Very few countries in the world provide their citizens with comprehensive education to the extent the UAE government does. From kindergarten all the way through to a doctoral degree, Emiratis enjoy the opportunity to receive free education at any level.
As the country developed and its population grew, the need to invest in education was met with fervour by the nation’s leaders and government. Initially the state supported thousands in pursuing a higher education overseas as post-secondary options in the UAE were limited.
Now, however, UAE citizens need not travel abroad to obtain university degrees, as heavy investment in higher education at home has provided students with a plethora of private and public universities within the UAE. But, unlike tertiary education, attending primary and secondary education overseas was not an option.
When sending their children to school, Emirati parents face the choice of private versus public schools. In the private education system, they can guarantee their children receive a decent education, becoming proficient in the invaluable English language, now essential in gaining access to UAE universities.
This decision, however, usually comes at a price, not only in the monetary sense through high tuition, but also culturally, with the levels of Arabic and Emirati heritage taught being poor at best as the schools opt to focus their resources elsewhere.
Selecting the public school route is no easier, as many parents understand they will be subjecting their children to a mediocre level of education, a level of Arabic that’s no more than adequate, and a poor command of English. Although these aspects tend to limit most of the students, this choice is taken as the education is free and the children will have a better command of their mother tongue as well as their culture and heritage.
An increasing number of Emirati families prefer private to public schools, resigned to the reality that a private education better ensures their children will receive a higher education diploma. Due to levels of English that are lower than the minimum requirement, 95 per cent of public students require remedial English and IT courses for up to two years, which finally prove too discouraging for many. But the trend of an increasing number of Emiratis in private schools, and the necessity of remedial classes, could soon be reversing.
The Abu Dhabi government has undertaken the enormous task of overhauling its school system, with the Abu Dhabi Educational Council spearheading the educational transformation. Introduced in 2010, the New School Model envisages bilingual teachers and students, with mathematics and science being taught in English. The traditional teaching method of memorisation will become a thing of the past as students’ learning skills, participation and active learning are promoted.
Millions of dirhams have been spent on the ambitious programme, with an estimated Dh80,000 being spent on each student within the programme. Promising signs have been seen with children in Cycle 1 (Grades 1 to 5), with parents saying their English has improved markedly. But with the public school system still in flux and the new programme just settling in, the number of Emirati students in private schools seems likely to grow.
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter at The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US