DUBAI // Fewer than 6 per cent of teachers at nurseries in the emirate speak Arabic - a big concern for young Emirati parents who want bilingual early education for their children.
A lack of culturally sensitive teaching has also resulted in many opting for home rearing and nanny care, which experts warn could restrict skills development.
According to recent figures quoted by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in a report titled Early Childhood Education and Care in Dubai, fewer than 5 per cent of Emirati children under the age of 4 are enrolled in nurseries.
"Many nurseries act on the assumption that full immersion in the second language is appropriate for language development at this age," said authors of the report, compiled by Dr John Bennett, from the University of London, and Jiman Karaman, from the KHDA.
"In consequence, children's development in their first language is not being given priority."
The authors said the solution was to create a state framework for early childhood education and care to unify standards.
Ayesha Al Janahi, the mother of an 18-month-old boy, said the first few years were crucial and ignoring the mother tongue was worrying.
"Most nurseries have foreigners and there are no Emiratis," Ms Al Janahi said. "They do not show any interest in catering to Arabs and seem like they want to only educate their own community."
Ms Al Janahi also complained teachers were culturally insensitive.
"At one nursery a teacher wore inappropriate clothes," she said. "This gives a wrong impression to the children. It's like telling them this is acceptable and the right thing to do."
Most nurseries are privately owned and follow international curricula such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia. There are few public creches, many of which are in government organisations.
Samia Kazi, the chief operating officer at Arabian Child, a consultancy in Dubai working with the Ministry of Social Affairs to improve early education, said preschools should not consider Arabic an extra language.
"Equal time should be devoted to both languages, which is not the case at the moment," Ms Kazi said. "And because the children do not have a solid foundation in their language in the early years, their future progress at school is also weak."
She said the issue was rooted in a lack of investment in preschools. Only 0.1 per cent of GDP goes to early education and care.
"Most of the Government's budget is allocated to K-12 education and early childhood is sidelined," Ms Kazi said, referring to education from kindergarten through to grade 12.
She said that there should also be a push to increase the number of Emirati staff, which now make up 1 per cent of nursery teaching staff.
Orange Tree Children's Nursery in Bur Dubai will put emphasis on bilingual education when it opens next month, said Tasneem Ajaj, the co-founder. "We want to prepare them completely for primary education so when they enter school, Arabic will not be an alien subject to them," Ms Ajaj said.
Abdulrahman Al Sharhan, an Emirati father, said he preferred multicultural nurseries but agreed they should focus on Arabic too.
"I want my daughter to go to a nursery where her social skills and English skills are strengthened," said the father, who has enrolled her in Orange Tree. "But at the same time, I want her to speak and understand her own language."