ABU DHABI // She may be only 23, but Mariam Al Halami has big dreams – she hopes to become the Minister of Education.
About to start her PhD examining education policy, the young Emirati is well aware her age is just one barrier she will face on her journey, but she is undeterred.
Better teacher training, a more diverse body of teaching staff and a more individualised curriculum will be among the top priorities of her research at the UK’s Institute of Education.
She says education policy must be more informed and based on solid research and evidence.
“We fall into so many mistakes because the policies are not based on research,” she said. “It’s usually following international patterns without local context.”
The recent salary issue for schoolteachers was one such issue.
“I don’t think the policymakers asked the right questions to the right people. The policy wasn’t really adding value to the teachers but it was communicated to be so, which frustrated me and has led to a lot of discontent among the teachers,” she said.
Living allowances were factored into salaries for teachers, which meant the amount on their salary cheques increased, but they did not in fact earn more money.
“Couldn’t they have got more teachers involved in the research and done teacher surveys?”
Ms Al Halami says she wants to see a time when all policy is based on evidence-based research.
“We can’t just ‘think’ something is or isn’t good.”
While studying for her PhD she will continue her work with a philanthropic foundation in Abu Dhabi and hopes to hold discussions with leaders from education zones, regulatory authorities and ministries, though she admitted this will be “challenging”.
“It might help that I’m Emirati, but I’m 23 and I know this has been a problem for many Emiratis,” she said. “It’s also hard to make them believe in a different way of policy-making but I will try.”
To prove her credentials, she is in the process of setting up an educational consultancy. She is awaiting a response from the Emirates Foundation on whether she will receive funding for her studies as she did for her master’s, also at the UK institute. Her thesis looks at how London authorities influence local education policy.
Ms Al Halami has decided to bypass the teaching route and go straight towards policy.
“I was never a teacher by nature, though I’d love to teach. But I know in a culture like the UAE that the best way to fix things is to start from the top,” she said. “I’ve seen people devote 20 or 30 years of their lives to teaching but not seeing the changes they wanted.”
She has big ideas, and hopes to attract more experts to teaching who can bring a passion and expertise in their subject that will inspire.
“I”m not a fan of standardised testing and would prefer students not to feel they are being pushed through the system as this makes them feel they want to stop learning at an early age. This is especially relevant for Emirati boys,” she said.
Ms Al Halami credits her former teacher at Zayed University, Dr Connie Van Horne, for inspiring her future research career while she studied her undergraduate degree in finance. She chose that subject because “I was told it was the most challenging degree at the university but I breezed it”.
Dr Van Horne said: “Mariam is a tremendous role model for both young women and young men about the benefits and rewards of robust and serious research.
“She is a published author, has studied and will study in London, and is considered an expert on education and the topic of research and development and innovation in the UAE, all at a young age.”