We are living in an age of musical schools. I’m not talking about institutions that focus on performing arts. I’m referring to an educational equivalent of the popular party game musical chairs. In musical chairs, children take a new seat – if they can find one – each time the music stops. In musical schools, children start a new school – if they can find a place at one – each time the summer break ends.
Most of the residents that I know have changed their child’s school at least once. Some unfortunate families have been compelled to switch schools two or three times in as many years. Even those who haven’t changed schools at all – yet – have at least been sorely tempted to do so.
So what’s driving this dissatisfaction and desire for change? Answer: love. One manifestation of parental love is a burning desire to provide our offspring with the best educational experiences possible. Education isn’t just a parental responsibility, it’s an instinctive drive. Even before infants can sit up, loving parents are trying to teach them to crawl – unnecessarily so, I might add.
Where there’s love, there’s money to be made. Unfortunately, this fact has given rise to gold-rush schools. These are unscrupulous institutions hurriedly established to cash in on all those loving parents who want the best for their little ones. Such schools are driven by avarice rather than any deeper social or educational imperative. They work harder at selling the school/brand than teaching the children. There might only be a few books in the library, but their promotional brochures are always on point.
Of course, the UAE has its share of excellent schools and teachers too; there would be no such thing as fool’s gold if real gold didn’t exist. However, the educational fakes and predatory opportunists can be incredibly difficult to identify. It can sometimes take a term or two for parents to get beyond the glossy brochures and realise that their child is attending a pretend school.
Even parents who are relatively satisfied with their child’s current school might consider “upgrading”. With new schools opening at a rapid rate, each year brings greater choice. These new schools dangle attractive unique selling points such as: the first school in the UAE to offer X, or the only school to have Y. Some schools also charge a small fortune, hoping that the reassuring heft of their tuition fees will win them further favour. If it costs a lot, it must be good – right? The truth is that, in terms of quality and outcomes, many schools haven’t been around long enough to receive a meaningful evaluation. For some parents, though, the big promises are irresistible, so their child switches schools.
An additional reason for the school switch relates to basic home economics. School fees and groceries have gone up while salaries have failed to keep pace. My heart bleeds for parents who have to tell their happy, settled, well-performing child or children that next term they will be going to that other school. (“You know, the one without the science lab … yes, exactly, the one where none of your friends go.”)
A final reason to escape a school relates to bullying. The old wisdom encourages children to stand-up to bullies and not let themselves be pushed around. The reality is that sometimes this is incredibly bad advice and can make a bad situation worse. It is the school, not the child, that should stand up to bullies, ensuring the physical and psychological well-being of all.
In the end, as parents, what truly matters are our intentions: we do the best with the knowledge and resources we have. Meanwhile, the educational regulatory bodies are working to safeguard children and families from many of the issues that cause parents to switch schools in the first place.
There will always be legitimate reasons to change schools. Switching, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. However, with further improvements in education, I suspect the annual game of musical schools will be played far less frequently.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University