Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds in Qatar are the least likely internationally to excel academically and perform at the same level as their wealthier peers, according to a new report.
The study, titled “Equity, excellence and inclusiveness in education: Policy lessons from around the world,” examined the performance of disadvantaged students from countries belonging to and partnering with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
It found that in Qatar, enormous disparities existed in the quality of student performance at independent, government-run schools and the more expensive private institutions.
Data for the report was drawn from 2012 Program for International Assessment (PISA) figures, which tested half a million 15-year-olds in 65 countries, who were considered representative of 28 million students.
The test focused on math, reading, science and problem-solving. Students in Qatar ranked below average in all three of the main categories, but still also showed improvement since first being assessed in 2006.
Authors of the report took students in the bottom quarter of PISA’s economic, social and cultural status – the least advantaged students – and looked at how many of them defeated their odds to academically perform in the top 25th percentile of all students internationally.
Poor students in Qatar were found to be the least likely out of students from 64 countries to shake off their disadvantage and outperform their peers. Only some 2 percent did so – while the OECD average was 25 percent.
Students in the UAE fared slightly better, coming fifth from the bottom of the rankings, with around 5 percent achieving success.
In comparison, students in East Asia were more likely to overcome obstacles to perform academically, as the top three spots were taken by students in China.
Shanghai polled around 76 percent of resilient students among disadvantaged students, followed by Hong Kong, with Macao coming in third place.
The report provided a number of suggestions to improve the equity of education in Qatar and other countries with attainment gaps.
The main one was providing all students, regardless of their status in society or their socio-economic background, the same quality of education.
In Qatar, this has been difficult because the most affordable education option is the independent school system, which has been criticized as “broken” by many educators.
Additionally, classes in the public school system are conducted largely in Arabic, excluding much of the majority expat population here.
In the absence of a viable public schooling option, many families turn to private schools, which cost more but appear to have an improved quality of education.
For example, according to the OECD report, state-educated children here were three years behind their private schools peers in math ability.
In their sample of students, 62 percent attended independent schools, 37 percent went to private schools and 1 percent to semi-government schools.
Out of the 47 countries assessed, Qatar’s private school students had the biggest advantage over their state peers, with a 108 point differential – putting the nation at the bottom of the table in terms of education equality.
One factor that is exacerbating inequality in Qatar is a shortage of qualified teachers.
One fifth of Qatar headteachers quizzed by the OECD said that a lack of good science teachers hindered their students’ learning “to some extent” or “a lot,” while 17 percent said a shortage of good math teachers were detrimental.
Meanwhile, about 10 percent said that a lack of good language-of-instruction (Arabic) teachers were affecting their students’ achievements.
The report noted that schools in rural areas of Qatar were particularly affected by a teacher shortage.
However, it pointed out that having a large number of teachers was not enough to turn around disadvantage. The teachers also had to be experienced and properly qualified.
Figures from the Supreme Education Council’s Schools and Schooling report published last April found that one-third (33 percent) of teachers in Qatar’s independent schools did not have a teaching qualification.
The SEC report also picked up several other issues affecting school performance, including high absenteeism, with an average of 17 days missed each school year, and students being late to school 15 percent of the time.
Additionally, the level of homework set in Qatar’s schools varies significantly, with an average of 1.7 hours per week in independent schools and 2.3 hours a week in private Arabic and international schools.
How to improve
Recommendations to mitigate inequality including providing tailored and regular professional development for teachers to enhance their skills, and improved working and salary conditions to motivate good teachers to attend and stay in deprived schools.
Mindful of the attainment gap, Qatar launched a new Teach for Qatar, Teach for All initiative earlier this year.
Under the program, which was launched by Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani, selected recent college graduates and young working professionals from various backgrounds would be provided with training and mentorship.
Those who qualify would be placed as full-time teachers in various independent schools in Qatar for two years.
On its website, the program said:
“There is a disparity between the amount of resources invested in education and the output produced and a great discrepancy between the top performing (typically private) schools and the bottom performing, government-run schools.”
Additionally, professional development for teachers is one of the key functions of the National Center for Educational Development, run by Qatar University’s College of Education.
In collaboration with the SEC, the center runs school-based support programs, training courses, workshops and seminars throughout the year for teachers particularly in independent schools.
Another OECD recommendation is to encourage more children to go to pre-school. The report noted that children who attend one year of pre-primary education have better math results than those who did not.
Qatar appears to be on board with this. Last summer, the SEC announced that all Qatari children should attend kindergarten from age three, following a two-year curriculum of learning through play, in a bid to improve language levels.
However, a shortage of schools for both expats and Qataris appears to be a long-standing problem.