RAS AL KHAIMAH // Education officials in the Northern Emirates say public school systems there must have more money if they are to match the reforms in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but instead they are trying to cope with budget cuts.
The education zones of Umm al Qaiwain, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Ajman and Fujairah operate under the federal Ministry of Education which allocates an annual budget to each one.
Directors say that outlay is falling short of what they need to improve education, attract quality teachers and enhance resources.
"Most of the annual budget goes toward day-to-day activities of the zone," said Amna Ali al Mualla, director of the Umm al Qaiwain Education Zone. "But if we want to improve the education standards, we need a bigger budget."
Abdullah Hasan Hammad al Shehi, the director of the Ras al Khaimah Education Zone, said the zone was in constant discussion with the education ministry in an effort to add to their financial allotment.
But those discussions are unlikely to bear fruit, given that in December the Federal National Council announced an education ministry budget of Dh4.6 billion for this year, compared to Dh7.2bn allotted last year - a 36 per cent cut.
A great portion of the cut was justified by the full handover of the Abu Dhabi public education system to the emirate. But some FNC members warned that the already tight budget, along with this cut - said to be in practice about 5 per cent - made it too challenging for smaller emirates to bring about reform and attract qualified teachers, who were already "seeping out" of the public schools.
Decentralisation to Abu Dhabi began in 2005, when the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) was formed and began to assume responsibility for, and financing of, education in the capital.
Five years on, Abu Dhabi's education costs are completely covered by the local government. Adec has overseen the roll-out of initiatives including the New School Model to revamp government schools and align them with international standards. It has also begun renovating old buildings and is constructing new schools.
In Dubai meanwhile, public school funding responsibility has moved in the other direction, from the emirate to the federal level. However a number of initiatives undertaken earlier by Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority, including inspections and workshops for educators, had already raised standards there.
In comparison to the norms in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, schools in small towns now face a serious shortage of basic resources and IT equipment.
Aziza Yousef al Mulla, principal of the Fatima bint Outba School in Fujairah, said her annual budget of Dh100,000 did not allow her to invest in resources such as computers and software.
"Electronic devices are expensive, and it is not possible to buy too many," said the principal. "In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, schools can collaborate with other organisations to aid them with such facilities, but here there are no such agreements."
Ms al Mulla also said more workshops with experts needed to be held in her emirate. "Most of the training sessions are in Dubai, and it is difficult for our teachers to travel for them."
All schools in every emirate should be allowed to progress equally, according to Dr Maryam Sultan Lootah, assistant professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University.
"It feels like we do not belong to the same country, with different councils doing different things," Dr Lootah said. "The country is so small that there should be an integration and similar goals. When each emirate has their own set of policies it causes disparity in the quality of education imparted."
Ali Mehad al Suwaidi, the acting director general of the education ministry, said the salary scale for public school teachers had been under review for a long time but its implementation required more time. "It is an issue we have put forth in our recommendations to the relevant authorities, including the Ministry of Finance," he said.
Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher for the Dubai School of Government, said any financial boost should be accompanied by more autonomy for the zones and schools.
"They are so controlled at the moment and need to be instructed on how to use the money to improve," she said.
Dr Fatma Alwan, deputy director of the Ajman Education Zone, agreed: "We need more flexibility. If we cannot spend, we cannot bring about changes."
Mr al Suwaidi said the education ministry would be delegating more power to the zones. "We are planning to pass on some of our control to the zones to work on their initiatives," he said. "Any additional budget to them will depend on how proactive they are."
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