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On 10 September 2017, over a million children went back to school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the literacy rate is 93.8 per cent according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and 20.5 per cent of the federal budget is spent on education. In the framework of the UAE’s Vision 2021, launched in 2010, many reforms are being implemented to achieve a ‘first-rate education system’.
In order to achieve Vision 2021, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, announced eight pillars of development: to be among the top 20 countries with the highest performance in the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) test 2; to be among the top 15 countries with the highest performance in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS); to ensure that all schools (public and private) in the UAE have high-quality teachers; to ensure that all schools (public and private) have highly effective leadership; to ensure that 90 per cent of students in the ninth grade of public and private schools have a high proficiency in Arabic; to increase the high school graduation rate to 98 per cent; to provide early years education to 95 per cent of children aged between four and five through public and private preschool provisions; to eliminate the need for Emirati students to complete a foundation course to qualify for university entry.
It is worth noting that the UAE’s education system relies on the Ministry of Education (MOE) working closely with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) and the Dubai Education Council (DEC). In order to work more efficiently and achieve the national objectives, the MOE and ADEC announced on 3 September 2017 the launch of a new unified educational system to standardize teaching and learning. The Emirati School Model will be applied to private schools (offering the MOE curriculum) and public schools in the seven emirates in the 2018-2019 academic year.
The curriculum will be based on building critical thinking skills, developing innovation and teamwork among students, and using information technology in problem-solving. “I feel that the education system is really changing,” Dr Natasha Ridge, executive director of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, told Fanack. “There is a big focus on the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM], and also on life skills like critical thinking, and business and entrepreneurship. [The UAE] needs more graduates in STEM to increase the number of locals in the government sector, notably for the nuclear sector that is under development. For now, they rely on foreign professionals.”
For Ridge, the UAE’s education system is “very international and diversified, as there are curricula and teachers from all over the world”. A teacher working at an international school in Dubai, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Fanack that “working in a true international school allows you to develop different skills, and to grow an international and open mindset as you deal with different cultures of students, teachers and parents”. She is looking forward to the success of Vision 2021 as “the initiatives taken by the government are prioritizing education, aiming to have a first-rate education system, and many wonderful reforms have been put in place to achieve that mission”.
Ridge also pointed out that “it is still very expensive to study, and the public system doesn’t provide as much quality as needed for the boys, who count for only 20 per cent of higher education, which benefits girls, really supported by the government”. One of the most expensive schools is the GEMS World Academy in Abu Dhabi, with an average annual fee of AED53,400 ($14,538), whereas one of the least expensive is the Gulf Indian High School in Dubai, where the minimum fee is AED3,449 ($939).
The price of education is what bothered Kareem (no last name given), a former student at Abu Dhabi Grammar School and a graduate of the Canadian University of Dubai. “Education here is stupendously expensive, at high school or university level. It revolves around the business of education rather than the education itself.” He admitted that “some of the pros I guess would be certain names of international universities that exist here, as in obtaining a degree from said universities could be of added value”, but wished that “they would provide more choices for education, and let it actually translate and transition properly into the professional world as there is no appreciation from the professional world for the degrees that we obtain here”.
Public schools and the costs of education are also concerns for Dr Racquel Warner, assistant professor in education policy at Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government. “Historically, the infrastructure, professional development of staff and pedagogical approaches have erred on the side of tradition. As the attainment from private schools improved, the spotlight on the weaknesses in the public schools became brighter. Another ongoing challenge in UAE education is the exorbitant cost of some private school provisions. One report alleged that parents paid upwards of 1 million dirhams [around $272,000] to educate a child in the private system. This needs to be addressed. As a public good, education should be spared from the market forces that drive up costs for parents.”
Another issue impacting the education system is the students’ poor level of Arabic, said Ridge. “I am not sure it is the result of the number of international schools. I think it is more related to the fact that the Arabic curriculum hasn’t changed in 20 years. It needs to be more attractive to young people, to be more engaging. Students today don’t see it as engaging and interesting, especially with the confusion brought by the differences between the formal and the dialectal languages.” Outside of the home and school, students are also more likely to speak English than Arabic due to the profusion of languages present in the Emirates.
For example, Kareem said that he “did not get any sort of Arabic communication skills at university, not at a professional level at least, as my entire education was English based”. A Lebanese expatriate living in Dubai and mother of a ten-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy also complained about the level of Arabic taught at school, although her children used to be in a private French school. “The education system in Dubai is average compared to Lebanon, the main problem being the Arabic. My kids barely know how to read and write in Arabic although I made sure to use Arabic as the main language at home, but here everybody speaks English so they talk to each other and their friends in English … I wanted to move back to Lebanon in September, but my eldest daughter failed the Arabic test. If they were speaking Arabic, they would practise the grammar naturally like in Lebanon.”
For Warner, the issue of Arabic is not that important because “linguistic acquisition starts at home, and too often parents abdicate this responsibility to schools”. However, she acknowledged the need for private schools to meet the needs of a large part of the population. “The UAE has a unique demographic complement of over 80 per cent expatriates and 20 per cent Emiratis. The expatriate population is for the most part transient and most families leave after their employment contracts expire. Out of necessity, these expatriates will opt to have their kids educated in a familiar curriculum system to make an easier transition back to their home country. The private sector has stepped in and responded to this need by offering many different curricula in the UAE. The apparent focus on international education is imperative since that’s the option available for the majority of the population. However, it must be noted that the UAE government also spends an inordinate amount of time revising and revamping the curriculum used in public schools to make it fit for purpose. In an age where the world is smaller and global citizenship is a benchmark for success, the country has no other choice but to focus on international education in order to give all residents and citizens a fighting chance in the future.”
If these issues need to be addressed in order for the UAE education system to become ‘first rate’, the diversity of nationalities and cultures in its schools may produce more open-minded and adaptable young adults, which is something needed everywhere.