DUBAI // Education experts have praised a move by the Government to raise the compulsory school-leaving age to 18, saying it will ensure a better prepared local workforce.
The draft federal law making it compulsory to attend school until the age of 18 or Grade 12, was endorsed at a Cabinet meeting on Sunday by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
"This is a very essential move considering the attrition rate in secondary school at the moment, because the low preparedness of Emiratis who leave school early will affect the country's labour market in the next 20 to 30 years," said Dr Naji Al Mahdi, the executive director of the National Institute for Vocational Education in Dubai.
The existing law, which says that children may legally choose to leave school by the age of 14, will be amended to prevent pupils dropping out by Grade 10.
At the moment, one in four Emirati boys does not complete secondary school and is not enrolled in any form of education by 25.
Dr Mike Helal, the Mena regional director for Parkville Global Advisory, which has done many studies on UAE education, said the new law might reverse the trend.
The final wording, however, should be carefully considered. "In the most ambitious systems around the world, pupils are required to remain in a form of schooling until the completion of a Grade 12 equivalent, rather than a particular age.
"In the UAE, for instance, 18-year-old males can be found in Grade 10 or 11 in many state schools due to a high repetition rate."
Once the law is finalised, the next step will be to re-evaluate the entire education system, said Dr Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.
"If forcing them to finish secondary school just means more bad-quality education for boys, it will defeat the purpose," said Dr Ridge, who has studied the causes of boys dropping out from state schools.
"More research needs to go into why boys are not staying in school in the first place, and if it is the teaching and environment that needs to be addressed."
Dr Al Mahdi agreed schools must be made relevant to all learners for the new law to succeed. Increasing the options and status of vocational education, enhancing counselling and varying the programmes available to pupils would help, he said.
A dual-programme in Germany joins an apprenticeship with part-time vocational schooling.
Pupils attend school two days a week and dedicate the rest of their time to on-the-job training. Dr Ridge said such apprenticeship models should be offered in the UAE.
A more practical approach is already on offer at Applied Technology High Schools (Aths) and Secondary Technical Schools (STS).
Sheikha Al Shamsi, the associate director of the Al Rowdha Academy where Emirati pupils bring their English language skills up to speed before joining Aths and STS institutions, said raising the compulsory age was a massive step forward.
"This will certainly have a positive effect on the national workforce in the future," said Ms Al Shamsi, who previously worked in a senior position at the ministry.
"The options for Emiratis to pursue different routes at the high school stage are slowly expanding as well.
"The establishment of a National Qualifications Framework will provide the much-needed recognition of vocational education."
The final step, Dr Al Mahdi said, was an integration of government services with the education system. Labour law, for example, makes it possible to work from the age of 16, he added. "And there is not a good link between the schools and social services. Most of the emphasis is placed on divorce, elderly or abuse and does not extend to all aspects of life."
He said that school social workers must be actively involved with families and a tracking system must be implemented to prevent dropouts.