DUBAI // A law to raise the compulsory school attendance age for Emiratis will be passed soon, says a senior education official.
The current law, embodied in the UAE constitution and Federal Law No. 11 of 1972, states compulsory education starts at the age of 6 and includes only the primary stage. This means pupils can leave school by the age of 13 or 14.
The new bill will ensure students have at least a Grade 10 qualification before leaving school at 16.
"We are looking to amend the mandatory school age this year, raising it from Grade 6 to at least Grade 10," said Dr Abdalla al Amiri, the adviser to the Minister of Education.
According to Ministry of Education statistics, about 2.6 per cent of the students in public schools drop out after completing Cycle 1 schooling - which incorporates kindergarten one and two, and Grades 1 to 5 - and 2.8 per cent left after Cycle 2 (Grade 6 to Grade 9).
The highest number of school leavers, about 10 per cent, are Grade 10 students, who are lured by lucrative job offers.
In the US, the compulsory education goes on till the age of 17 while in Germany it is up to 18 years.
UK authorities announced in 2007 that from 2013, compulsory education - be it in a school or through continued training - will be mandatory till the age of 17, and will be further raised in 2015 to the age of 18.
Dr Naji al Mahdi, executive director of the National Institute for Vocational Education in Dubai, said the UAE should follow the UK's example and strive to attain a higher compulsory education age bar, too.
However, raising the leaving age would require a strong vocational sector to absorb and train school leavers for the job market said Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher and expert on public education at the Dubai School of Government (DSG).
"At the moment, we do not have that sector and they aren't many alternatives for those with high school diplomas," she said.
Mr al Mahdi added that this would also require a revamp of the curriculum taught at schools. "It raises concerns on whether the education they receive in those compulsory stages is actually providing them with the skills and knowledge to be productive and manage careers and their families," he said.
"For that, the entire delivery and mindset of those involved in the school system - including the parents - needs to change."
The aim of the new law is to align the UAE education system with international standards Mr al Amiri said.
"We want to make sure that students who decide to leave the education system early are equipped with at least the basic skills required to move on to either vocational programmes or take up jobs," he continued.
"This will help stem early dropouts because none of them will be allowed to work unless they produce the required qualification."
A push for the ratification of a new compulsory school level has been in the works since 2008, when the UAE presented a national report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and committed itself to raising the age to 18 years.
While the authority may not increase it to that level immediately, the first step would be to send out a strong message said Mr al Mahdi.
"There is a critical number who do not finish their education with many of them leaving before completing Grade 10," he said.
"If this new law is passed, it will be a child-protection mechanism which is also being followed by other countries."