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Shortened school days would not help children learn

Raising education standards in the UAE could hardly be achieved if school hours were shortened, as the Federal National Council suggested last week.

I often hear parents say they are not satisfied with the quality of teaching in the UAE's schools.

Due to the increasing number of pupils per classroom, there is not enough time for teachers to focus on each student, I am told, and pupils often do not get opportunities to catch up on missed material.

And so, although it is illegal, private tutoring is an increasingly common practice. A survey by the Abu Dhabi Education Council this year found that almost half of Abu Dhabi parents use private tutors.

Of the 50,000 respondents to Adec's questionnaire, which was intended to rate the quality of education and schools in the emirate, 20,775 parents admitted paying for extra lessons in Arabic, English, mathematics and science.

The situation is believed to be similar in Dubai, although comparable numbers are not available; more and more parents are relying on private tuition to supplement their children's schooling.

Raising education standards in classrooms is a process; authorities are already working on it but there is more to do. This challenge can be addressed by improving the performance of teachers, the curriculum, and the activities in the classroom.

But this could hardly be achieved if school hours were shortened, as the Federal National Council suggested last week.

On Tuesday, the majority of the FNC's members - excluding two former school principals - voted in favour of a recommendation made by one member, to shorten the school day.

Dr Mohammed bin Ham, from Abu Dhabi, told Minister of Education Humaid Al Qatami that the current hours and schedule are counterproductive: they leave little time for pupils to do their homework, play, or spend time with their families. A study on the benefits of a shorter school day for the country's "culture and lifestyle" will be sent to the Cabinet.

Dr bin Ham said that many parents and teachers told him that they are against the longer school days, which "do not suit the Gulf climate" where people often take an afternoon nap.

The FNC's proposal may at first seem sound. Long school hours may indeed decrease children's ability to concentrate on what they study, and students may not be able to learn anything, after a certain point. Long hours can also cause stress to both teachers and students, and obviously reduce time they can spend at home.

However, even after we extended school hours in the UAE, the day's length is still relatively short comparing to the best education systems in the world. There must be solutions to this problem other than reducing the time spent in classes.

The minister told the FNC that the added time is intended to improve education in the country. The length of school hours was extended in 2009, so that days now last from five to seven hours, depending on grade level.

The school day at Abu Dhabi state high schools was extended by 90 minutes at the start of the 2010/2011 school year, as part of a 10-year plan to increase the standards of education in the emirate and better prepare pupils to enter university.

Needless to say, the quality of learning matters more than the quantity of time spent in the classroom. However, if the FNC recommendation were accepted, students could begin missing out academically, especially if no compensating extra days are added to the end of the year. Our children could end up losing large amounts of classroom learning - and then they would need even more private lessons to close the education gap.

There is no possible way to reduce the day by even one hour without a negative effect on how much and how well our children learn. Already, many students graduate with insufficient maths, geography or English skills.

Academic pressure could be reduced by improving school services and insuring a comfortable and cool transport system for kids. Adding more extra-curricular activities and making them mandatory could also help to ease students' stress. With so many children overweight, we could consider decreasing academic loads a little and adding mandatory sign-up for physical activities in schools, as is the case in many developed countries.

On the other hand, a shorter school day does not guarantee more time spent with family.

There was a time in the UAE when most mothers stayed home. That, however, is changing with more women joining the workforce. These women would not be at home if their children came back earlier.

Many working parents have the family schedules worked out carefully, changes in school timings would mean new problems about picking up children on time, or children staying home for extended hours without a parent present.

The root of these problems is our attitude towards education. The FNC is focusing here on the length of the school day instead of focusing on the improved education standards that we need to raise generations of hard workers able to compete at the college level. We cannot ensure a better education for our children without pushing them to work harder.

The truth is that we don't need a shorter school day. We just need to get out of our comfort zones and encourage our children to do the same.

AAlmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazrouie

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