x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Foundation year axe will test school reforms in the UAE

With the help of 65,000 ideas submitted by the public, the UAE is embarking on ambitious school and university reforms that affect every level of education.

When UAE residents were asked for their views on how the education system could be improved, the response was overwhelming – more than 65,000 ideas were submitted. Such feedback is important because few factors will predict the nation’s future well-being better than the quality of the education received by the newest generation of citizens, who will in time reach positions with the power and authority to direct the UAE’s destiny.

The crowdsourcing of ideas by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, was intended to augment the brainstorming session among his advisers about the education system, and led to a series of reforms announced after a ministerial retreat on Sir Bani Yas Island.

The most noteworthy of these is the decision to scrap the foundation year at university. Intended to bring students up to speed for tertiary study, the foundation year has proved to be a massive drain on university resources. Once this reform is introduced, the burden to prepare students will rest – as it always should have done – on the secondary school system. Universities will be free to concentrate on the job of teaching bachelor-level courses.

This in itself will be a crucial test of whether previous education reforms have succeeded in improving the performance of the UAE’s secondary schools. The latest report from the Programme for International Student Assessment shows UAE students have made significant improvements in the fields of maths, reading and science since the previous report was filed in 2009, but still lag below international averages. The country’s students ranked 46th out of 65 participating countries in these three categories last year.

This data emphasises the importance of starting even before formal schooling begins. The indications are that language training, in particular, ought to start in preschool – when children’s brains are at their most malleable – so that proficiency at both English and Arabic can take root.

Combined with moves to attract better teachers through an improved career structure and earlier reforms, such as delaying the streaming of students into science and humanities until later in the education process, the nation is moving in the right direction.

It needs to. If the UAE is to succeed in becoming a knowledge-based economy and less reliant on its oil resources, the most crucial component is a highly educated citizenry – for that, the UAE needs an excellent education sector.