DUBAI // An alarming number of boys are dropping out of school, according to the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau's annual report. Out of every 100 male Emirati students, the report says, just 32 graduate on time. Forty-seven fail grades and another 21 drop out. "It is a big problem," said Dr Abdulla al Karam, the director general of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), of which the inspection bureau is a part. "It affects the whole community. It affects career planning. You look at social issues - crime. The societal effect of this is clear," he said.
"If somebody is not educated and he or she starts a family, not having that parent have an education does affect the life of the family in the future." The KHDA report, which summarises the results of Dubai's second round of school inspections, also concludes that there may be a link between the narrow scope of the Ministry of Education curriculum and the high number of school leavers. According to Dr Natasha Ridge, a research fellow at the Dubai School of Government whose doctoral dissertation from Columbia University examined the poor quality of boys schools in the UAE, the main reasons boys drop out are poor quality of teaching and an "outdated and irrelevant curriculum, in addition to a perception that it will be easy to get a decent job without a high school diploma".
"There is something fundamentally not attractive or relevant about the school system to boys," she said, adding that Qatar, Oman and Turkey have a similar problem. She agreed that high dropout rates can have a knock-on effect on society and may lead to higher crime and incarceration rates. "In addition, in the UAE the cost is a smaller number of qualified males to fill key positions in all sectors, which are desperately needed," she said. "While women will be able to fill these, women will also want time to have a family and they will be looking for good matches. The pool of good marriage candidates also shrinks and therefore we see rising rates of unmarried women."
Figures in the KHDA report from the Dubai Statistics Centre's 2008 Labour Force Study found that 22 per cent of males and 14 per cent of females between the ages of 20 and 24 had dropped out of school. Dr al Karam said an intergovernmental task force in Dubai is being formed to analyse the issue. "On the education side we know that maybe it is overload - they drop out at Grade 10," Dr al Karam said. "It is never only an education issue. In our next stage of analysing why, we have to have an intergovernmental agency to explain why - social services, police, all of these other agencies will have some kind of explanation for it."
Students who have previously failed grades are far more likely to drop out, the report concludes. More than 24 per cent of boys and 11 per cent of girls failed the 10th grade last year in Dubai. It is not uncommon, because of the high rate of grade failure, to find 18-year-olds taking classes in UAE public schools with 14-year-olds. The report reflects the work of inspectors who visited 209 schools and ranked them in one of four categories, from "outstanding" to "unsatisfactory". Since last year's report, 28 schools have improved their rating, while 25 fell at least one grade.
"Generally, most of the public schools have made an improvement," Dr al Karam said. But in the private sector some schools made progress while others did not. "The different ownerships behind the schools, I think, drove this," he said. "I've seen a lot of change in the community schools, the philanthropic schools, the ones that really are here for the sake of providing a good education. I don't know if I can say the same for the commercial schools."
As with last year's results, inspections suggested major and chronic problems with the public school system: the range of subjects taught is too limited; the length of the school day and school year are too short; after-school programmes are non-existent; and career planning does not exist in many schools. "The relatively poor performance of public schools against internationally recognised standards is a major impediment to their students progressing to high-quality university education," the report states.
While the KHDA has made a number of recommendations concerning the public school system, it does not have the authority to make fundamental changes: the federal Ministry of Education still controls the number of school days, teacher salaries and the hiring criteria. "I think that you can change the system by putting the reality out there," Dr al Karam said. "The solution has to be an engaged approach with everyone involved ? With the public schools we are in continuous dialogue with the ministry."
On a positive note, the report finds that some schools have managed to make "innovative and flexible" adaptations to the dated ministry curriculum. "Sometimes it's not the curriculum itself but it's the implementation," Dr al Karam said. These problems, according to the KHDA report, extend beyond public schools to the roughly 15 private schools that run the Ministry of Education curriculum. A high number of those schools have been chastised for health and safety issues.
Among private schools offering western curricula, British schools fared well, with more than half judged "good" or "outstanding". Last year's report criticised a number of international schools over their failure to comply with Ministry of Education rules concerning the time devoted to Arabic and Islamic studies courses, but inspectors found that the majority of British, Indian and American schools continue to fall short of the requirements.