AL AIN // For the past four years, Al Ain Women's College has been turning out classroom assistants ready to help out in schools ... in theory, at least.
While the promise was that the two year-diploma - the only one of its kind offered at any of the Higher Colleges of Technology's (HCT's) 17 campuses - would help women to find jobs near their homes, the reality has been that just a handful of the 60 graduates have found work.
The problem has been a lack of demand, with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) taking just 10 - to work with special-needs pupils - and a few more going to the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs.
A new agreement between the college and Adec, under which all of its qualified teaching assistants will be employed in local schools and institutions, should help.
More than 4,000 children with special needs attend mainstream public schools in Abu Dhabi, with that number expected to rise. Teachers have bemoaned the lack of assistants qualified to deal with them.
"The schools are crying out for our graduates," said Tim Smith, director of the HCT in Al Ain. In the coming weeks, Adec will begin interviewing the soon-to-be graduates to find suitable job placements for them.
"There is a severe shortage of classroom assistants," said Katrina Sinclair, the head of the education department. "Adec has now recognised this and as a result our graduates will now all be employed."
Recent pay rises will take their salaries from Dh12,000 to Dh15,000 a month up to about Dh20,000.
As part of the deal, the college will increase the special-needs component of the diploma.
Many of the students are keen to work with special-needs children.
"I want to help the children to feel the same as all the others," said Fatima Abdallah, a 20-year-old second-year student. "I don't want them to feel different. There aren't enough people trained to help these children achieve."
During the first year, Amal Bakhit, 23, has been doing work experience at the Zayed Higher Organisation, observing classes as well as working with groups brought to the college's new "active learning hub".
The facility includes a classroom with a one-way screen, allowing lecturers to see how their students are performing. Cameras can show how they are coping with behavioural problems, and how well they explain and reason. In the second year, they get more responsibilities, organising lesson plans and activities.
Miss Bakhit already knows some sign language. "The challenge is learning to communicate with the children, which wasn't easy at first," she said. "Trying to teach them rules wasn't easy but it's so fun to be with them. You have to learn to read them, to understand what they need."
Serge Morrissette, who set up the course accredited by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, said it was popular with local girls as in theory it allowed them to work near home. Before the Adec deal, though, that had not been the case in practice.
"Adec offered our first-year students 30 jobs but they were in Abu Dhabi and many of them cannot leave Al Ain, so they need opportunities close to home," he said.
But now he said the girls' futures were bright. In turn, the college is doing what it can to make sure they leave with the skills needed by the schools. "We have to make sure we're providing for our market," said Mr Morrissette.
For some, the deal comes not a moment too soon. Samira Al Nuaimi, the vice principal of the Mubarak Bin Mohammed School, a primary school in the capital, would like to see an assistant in every class.
"There is a great demand," she said. "More colleges should offer teaching programmes to train UAE nationals for this position.
"The assistant can help support children with special needs, follow up on the progress of the other pupils and work with the head teacher to plan lessons."
Classes are also becoming more student-focused which, according to Ms Al Nuaimi, makes it essential to have more than one educator in a classroom. "We have to adopt a differentiation approach and provide individual attention to the pupils, which is not possible without additional help in the class."
* With additional reporting by Afshan Ahmed