DUBAI // Teaching careers need to be made more attractive if the UAE wants to climb international league tables, according to a top international education expert.
Andreas Schleicher, head of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), an international ranking system, says that while UAE pupils are good at rote learning, schools are still failing to develop their creative thinking.
For that to happen, he says, the school system needs to change - and Emirati teachers must be involved in that process.
The UAE took part in Pisa, which tests 15-year-olds' performance in science, maths and reading, for the first time in 2010 and was ranked 47 out of 74 education systems from around the world.
"In the UAE, children are good at reproducing subject-matter content," said Mr Schleicher, head of the study. "They have no difficulty in remembering what they were taught in school, but they have great difficulties extrapolating from what they know and applying their knowledge in novel contexts."
There were large deficiencies in creative thinking and in synthesising information, he said.
Since the study, the results of which were announced earlier this year, the Ministry of Education and Abu Dhabi Education Council have launched initiatives, such as the Madaras Al Ghad (Mag) and New School Model, to address the shortcomings it found.
Both models move away from traditional rote learning, using technology and interactive resources to create more stimulating classroom environments.
But Mr Schleicher said they will work only if the government actively seeks teachers' feedback.
"This is not an activity that the government alone can do," he said. "You can do many tests in school but it will not change the reality in a classroom unless you bring it home to the teachers and involve them in that process."
He said the UAE has to concentrate on elevating the status of teaching as a profession, training Emirati teachers and making sure they have a "real voice".
One Emirati teacher at a Mag school in Fujairah, who declined to be named, said that would be welcome. "Teachers are at the core of any successful reform," she said. "When it comes to curriculum changes, even the experienced teachers are often left out of discussions.
"Teachers know their pupils much better than the ministry, so our feedback should be considered important."
Teachers have also complained that a lack of growth opportunities keeps UAE nationals away from the profession.
Fixing that, said Michael O'Brien, associate academic dean of education at the Higher Colleges of Technology, requires not only a boost in pay but the promise of a steady career progression.
"In the teaching profession, the movement is fairly flat at the moment," he said. "As teachers gain more experience they must receive greater responsibility and remuneration to move up.
"But that does not mean taking them out of the teaching profession and putting them in administration jobs."
He said Adec was gradually developing better career paths, offering more professional-development courses and opportunities to seek further qualifications.
He would like to see the same in other Emirates. The council launched a programme this year for more than 150 Emirati teachers in Abu Dhabi state schools, who will be retrained in early childhood education.
An Emirati teacher in the capital, who declined to be named, said she would like schools to be less reliant on foreign teachers. "There are many capable UAE nationals who can be trained for leadership roles and the focus should be on that," she said.
Mr Schleicher agreed importing teachers is not the answer. "The test for Abu Dhabi is whether they will succeed in attracting their own best graduates," he said.
"That will mean building a really effective career structure because young people do not want to see themselves stuck in the same position for 25 years."