ABU DHABI// Nurseries will be urged to focus on early childhood education rather than just day care under an updated draft law approved by the federal Cabinet.
If the new draft moves forward, it will replace nursery legislation dating to 1983. Since then, the number of nurseries has grown to more than 300, and the country needs clearer regulations, said Moza Al Shoomi, head of the child department at the Ministry of Social Affairs.
"The old law, we cannot use it now," she said. "We need something new."
In one of the key changes in the draft, the ministry rewrote the objectives nurseries should strive to achieve.
"Before, the objectives of the nursery were not early childhood education, [they were] only for day care," Ms Al Shoomi said. "Now in the objectives we put early childhood education."
Nursery directors welcomed the change, saying it reflected a shift that had already happened in many nurseries.
"We don't just offer childcare facilities, we offer a proper curriculum," said Nida O'Brien, principal of pre-schools for Raffles International School.
The 1983 law only tangentially addresses learning, focusing on basic care, nurturing emotional development, instilling Islamic values and teaching Arabic pronunciation.
"Until now ... it's been, 'You can't use the word education'." said Bernadette King-Turner, founder of Beautiful Minds Nurseries, which has four branches in Dubai. "Now they're saying, 'Yes, use it'. They realise we are educating children. Whether they are two months or five years, they are receiving an education."
In another key change, the new draft codifies the practice of issuing fines for regulatory violations, Ms Al Shoomi said. While the ministry has issued fines before, the letter of the law only provides for three warnings followed by forced closure.
"The old law ... if they get a violation of the nursery law or do something wrong, we can only give them a warning," Ms Al Shoomi said.
Fines are a necessary punitive measure, said Karen Mowat, manager of Kids Academy Nursery's new branch in Al Bateen, scheduled to open in May.
"Obviously safety is the number one priority when you're actually looking after someone else's child...The law is there for a reason. And if it's violated, then definitely there should be something serious that happens," Ms Mowat said.
Fines would give more weight to ministry inspections, Ms Mowat added.
"We have the ministry coming around and checking, which is great," she said. "But if they don't have these things in place, something could happen that could even cause a fatality."
The details of the fines will be decided after the law is finalised, when the ministry will draft bylaws for implementation.
The ministry began working on updating the nursery law in 2008, studying the gaps in the existing legislation. A draft was submitted to the Cabinet for approval in 2011. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced the Cabinet's approval on Sunday.
The draft is still in its preliminary stage - it still must be debated by the Federal National Council and signed by the President.
But the choice to encourage early childhood education is "so important and wonderful", said Samia Kazi, chief operating officer of Arabian Child, an early childhood consultancy that provides training to nursery teachers.
"If our society is to prosper, we need to make sure that all children have access to high-quality programmes, despite their nationality or race or socio-economic class," she said. "Everybody needs to have access to high-quality programmes. There is such a clear link between child development and economic development."
Other changes in the draft are fairly technical. For example, the updated law will create a pathway for nurseries set up by companies, government agencies, charities or other entities. While such nurseries already exist, the 1983 law only refers to nursery owners who are single private investors, causing confusion in licensing other nurseries.
Finally, the law allows for local government entities such as the Knowledge and Human Development Authority to introduce their own nursery regulations. "They can do everything, but the final licence is from the ministry," Ms Al Shoomi said.