As schools reopened last week, it was a reminder that while the country has spent billions of dirhams on transport infrastructure and tourist amenities, little has been done to improve the ageing public education system. Indeed, the consultancy firm McKinsey and Co recently reported that the majority of schools in the UAE rank between "poor" and "fair" by international standards.
In many countries, education has increasingly shifted towards providing a learning environment, in terms of architecture and classroom design, as much as in curriculum development. The priority is to nurture and cultivate a better learning experience within that physical space.
When a school is built in the UAE, most of the emphasis is still placed on the information technology and hardware components. Little attention is paid to the role played by the building itself. A carefully designed architectural plan can improve student-teacher interaction while at the same time promoting cohesion between the school and the community.
But positive steps have been taken recently. The Ministry of Education has launched a maintenance programme targeting 40 schools across the country. In a separate initiative, which highlighted problems in existing schools, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) shut down six villa schools, ordering that they be relocated to buildings designed for the purpose of education. The villas, which were intended for family use, had placed hundreds of students in overcrowded classrooms.
Compare those circumstances to educational initiatives abroad. At the peak of the global financial crisis, Australia spent $16.2 billion (Dh60bn) in economic stimulus to rapidly rebuild its school infrastructure. This "building the education revolution" campaign will help to foster a new learning environment for children, families and the community.
Another example is Singapore, which has pledged to continuously upgrade its schools. In 1990, the city-state transformed its schools into more colourful, individually-designed buildings, each with a distinct identity. Emphasis was placed on teamwork and change, with students asked to make suggestions to the architects through drawings and games. These ideas were embedded in the design of landscapes, stairways and entrances.
During Ramadan, the Saudi television programme Al Khawater, hosted by the popular presenter Ahmed Al Shugairi, visited a school in Copenhagen, the Open School. This unique institution has no walls, just a painted perimeter students may not cross. It has no classrooms; students are allowed to roam the premises freely after a 15-minute introductory crash course on the rules.
The students can carry out their work anywhere in the school's collaborative environment. Some even choose to do their course work in the main building's stairway. One student, asked if he preferred the staircase to the classroom, answered, surprisingly, that he had never been in a conventional classroom.
Inspired by that example, Mr Al Shugairi initiated a quick-fix project to renovate the steel door and library interior of a school in Jeddah. The result was a more vibrant environment that won student approval.
In 2010, Flor del Campo school opened in Cartagena, Colombia. Showcasing a distinctive design, the institution initially operated after regular school hours, providing a community centre for events such as bazaars, training courses and dance performances. Such initiatives can help to promote a sense of belonging for the surrounding neighbourhoods.
With age comes an appreciation of the value of space. Traditional classrooms, stairways, flip-lid desks and playgrounds will always have a place in our affections. But it's time for a new start. I truly urge the Ministry of Education, local educational zones and municipalities to adopt a fresh approach to how schools should look like in the future.
Schools are the basis for society, the foundation of progress and of quality of life. Governance should not be limited to green design and safety standards alone, but also encourage values within the schools that will deliver an enhanced educational experience for the staff, the students and the whole community.
Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Maktoum is a social commentator based in Dubai