x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Can the nation's schools make the grade?

The UAE's school system has come a long way, but the startling dropout rate for young Emirati males is a challenge that must be met quickly and fully if the country is to develop the high-tech "knowledge economy" it needs.

The UAE's education system has come a long way. But new research findings, and a series of reports appearing this week in The National, reveal that we still face systemic problems that demand urgent attention.

The appetite for change is apparent in existing plans for overhauling the system. The "new school model" will move us away from traditional rote learning. More schools will focus on English and vocational training to deliver the skills the workplace needs.

But new schools or systems are not enough. A study conducted for the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies reveals that almost a quarter of Emirati men aged 20 to 24 are high school dropouts unlikely to go back to school.

This is a worrying trend. The diversified modern knowledge economy we want, as well as the policy of Emiratisation, will demand every highly trained young Emirati we can find.

There is also a social dimension to this lost human potential: young Emirati women are far more likely than young men to go to university; this gap is believed to be contributing to a higher divorce rate.

The study on dropouts cites several reasons for the high attrition among males. They include uninspiring school environments; a lack of interesting, relevant subject options; and an absence of counselling.

Sometimes other options just seem better. The dropout rate "is a big issue for the Government because we see kids leaving to get into careers like the police and army, which they find more attractive," says Dr Abdalla Al Amiri, the adviser to the Minister of Education. Fortunately, police colleges have realised the importance of providing education to new recruits. But police departments should not have to be educating young people when school's fail.

Currently, the lure of secure jobs is winning out over the need for a degree. To reverse course, Emiratis will require role models in the classroom to convince them to stick with their studies. This is a challenge, again, for boys. Only six of the 150 Emiratis currently in training to be teachers are male. Higher salaries, and higher status within the system, could help balance this. Teachers, of course, cannot inspire students by themselves. Even the best teachers will fail if their calls for a lifetime of learning are not echoed by parents at home.

Education is the superhighway to job satisfaction and other personal goals. This nation's future is also riding on its success.