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Shake up for schools' code of conduct to deal with unruly pupils

Meetings with parents and teachers across the country held over the past two months revealed bad behaviour in schools is common.

Thousands of public school pupils throughout the UAE are to be given a new code of conduct in a move intended to respond to a rapidly changing learning environment. An influx of new ideas and technology is contributing to bad behaviour in Emirati schools, officials and parents say, and they hope an up-to-date code will address 21st century problems such as unfettered social networking, improper use of the internet, dating, smoking and inappropriate clothing.

In a statement, Humaid al Qattami, the Minister of Education, said the country faced "many changes and strange behaviours for UAE society". He said the challenges only "increase the ministry's will to develop the educational environment". Mr al Qattami conducted a series of meetings with parents and teachers across the country over the past two months, and complaints of pupils behaving badly were common.

He said a new code of conduct should be flexible and not rely on punitive measures. But it must also stress the value of adhering to the country's traditions and values. The code will apply to public schools, but Mr al Qattami urged private schools to develop similar frameworks, stressing that "the UAE is an Arab and Islamic nation that enjoys values and traditions that differentiate it from a lot of societies".

While a code of conduct already exists, outlining penalties for misconduct by pupils, many feel that it is outdated and fails to address contemporary problems. Many of those problems are fairly traditional to any learning environment, such as skipping class and fighting on the playground. "The kids like vandalism and drawing on public property," said Ahmed al Habsi, the principal of Abdul Rahman al Dakhel School in Al Ain. "These are the ones that are widespread."

More "modern" concerns that educators hoped the ministry would address are the effects of new media and technology, which the country's youth often use inappropriately, they say. "Even third-graders now have BlackBerrys," said Mariam Khatem, a representative of the Fujairah Women's Council, an organisation that represents parents in the emirate's schools. "The BlackBerry is destructive," said one Emirati mother with children in public schools, who did not want to be named. "It has a lot of harmful effects, they send things like indecent pictures and messages to each other."

Addiction to technology and the internet also made many school-aged girls antisocial, she said. "They don't even see any of their extended families any more." Exposure to other cultures that dress less conservatively has also led girls in school to dress inappropriately and to break rules on uniforms and dress codes. "It's a fashion show in schools now," said Amna al Shehhi, a teacher at a public school in Ras al Khaimah. "The girls put on make-up and wear a lot of colours. It is not appropriate at all."

Some had also taken to dating as well, she said, a result of "the parents being busy, their absence from home. The maid is now the mother and the father". Mr al Habsi and other parents said television and the rest of the media promoted antisocial behaviour among pupils. Last month, the ministry said it would require schools to hold an open day each term that would allow parents to meet teachers and stay posted on their children's academic performance and behaviour.

"The home is crucial," said Ms Khatem. The family could plant values like respect for teachers in their children, she said. The reasons for behavioural issues were numerous, said Wafa Saleem, an Emirati mother and former schoolteacher. "Sometimes, the mistake is at home because there is no good example, like if the father smokes or spends a lot of time outside the home." she said. "But the school must also try to be an attractive environment. Society is inter-connected."

Lack of respect for teachers has often been cited as a problem by parents and school principals, with some students resorting to insults and verbal abuse with teachers and students. "Their tongues get used to what is on television," said Fawzia al Genaibi, the principal of Sheikha Bint Suror Primary School in Al Ain. But Ms Saleem said schoolteachers also had a duty to respect students and not embarrass them in front of their classmates.

Teachers also had to know how to respond to students of different backgrounds, she said. Ms al Shehhi said a new code of conduct was needed to address the lack of clarity and to modernise the old code, bringing it up to the challenges of the current age. One thing the code should stress was the responsibility of the teachers, some of whom resorted to corporal punishment to discipline students. This should be expressly banned, she said.

In addition, development of the code should involve different stakeholders, like parents, school management and law enforcement, said Mohammed al Hosani, principal of Abu Dhabi Secondary School. Others said the ministry should stress the importance of counsellors in the treatment of misbehaving students, and training sessions for parents and students to educate them about the code of conduct. kshaheen@thenational.ae

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