Nearly half of all boys surveyed at public high schools in the Northern Emirates say they have been beaten by a teacher, despite a Ministry of Education ban on corporal punishment of pupils, research by the Dubai School of Government shows.
According to the study, 45 per cent of high school boys and nearly 25 per cent of female pupils reported being hit, although for the most part the girls said this punishment had occurred in primary school.
Natasha Ridge, the author of the study, said male students thought it was normal to be disciplined that way. "They said it made them a man," she said.
Corporal punishment in UAE schools may go unreported because of cultural differences, authorities say.
Although corporal punishment constitutes a small proportion of the child abuse cases that authorities deal with, experts say its acceptance as a method of discipline might result in under-reporting.
Ruba Tabari, an educational psychologist at Dubai Community Health Centre, said the degree to which physical punishment was considered acceptable varied considerably between cultures.
"Hitting a child with a stick might be considered acceptable in one culture, and abuse in another," said Ms Tabari, who works with schools on child protection issues.
"Only in extreme cases, when a child is injured or it becomes life threatening, is there a general consensus of it being an abuse."
Any physical act that causes a child pain or discomfort - hitting with a hand or any object, kicking, shaking, pulling their hair, tying them up or burning them - is recognised as corporal punishment. Ms Tabari said all forms should be considered inappropriate and illegal.
"Schools are obliged to provide each student with a safe, healthy and respectful learning environment that is free from intolerance and bullying behaviour. This should be a given at all the schools," said Mohammed Darwish, the chief of the regulations and compliance commission at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which oversees schools in Dubai.
In a statement, the Abu Dhabi Education Council concurred, saying: "The safety of the children under the care and guidance of the school is of paramount importance. The expectation of schools is that all students are treated in a respectful manner where each student knows they are trusted, respected and safe."
Although corporal punishment is not explicitly prohibited in private schools, they are "expected" to have policies to ensure that children are not physically disciplined, education officials said. Complaints about non-compliance can lead to suspension of the teacher involved, or measures against the school.
According to Unicef, 89 per cent of children in the Middle East and North Africa are subject to physical or psychological punishment.
In the UAE, physical punishment in state schools was banned under a Ministry of Education directive in 1998. The education authorities expect schools to have a discipline policy in place that prevents teachers from resorting to such actions, and ensuring non-violent behaviour management.
However, despite regulation by school authorities, incidents of students being beaten by teachers have come to the fore in the past few years in the Emirates, with children being hospitalised in some severe cases.
Samineh I Shaheem, an assistant professor of psychology at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai Knowledge Village, attributes the abuse to a traditional attitude of "spare the rod, spoil the child".
"For a long time, the common view in many countries was that a child needs to be absolutely terrified of his teachers in order to respect them, and that fear was usually instilled through physical abuse," she said.
However, she said that attitude was changing as many societies realised the long-term effects of such abuse.
Managing student behaviour without becoming physical required collaboration between the home and schools, said Sadiq Ahmed al Rashid, the principal of Al Dhaid public school in Ras al Khaimah. "When a child is not performing well or behaving badly, we call the parents and talk to them about what can be done," he said.
"We also advise the parents not to hit them at home because it does not help the children, and makes them naughtier."
Saji Oommen, the principal of Upper Wisdom Private School, an Indian school in Abu Dhabi, said many parents expected teachers to resort to physical punishment.
"The parents think because they were disciplined that way while growing up, it applies to their children too," he said.
"The education begins at home. So if they stop hitting their children, they will not tolerate it at school either, and much more can be done to address the problem."
What you can do to report school abuse
In the Northern Emirates Contact the legal department of the emirates' education zone with concerns.
In Dubai The Knowledge and Human Development Authority said any abuse should be discussed with the school principal first. If not satisfactorily resolved, the parent can inform the authority, which will investigate through the Regulations and Compliance Commission for private schools or the Dubai Schools Agency for public schools.
In Abu Dhabi Parents can approach the school or the Abu Dhabi Education Council with abuse complaints. The council will work with the school to investigate. Disciplinary action could lead to the teacher being suspended or dismissed.