Abu Dhabi got it right. Educational reform is a priority. It is a prerequisite for sustaining the modernisation programme that the emirate is implementing with a view to ensuring its prosperity, stability and competitiveness in a troubled region that will sooner or later have to do without its oil wealth.
The current educational system suffers from fundamental deficiencies that are leaving a heavy toll. Thousands of pupils are receiving mediocre education that does not equip them with the skills necessary to succeed in the highly competitive market the emirate and the area has become. It is an archaic system that works no more. Students are forced to learn from anachronistic, limiting curricula. Their future is placed in the hands of incompetent teachers who have received little training on how to nurture the minds of children and build their knowledge base.
That problem is not peculiar to the emirates. Indeed, all Arab countries are suffering from deteriorating educational systems. While some are simply not able to meet the cost of providing sufficient education due to growing demand and dwindling resources, all share the problem of having failed to incorporate modern effective techniques into school systems. Abu Dhabi is now distinguishing itself by facing the problem head on. It has acknowledged the existence of major shortcomings and put forward plans designed to tackle the causes of educational regression.
Revisiting the curricula is a major component of the reform plan announced by the Ministry of Education and Abu Dhabi Educational Council last week. That is a necessary step that has been delayed longer than necessary. Current curricula do not prepare students to face the challenges of a modern world.
It is imperative that Abu Dhabi carries this process to its full fruition. Many countries in the region succumbed to illogical pressure from fundamentalists who reject modernisation as a deviation from culture and tradition. Their acquiescence has denied children their right to effective education and transformed hundreds of schools into strongholds for extremism.
Abu Dhabi appears to be aware of these precedents as it forges ahead with reform plans undeterred by the noise made by some social elements with an inherent animosity towards modernisation. That is a battle worth fighting. Compromising on reform means putting the future of the younger generations in jeopardy. Anti-reform forces have no argument. They have prevailed in other places because they intimidated governments. The political environment of Abu Dhabi does not favour such forces and the Government has the tools and the support to marginalise their impact and carry on its modernisation.
Abu Dhabi is also moving in the right direction as it addresses the incompetence of teachers. Little investment has been made in the training of teachers and even less in creating standards against which their professional skills can be measured. Many teachers have entered classrooms without having one training course on how to deal with students and how to handle their young minds.
Others have spent years in classrooms without having been subjected to one test to assess their skills and determine their abilities to perform their jobs. Equally detrimentally, many were allowed to use schools for preaching extremism.
Instilling new standards for teachers will be a difficult undertaking. The process will face resistance, because unqualified teachers will certainly lose their jobs. In their battle for survival, incompetent teachers will invoke all sorts of political arguments. But they should not be allowed to disrupt the modernisation programme and their arguments should not be feared. Poor teachers are not being pushed away through a politically driven purging process - they are being asked to leave to protect future generations.
These future generations have the right to solid education and must be given the freedom to explore and think and challenge many things previously taken for granted. Obviously the reform plan is aware of this right. The news that rote learning will be eliminated in favour of interactive learning that directs students towards critical and creative thinking is more than welcome.
Rote learning has been a plague of Arab educational systems. Its toll has been enormous on a generation that has grown detached from its society and oblivious to its social and political surroundings. Many countries in the region consciously geared their educational system towards subduing students. Even their universities have been reduced to dull places where students are denied the right to organise or even engage in collective cultural or political activities.
The refreshing news is that Abu Dhabi is now trying to change the mindset of its students and teach creativity rather than obedience, critical thinking rather than blind acceptance. For that it must be commended. The development of the country requires highly educated citizens willing and able to engage positively in their society.
Development is not about high-rise buildings and global brands for sale. It is about the human being, the individual who is able to contribute to his/her environment and drive its progress. Abu Dhabi's decision to revamp its education system is an investment in the right direction. The reform process will prove difficult and challenging. But it is a must. Investment in human capital is the only path to sustainable development.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs