x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

English education a cultural complement

Alarmingly few graduating students are proficient in English. Improvement is essential, but is not incompatible with the primacy of Arabic and pride in the UAE's heritage.

Preparing students for what the market needs does not have to conflict with the preservation of national identity. But how to ensure that the next generation has the right mix of language skills - in the UAE's case, Arabic and English - to prosper individually and collectively remains unanswered.

As The National reports today, only 12 per cent of students graduating from public schools have English-language proficiency. Experts blame low assessment test standards and poor teaching methods.

This issue is not new; the Federal National Council highlighted the problem in 2009, saying low standards cost the federal universities one-third of their annual budget as around 90 per cent of students needed to complete an extra foundation year to reach proficiency.

Education authorities must study why these efforts continue to fail. And authorities must also focus on dealing with the real issues at schools rather than simply changing the curriculum when students fall behind. Teachers are identified in our report today as part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution. Low salaries are not the reason why students suffer, but higher wages allow schools to attract better qualified teachers.

The lack of incentives for teachers can be blamed for another issue highlighted by education authorities this week, which is how to foster national pride through the education system. On Wednesday, Dubai's Executive Council launched a scheme to develop a school curriculum for preserving the national identity in education. The scheme will include guidelines to help teachers link national identity and history to all education subjects in the coming academic year.

Language and cultural identity are interrelated issues and can be solved together, holistically. To do so, authorities must start dealing with educational shortcomings, rather than looking for other solutions or finding excuses. Gains in English do not have to come at the expense of traditional Arabic. As small countries elsewhere - the Netherlands, for instance - have proven, bilingualism is an asset that does not have to come at the cost of cultural identity.

The intention of the founders of the country was to link progress to national pride. Today that means focusing on improving educational systems that are, for now, falling short.