga and Chinese martial arts. On the fifth floor, there’s a spa bathroom, with hanging crystals.
The Thrive activities schedule offers free stillness classes, hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga and Chinese martial arts. On the fifth floor, there’s a spa bathroom, with hanging crystals.
A brand new feature is the English/Arabic smart-signs that ‘nudge’ people to climb stairs instead of using the lifts. The high-tech mounted screens display the exact calorie-burn for each stairway and give motivational health messages. KHDA workers can then track, ‘gamify’ and share their stair-climbing performance using a smartphone app. “The only better stairs I’ve seen are at Dewa (Dubai Electricity & Water Authority),” our guide said. “They’re surrounded by mirrors, and by the time you get to the top you look like Kate Moss.”
A brand new feature is the English/Arabic smart-signs that ‘nudge’ people to climb stairs instead of using the lifts. The high-tech mounted screens display the exact calorie-burn for each stairway and give motivational health messages. KHDA workers can then track, ‘gamify’ and share their stair-climbing performance using a smartphone app.
“The only better stairs I’ve seen are at Dewa (Dubai Electricity & Water Authority),” our guide added. “They’re surrounded by mirrors, and by the time you get to the top you look like Kate Moss.”
Gorgeous works of art are everywhere – oh, and more exercise equipment if you fancy hanging around.
Walls are adorned with gorgeous works of art – oh, and here’s some more exercise equipment if you fancy hanging around.
On the way out, after writing a message on a tablet that was projected onto a TV screen for all to read, I noticed this rug. This is the morning rug, welcoming visitors in numerous different languages. At 12 noon, it’s changed to a ‘Good afternoon’ rug.
After writing a farewell message on a tablet that was projected onto a TV screen for all to read, I noticed this enormous rug on the way out. This is the morning rug, welcoming visitors in different languages. At 12 noon, it’s changed to a ‘Good Afternoon’ rug.

“We place great importance on wellness at KHDA, introducing numerous healthy initiatives for our staff,” said Hind al-Mualla, the authority’s chief of engagement. “We believe that both health and wellbeing are a vital part of happiness.”

I was sold. I asked for a job. I’d wanted to work in the civil service in the UK years ago, perhaps this was a second chance. And when they told me they offer a ‘working-mum contract’ with hours that fit around school, I was ready to rush home and dust-off my CV.

“We don’t accept CVs,” smiled the director-general. “Send us a selfie.” And he wasn’t joking: To apply, you need to download KHDA Connect from the Apple app store, and tell them about yourself by text, audio or video.

Q&A

What is the KHDA?
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority is Dubai’s regulatory authority for education, responsible for the growth, direction and quality of private education and learning in Dubai.

When was it established and why?
In 2007, the World Bank published a report on private education in the Middle East, The Road Not Travelled, which inspired the KHDA – established in the same year – to follow its guidelines and set up an inspection regime.

Has it made progress in raising standards in Dubai’s schools?
Yes. This has been a challenge for various reasons, not least because of the speed at which the education system is growing (this year has seen 11 new schools opening in the emirate); the large number of different curriculums (16, including British, International and Indian) and the hugely varying price points (you can pay up to AED55,000 / US$15,000 in annual tuition for a 3-year-old; and as much as AED103,200 / US$28,000 for Year 13).

After five years of inspections, the percentage of pupils attending good or outstanding institutions has risen from 30 per cent to 51 per cent. “Every year, we raise the bar,” says director-general Dr Abdulla al-Karam.

If schools do well, they are allowed to raise their fees.

How fast are admissions rising?
Enrolment is rising at 7-8 per cent a year, and not just among expats; over the past decade, the number of Emiratis in private education has risen from 34 per cent to 57 per cent.

What is being done about the waiting-list problem?
While some ‘waiting lists’ serve a marketing purpose, the better schools do tend to have limited space and lengthy waiting lists (which you have to pay to get on). The situation is improving as more schools open, although with Dubai’s rapid growth, it’s hard for services such as health and education to keep up. This year, an extra 23,000 new school places were created. As parents were unsure if some of these schools would open in time for Sept 2014, the number of requests for tranfers is currently high.

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