Phasing out the need for remedial courses for students about to enter university represents "a major challenge", academics said yesterday. Their warning followed the announcement of a plan to end foundation programmes, which were established to allow under-prepared school leavers to learn the skills to begin university coursework.
The move is part of an ambitious government strategy to overhaul education from kindergarten to grade 12, when pupils would be around 17. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has asked the public for feedback on the new strategy, and there is no timetable for the end of the foundation programmes listed in the highlights of the government strategy. However, university staff said remedial courses could not simply be removed if the quality of secondary education remained below par.
Bryan Gilroy, Zayed University's assistant provost for enrolment management, said it would be "a major challenge" to improve secondary schools enough to make the foundation programmes unnecessary. He said such programmes were critical to address shortages in basic skills among school leavers. "It's not primarily an [English]-language issue, although that is a big issue," he said. "Many of the students have inadequate Arabic and maths - arguably these are as poor as their English."
Dr Gilroy said basic skills in high school needed to be examined again. "How we do that I don't know, because it's a major challenge," he said. "The problem is huge. Currently 83 per cent of students have to go through the language programme when they arrive." As reforms took hold in schools, Dr Gilroy said foundation programmes would "naturally get smaller". But there were few signs that changes introduced in schools already, such as the introduction of the Madares al Ghad and public-private partnership schools, had led to improvements among school leavers, Dr Gilroy said.
"We haven't seen a noticeable jump in the language standards of students coming out of high school," he said. At present, 94 per cent of students who join UAE University, Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) need remedial teaching. "The problem is it takes time to produce better teachers, improve the curriculum and raise standards," said Mark Drummond, the HCT provost. If improvements were sustained, the HCT would be pleased if the number of students taking foundation programmes was reduced, he said. "We'd agree the colleges and universities should not be in the business of teaching material that should have been taught in high schools," said Dr Drummond.
Last year, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) ran an intensive English language summer programme for grade 11 pupils - around 16 years old - with the aim of improving English skills. ELS, an American company hired to evaluate the programme, flagged poor English standards as a "cause for concern". Most public school pupils on the ELS course were placed in the bottom three sections, with some having no English whatsoever. Others were said to "know a few words and phrases" and "can respond to simple questions and answers".
By the end of the course, 62 per cent of the students had obtained a "basic ability to communicate in everyday situations" or higher. According to ELS, they had reached a level where they could "understand English when spoken slowly and clearly". But, according to the same model, the students would require another 800 hours of intensive instruction to achieve the level of English proficiency accepted by some American universities.
A study by the federal Ministry of Education in 2005 found that by grade seven - around 12 years old - 68 per cent of pupils in public schools were two or more years below grade level in English reading and 74 per cent were at least two years behind in writing. Natasha Ridge, a research fellow at the Dubai School of Government, said it could take more than a decade to eradicate the need for remedial English courses.
The immediate problem facing schools was that many English teachers did not speak the language fluently, particularly in boys' schools, Dr Ridge said. "The problem is you're relying on expatriate English teachers who have a poor command of English," she said. "What I've found is in boys' government schools in the Northern Emirates it is really terrible." Dr Ridge said the Ministry of Education should follow the lead of the Adec and set minimum standards for language proficiency for new staff.
* The National