To achieve a first-rate education system the UAE must avoid inertia and embrace reform. Only then will the high rate of high school dropouts be reduced.
Every pupil who drops out is a loss for development goals
Early school leaving has been a serious concern in the UAE, and remains so today. The Government's long-term development plan targets a first-rate education system with the objective of minimising the dropout rate.
Until recently, early school leaving - the departure from education without formal completion of secondary school or the equivalent - has attracted more deliberation than research. But in a forthcoming paper, Fatma al Marri, a senior official at Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), and I present findings from the first exhaustive research into school attrition in the region.
The paper, from the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research and commissioned by the KHDA, explores the size and costs of the challenge. Along with our analysis of international evidence and best practices, the findings offer a baseline for policy direction.
The proportion of individuals aged 20 to 24 who have left school prior to completion is called the "status dropout rate". In Dubai, this was found to be as high as 22 per cent of Emirati males, but only 14 per cent of Emirati females. While female attainment has been rising over time, the status dropout rate of male Emiratis was found to have stagnated for over two decades. In other words, attainment has plateaued for male Emiratis, and nearly one in four has been exiting education early.
Our research found that dropping out was most worrisome for Emirati males in public schools. And when we examined the "event dropout rate" - the proportion of enrolled students who drop out of school without transferring - we also found that the problem is not limited to secondary schools.
Public debate is focused almost exclusively on secondary schools, but we found that 3 per cent of public school Emirati males in Grade 6 leave the school system each year. By Grade 8 the level nears 4 per cent. This is happening despite legislation mandating Grade 9 completion.
In secondary school, to be sure, the rate gets worse, to an average event dropout rate of 7.4 per cent in each year of schooling. (The highest rate was found in Grade 10, at 11 per cent of males.)
Female attainment on the other hand appears to be exemplary. The school leaving rate averaged under 3 per cent of secondary school females - a rate comparable to that observed in the world's leading education systems.
International comparisons show school attrition to be a significant regional issue. Over 25 per cent of Kuwaitis aged 20 to 24 lack a secondary school qualification, and this rate is even higher for Qataris (34 per cent) and Jordanians (41 per cent).
However, many developed countries have reduced their status dropout rates below 10 per cent. In South Korea and Norway only 4 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds have left without completing secondary schooling.
The reasons why young people drop out vary, but can be classified into: push factors, where exits are forced by schools due to behavioural or attendance issues; life events, forcing students to exit in order to work or care for family members; fading out, by those who grow disengaged; and a perceived lack of success.
The last point is consistent with another challenge: Arab states exhibit some of the world's highest grade repetition rates. From a group of 100 Emirati boys who entered Grade 6 in 2004, only 33 will graduate school on time as the 2011 academic year concludes next week. And 21 of the 100 will have permanently exited the system.
History shows us that the challenge is not insurmountable. Our research says dropping out occurs in identifiable and ultimately preventable ways. An effective early warning system could trigger interventions to keep boys in particular in school. Individual learning plans, "roadmaps for life" of career planning and personal engagement support could help.
Preventive measures cannot succeed, however, unless we address the systemic problems. Different pathways have to be available: introducing technological and vocational-based subjects at the secondary school level, without the high prerequisites found at IAT schools, would engage uninterested students. Reassessing the existing grade retention policy would also prevent a sense of failure from permeating the system.
The UAE has witnessed rapid advances in educational attainment in its short history. But to achieve a first-rate education system we must avoid inertia and embrace reform. With a comprehensive focus on the quality of education, the UAE can achieve graduation for all.
Dr Mike Helal is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne and a regional director at Parkville Global Advisory based in Dubai