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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 August 2006, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
New freedoms for Qatar's schools
Continuing Newsnight's series on the world's best public services, James O'Shaughnessy of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange looks at Qatar's education system which is the grip of a revolution.

By James O'Shaughnessy
Policy Exchange

The Al-Rashad model school, in a suburb of Doha, is state-controlled. Until recently all schools in Qatar were run by the Ministry of Education. They teach set books, run on fixed budgets and are stuck with the staff they're given.

Pupils at Al-Rashad school in Doha

Mrs Badria Janahi, head teacher of Al-Rashad, is passionate about her school, but heavily restricted in the way she can run it:

"Even when I want to make a decision that will benefit the school, it's difficult to get it approved."

But her frustration at her lack of independence will soon be a thing of the past. Qatar's schools are undergoing a transformation.

A new society

This is a small gulf state of nearly a million people, just a fifth of whom are native Qataris.

Mr Goloum Abdullah, head teacher of Doha Secondary school
We have the freedom to decide anything we like in the school
Mr Goloum Abdullah
Ruled by Sheikh Al-Thani, who ousted his father in a friendly coup 10 years ago, it's rich in oil and gas. The Emir's vision is to create a new society, reliant not on finite natural resources but on the skills of his people. So in the last couple of years he's set about a comprehensive reform of the education system.

Doha Secondary is a very different school - it's one of the new breed of independent schools, run by so-called operators, and unburdened by the constraints that hold the other state schools back. Overseen by the new Supreme Education Council, these schools are independent but not private; all the costs are paid for by the state.

The head teacher, Mr Goloum Abdullah, enjoys a degree of control that Mrs Badria can only dream of:

"We have freedom in choosing the curriculum, taking care of the student. In fact we have the freedom to decide anything we like in the school."

New freedoms

The biggest change is in the way that the curriculum is set. Fawzy Salem has been teaching in Qatar for 17 years. This is his second year teaching in an independent school and he loves it:

"You teach them according to their standards, not to the set books."

Pupils at Doha Secondary school
Doha Secondary school is one of a new breed of independents in Qatar
Which means that you can teach cleverer pupils quicker, but what about the less able children? According to Fawzy they also benefit from the new system.

"They can come after school, they come to school to take extra lessons and also during the breaks, the students who are lagging behind come to the library and have personal teaching."

It's not just freedom in terms of the curriculum. Independent schools also have the power to hire and fire staff and run their own budgets. This financial freedom is helping independent schools to raise standards and attract more pupils. Money follows the child here, so the old state schools are starting to feel the pinch.

But eventually they'll get these new freedoms too, and then they'll be able to entice pupils back.

Pressure

The Qatari education reforms are a free-marketeers' dream. School choice, autonomous head teachers, and competition between schools. They're doing it by the book.

But there's no freedom without responsibility.

Downtown Doha
Downtown Doha
The new reforms mean that virtually every subject is now taught in English. When they're older that includes things like physics - quite a tall order.

Without set textbooks it's much harder for the teacher, too.

Some of them are revelling in their new powers, others are feeling the strain. Mona Naeem Al-Qadomy is married with two small children. She thinks there's too much pressure on the teachers without a set curriculum, and no time for anything else.

"My sister teaches in an independent school - there's no time for herself or for her kids, or her husband. She has to work much longer hours!"

This poses a problem for the Supreme Education Council who want to turn all schools independent eventually. Mona says she will leave teaching if she's forced to do this, as would many of her friends.

Results

Any transition from old to new, especially on this scale, is bound to have teething troubles. But it's results that matter, and that's where Qatar's education reforms are really starting to pay dividends.

Fawzy Salem, from Doha Secondary, is pretty categorical about how he views the reforms:

Pupils at Doha Secondary school
Test results have improved dramatically at Doha Secondary
"To me, I have been working as an English teacher for 35 years and this is the first time I feel that I am a real teacher in a dream school."

His headmaster, Goloum Abdullah, is equally categorical about the rise in standards:

"In my opinion we have test results which are better than before by something like 70 to 80 percent."

If you free up your education system like the Qataris are doing then it's inevitable that you'll get more variation between schools, but some educationalists think variety is dangerous, because not all children will get the same education.

But uniformity doesn't lead to higher standards either so allowing kids to specialise in the subjects they're good at is better for everyone.

Qatar may be a very different place from Britain but there are still things we can learn. Give heads and teachers more power and standards will rise. Let children specialise in the things they're good at and they'll be happier and achieve more.

Trust people to succeed and guess what? They will.

JAMES O'SHAUGHNESSY'S REPORT CAN BE SEEN ON NEWSNIGHT ON THURSDAY, 31 AUGUST, 2006 AT 10.30PM ON BBC TWO


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