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UAE cruises from illiterate to well-read in 40 years

Census shows that just 7.5 per cent of those living in the UAE can’t read or write compared with 75 per cent when the nation was founded

ABU DHABI // Education centres in the capital say an increasing literacy rate has resulted in less demand for reading classes among mature students.

Forty years ago, three-quarters of the emirate’s population could not read or write. Nowadays that has dropped to 7.5 per cent.

Over the years, as more students, particularly women, attended and remained in school, illiteracy fell quickly and steeply. The creation of adult education and literacy centres targeting the older population also aided in reducing illiteracy, particularly among Emiratis.

By 2000, the illiteracy rate had fallen to 12 per cent.

“Many people knew Arabic already and knew the grammar, but they wanted to concentrate on writing and reading better, because our parents and grandparents maybe did not learn it when they were young,” said Fatima Hamad, an administrative assistant at the Continuing Education Centre at UAE University in Al Ain, where language classes are offered for adults.

Ms Hamad and other adult education experts said the demand for literacy classes has declined as more of the population completes a higher level of schooling.

Data released by the Statistics Centre–Abu Dhabi (Scad) on Saturday show the rate of illiteracy among Emiratis in the capital dropped to 6 per cent in the 2010-11 school year – a number that has continued to decline from a high of more than 75.1 per cent in 1971.

The new figures, part of a report on the education sector and based on preliminary census data, suggest Emirati women are more likely to be illiterate than men, with the rate at 8.7 per cent compared to men’s 3.5 per cent.

But while no women were enrolled in the emirate’s schools in the 1960-61 school year, men and women were represented in classrooms at nearly the same rate last year (males at 156,469 and females at 150,010).

The General Women’s Union used to host literacy classes for women, but Mohammed Al Mansour, an adviser for the union, said there is no longer a need for them.

“The UAE has improved education so that they are not required anymore,” Mr Al Mansour said.

At Mother Tongue, an Arabic-language school typically catering to non-native speakers, private classes are available for illiterate students.

“But these are usually only for very old people,” said Shaman Al Sharou, the general relations coordinator at Mother Tongue.

“I don’t really think there are such people anymore. It is more common that we offer these classes to Arabic speakers who were raised outside the UAE and just never learnt how to read or write.”

Scad included statistics only for residents older than 10, and measure literacy in English and Arabic.

Residents said they were not surprised by the numbers, which Scad said are among the lowest in the Arab world, but they did note that proficiency in Arabic or English differed from school to school.

“These days just about everyone has been to school; it is just maybe a handful of elders who may not have had the schooling facilities in their days,” said Anas Al Mahmoud, a 34-year-old father of three.

“Most parents today send their children to private schools. Though government schools have a strong Arabic curriculum, they are very weak in English,” Mr Al Mahmoud said.

In the 2010-11 school year, Scad said there were 306,497 pupils in the emirate’s 480 schools, of which 299 are run by the Government.

The number of pupils per teacher was 13.8 and the number of pupils per classroom was 22.7.

Across all nationalities polled in the capital, illiteracy rates were higher. Among non-Emiratis, illiteracy stood at 7 per cent for women and 8 per cent for men.


* With additional reporting by Mohammed N Al Khan

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