DUBAI // Children as young as 5 are to receive weekly counselling sessions on personal and academic development and future career choices.
The 50-minute classes are not examinable but will be compulsory from Grade 1 to 12 at state schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.
"We need to start early to train pupils to choose well and make informed decisions about their future," said Sana Abdul Azim, director of the programme, which has been developed by the counselling department at the Ministry of Education. She described many teenagers as "clueless" about what professions exist and how these fitted their interests.
For pupils in Cycle 1 schools (Grades 1-5), the classes will include activities and coursework related to personal development.
"Topics that will be taught to the younger pupils will include how to take care of themselves, how to deal with their parents and teachers, respect and other topics that will strengthen their social interaction skills," said Ms Azim.
In Cycle 2 (Grades 6-9) there will be a greater emphasis on learning study-based skills. Pupils will learn how to think, analyse, plan and make confident decisions.
Classes for older teenages in Grades 10 to 12 will focus on making career-orientated choices. Pupils will receive talks from professionals in different careers and industry visits to broaden their options while promoting the Emiratisation needs of the private sector.
"By the time our pupils reach Grade 10 they have no idea about the classes they want to join and how it will affect their higher education chances," said Ms Azim.
It will take five years to roll out the programme to every grade, but the ministry has already started classes for Grade 10 pupils.
The biggest challenge will be in finding qualified counsellors to take on the role, said Ms Azim. The ministry will need about 319 counsellors in the next five years.
So far, only 17 have been appointed and the social workers posted at every school will be expected to pick up the slack in the short term.
"This is a problem but we are working with the Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology to fill this demand," said Ms Azim.
It is hoped the programme will improve Emirati pupils' future planning skills, which were found lacking in the latest Arab Knowledge Report released in March. The report, which polled 1,375 pupils in the UAE, found almost a quarter had a "zero" score in future-planning skills. On average, they received a score of 4.72. The required minimum was 12.5.
The report said an absence of guidance at school was a key aspect affecting their life ambitions and career drive.
"We also have a problem with a majority of pupils enrolling in the literary course at the moment," said Ms Azim. Only 30 per cent of government school pupils opt for science subjects according to authority.
Dr Sufian A Forawi, a senior lecturer in the education department at the British University in Dubai who is studying career choices among Emirati pupils, said he hoped the programme would focus on nurturing a love for education in the early years and then on building a future in the later stages.
"We have to study the attitudes of the pupils, their potential and true abilities before we start directing them," said Mr Forawi.
"This requires a holistic approach which involves certain aptitude tests, face-to-face sessions and parental involvement."
According to his research, 60 per cent of pupils make career choices based solely on the desires of their parents or choices made by their elder siblings.
Dr Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said the programme should include a job shadow component too.
"Working in an organisation to see what it actually means and requires to be employed is very important," she said. "That practical training element will put things into perspective for them."