ABU DHABI // Education experts have proposed a raft of changes in schools and major reform of adult education to reduce the rate of high-school dropouts.
A special committee set up to study the problem has recommended new support mechanisms for slow learners, improvements to the school environment to prevent dropouts and more technical and job market-related training programmes for those who have already dropped out.
The committee set up by Abu Dhabi Education Council found in its study this year that the system was failing to the extent that more than one in three Emirati adults in the capital had not completed high school, and those who want to return to school were discouraged by the existing learning environment.
Dr Ala'a Al Deen Ali, a member of the adult education advisory committee and director of Information Management at Adec, said thousands of Emiratis in Abu Dhabi were "sitting at home without high school diplomas". He would not divulge the exact number, but it is believed Adec's research found around 50,000 Emirati adults had not graduated from high school. According to 2009 estimates by Abu Dhabi Statistics Centre, there are about 124,000 Emiratis over the age of 15 in the emirate.
Dr Ali said Abu Dhabi's 47 adult education centres were not equipped to deal with those dropouts and faced a shortage of resources and teachers. "Sometimes they have to manage with part-time teachers. Many are not trained to teach adult students and it requires a different approach to the one taken to educate children."
There are 16,000 students in the emirate's adult learning centres, about 52 per cent between the ages of 20 and 29 and 76 per cent in Grades 10 to 12.
Classes are at night, sometimes in government school buildings, and teach the same curriculum as the one taught to children in the conventional school system.
"The issues need to be addressed," said Dr Ali. "It is important that pupils graduate and that their programmes are aligned to the needs of the economy."
Moza Saif Al Mansoori, principal of Al-Khamael School in Madinat Zayed and a committee member, said: "This is a positive first step by the authority, because they have gone back to see where these 50,000 people are and what they can offer to those who dropped out 20 or 30 years back.
"Adults cannot be taught the same academic subjects as schoolchildren. Those who have missed normal school should be trained through special programmes that collaborate with technical colleges to give them profession-related skills."
Ms Al Mansoori said the current system focused only on imparting literary skills, which was not enough. "This might work if my grandmother wanted to study but for the younger people who have left school this is not enough and will stop them from progressing."
Another problem identified by the Adec committee was the broad mixture of ages in adult learning centres. The current education system requires that any child who fails the same grade twice or misses more than a year of school be sent to an adult learning centre.
"A 10-year-old who 'drops out' could be placed in the same class as a student who may be 30 years older," said Dr Ali. "A child between 9 and 15 cannot be called an adult, but they are being taught with adults."
Ms Al Mansoori also said she believed the compulsory education age should be raised. "Right now, it is only until middle school and a lot of pupils drop out for better opportunities and salaries in the military or police," she said. "We also have to constantly advise and counsel families to make them aware about the importance of education."
Adec now aims to work with technical centres, universities and the Ministry of Education to address the dropout issue.
Mohamed Abdrabou, a physics teacher at two adult centres in Ras Al Khaimah who has students in their twenties and some over 45, said: "As the curriculum is taught according to what is done in the morning, it does not always work out for the adult students. They also miss a lot of classes because of the workload or because of family issues."
He said there ought to be a more flexible programme for adults. "It also has to be made interesting in terms of what knowledge they would want and would help them."
Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at Al Qassimi Foundation For Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, who is conducting her own study into dropout rates, said: "If there was a proper early intervention then a lot fewer students would be failing and forced into night-school."
Dr Ridge also believes the solution may be to offer a high school equivalency programme at the adult learning centres that could impart appropriate skills to adults, allowing them to take up a vocation.
"There has to be a range of pathways for people of all ages so that they can move in and out of education," she said.