ABU DHABI // A centre devoted to educating youths who fail to graduate from high school plans to more than double its enrolment to 4,000 within 18 months to meet demand. Housed on a sprawling plot outside Abu Dhabi, near Al Shamka, the Vocational Education Development Centre (VEDC) was established by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, in 2006 by royal decree. The boarding school is already home to about 1,200 Emiratis aged 13 to 23 from across the country.
At the centre, they can earn their high school equivalency, a trade and work experience that prepares them for a job upon graduation. About 90 per cent of the student body at the VEDC are high school dropouts, while others entered the school because they struggled in traditional institutions. "The Vocational Educational Development Centre is really offering a practical alternative," said Dr Abdullatif Al Shamsi, the director general of the Institute of Applied Technology, the network of science and technology high schools that VEDC falls under. "VEDC doesn't just occupy them; it tries to make different people from them, so they will be able to improve their futures, but also contribute to the UAE's economy and society generally."
Next autumn, VEDC will expand its rolls by another 500 students, and if construction on a new building proceeds as planned, the school's capacity will increase by another 2,000 in 18 months' time. But even then, at 4,000 students, VEDC may just be scratching the surface. Last month, during a presentation at the Dubai Men's College, Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government, warned that the public school system is failing young men. Boys are less likely to go to universities, more likely to drop out of high school, and on average do worse in school.
Anywhere from 11 to 25 per cent of male students drop out of school before grade 12. "The big year is grade 10, that's the watershed year," Dr Ridge said. Figures from the Ministry of Education for the 2007-2008 school year put the dropout rate for boys in grade 10 at 14 per cent in Dubai and 12 per cent in Abu Dhabi. For girls it was just four per cent in Dubai and three per cent in Abu Dhabi. A principal from Ras al Khaimah, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested the fault lies partially with a system that can keep children back for several years. This can mean they later drop out due to embarrassment, because they are so much older than their classmates.
The cost to society, Dr Ridge warned, can be great. "High dropout rates have been linked with high crime rates in other countries, and they have been linked with domestic violence," Dr Ridge said. In addition to the social cost, it is harder to find work without a high school diploma. "Are they going to be an economic burden for the state?" she asked. According to Dr al Shamsi, part of VEDC's success lies in its promise of a career pathway.
"Investing in UAE nationals at all levels of the vocational workplace is better for society. The hands-on training offered by VEDC leads to reliable and rewarding careers." VEDC partners with local industries and government agencies, who give the students valuable work experience. The UAE Armed Forces, Abu Dhabi Police and Al Ain Municipality are among the bodies involved. "We really respond to the market needs," Dr Al Shamsi continued, explaining that students graduate with high school equivalency and a practical qualification as well as work experience. "Many of the students are offered employment contracts at some stage in their training and are motivated by the fact that, providing they obtain their qualifications, a good career is waiting for them."
But even with a series of incentives, including paying students a Dh2,000 (US$545) stipend to attend, Dr Khodair al Obeidi, the senior manager of VEDC, acknowledges that it is a challenge to get young people back into the system. "It's not easy," he said. "We spend a great deal of time counselling and encouraging them. It is a big commitment for a young person who is used to being free - but we convince them to try. Once they are here, they really see the benefits. Many of our current students and graduates have encouraged their friends or relatives to join also."
Without a centralised database tracking dropouts, finding students can also be hard. VEDC's recruiters search schools and education zones to locate dropouts. "We're trying to establish a relationship now with schools to identify those that would better fit the VEDC model, with the aim of getting those students here as soon as possible," Dr al Obeidi said. "A lot of these students would not have continued their education had they not entered the VEDC system."