ABU DHABI // Training teachers to provide mainstream education for special-needs pupils is being blocked by financial and language obstacles, academics say.
Abu Dhabi University (ADU) launched its special-education master's degree a year ago and has just five students. A similar course at Zayed University, which was due to begin in September last year, has yet to start because it has attracted too few students.
Dr Mohammad Al Zyoud, the head of the education department at ADU, said the main problems were costs and teachers' poor English.
Students have to pay the annual fees of Dh42,500 themselves, without support from schools or education authorities, putting it beyond the means of many.
And while special education is taught in Arabic the master's course, like all degrees in the UAE, is in English, which few of the teachers speak. Most have studied subjects such as social work or psychology in their mother tongue.
"It's not a lack of demand," said Dr Al Zyoud. "We have people who want to join the programme but they don't have the level of English we need."
The university is now looking to launch a diploma course in Arabic to meet the great demand for trained special-needs teachers.
And Dr Barbara Harold, the head of graduate education courses at Zayed University, has been given the job of promoting the institution's proposed master's course.
So far, just five students have registered. The university needs 20 for the course to be viable.
"It would be really helpful if we can identify sources of scholarships that could reduce one of the barriers," said Dr Harold.
She said she hoped to persuade the Ministry of Education and Abu Dhabi Education Council of the need for financial support.
Maha Khouzami, the head of Al Awladonah special-needs school in Sharjah, said: "They need sponsors. There is a big need to train these teachers but they can't fund these studies as they don't have the income.
"Diplomas are good but master's studies are much more long term. Master's students do research and get much deeper into the issues and the topic."
Katrina Sinclair is the head of education at Al Ain Women's College. After a recent deal with Adec the college's classroom assistants, who are trained in dealing with special-needs children, are now guaranteed work and will be placed in state schools.
More than 4,000 children with special needs attend mainstream government schools in Abu Dhabi and the number is expected to rise. Teachers have bemoaned the lack of qualified assistants.
"The support of Adec is key to everything," said Ms Sinclair. "They are our main employers and if you don't have their support it's really quite difficult."
Teachers with specialist master's degrees are crucial, she said.
"You have to have trained specialists as they're making vital decisions about children and adults' lives, so they have to have as much knowledge and as many skills as possible in their field," Ms Sinclair said.
Dr Eman Gaad, the dean of education at the British University in Dubai and an expert in special education, said: "It is sad to see such needed programmes freeze or collapse before they even start as the market is striving for such professionals."
Dr Gaad's university has several students on its PhD programme in special education but it has also suffered a lack of qualified staff.
"Academics in the field must be in touch with the latest trends and issues," she said.
"They must have an excellent track record of publications, and at the same time they must be well connected on the ground through community work in the area of special education."