On enrolling at college or university, around 90 per cent of students in the UAE must first complete a foundation year to ratchet up their skills to required standards. This practice costs universities up to a third of their annual budgets.
In presenting these numbers in 2009, Federal National Council members, concerned by shifting ministerial strategies and diverse curricula, argued that poor school performance is not being met with adequate policies needed to build a knowledge-based economy. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.
As The National reported yesterday, education experts say pupils at national curriculum schools continue to perform poorly in maths, science and literacy, and require remedial classes to prepare for university.
"The performance of pupils at our schools is below standard," said Dr Abdulla Al Amiri, adviser to the Ministry of Education since 2007. "At university, their proficiency level is very low and this needs a total change in curriculum and the way they are taught, and also an emphasis on vocational education."
A special committee will follow up on the findings of the conference. But a look at previous experiences in education policy suggests that merely changing strategies has been part of the problem, not the solution. The expensive Future Schools project, for example, has been put on hold after its introduction to some public schools in 2008.
Over the years, we have seen too many educational strategies and too little education. What would be more helpful, we think, is careful selection of one sound strategy and then consistency in applying it.
Some areas ripe for reform are evident. Previous reforms seem to have focused mostly on changing curricula, but it is crucial to focus on other principal factors, notably improving the standard of teachers. One reason for the shortage of teachers in public schools - the whole UAE has only 700 male Emirati teachers - is low salaries.
One thing we have learnt from years of well-intentioned experiments is that even the best-laid plans cannot work if teachers do not have the appetite to teach. Their apathy will rub off on the students.
Overall, there is no point in continuously reinventing the wheel. The ministry must find a sensible policy and stick with it.