Blog: Notes from Dubai - Michael O'Sullivan

Blog: Notes from Dubai - Michael O'Sullivan

Monday 16th March 2015
At the Global Education and Skills Conference in Dubai, organised by the Varkey GEMS Foundation, a number of sessions have examined the role of the private and NGO sectors in education.

There is a broad consensus, including amongst representatives of the public sector, that the private sector does have a role in education. The profit motive has not been challenged either. I find this level of agreement both surprising and encouraging.

Surprising, because I am used to a more polarized debate in which the private sector is either the manifestation and cause of inequality, or a morally superior "market" mechanism, depending on which side of the political divide you stand. Encouraging, because in the face of the challenges and deficits in education to which our societies need to face up, we can ill afford to lose ourselves in ideological debate.

Discussion here in Dubai is practical, well-informed about realities and rightly concerned with what works. There is wide agreement that universal provision of excellent public education is desirable, but also understanding that most countries are far from achieving it.

A good insight from one speaker, I thought, was that competition and choice, whether realised through accountability in public education systems or through market mechanisms in private education, stimulate innovation and improvement.

Everywhere in the world, even in the best-performing countries, there is concern about failures in education: under-attainment, disparity of attainment, lack of skills, concerns about whether the curriculum is fit for the 21st century. For the most part I think these concerns are justified, and that solutions to them will require abundant inspiration, innovation and investment.

In very few countries is the public sector alone capable of meeting these challenges. In some countries the private and NGO sectors, like them or not, offer the best hope of real progress in the coming years.

Michael O’Sullivan 
Chief Executive, Cambridge International Examinations

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