x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Call for radical education overhaul

Education in Abu Dhabi must be reworked to ensure that the UAE can compete globally, said Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

ABU DHABI // Education in the emirate must be "overhauled" to ensure that the UAE can compete in the global marketplace, said Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. In a meeting with three task forces, set up by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) to establish future education policy, the Crown Prince called for radical changes in the education system at every level.

He said Abu Dhabi and the Emirates had the financial resources to fix the system and he was prepared to commit what was needed to create a high-quality school system. He also expressed regret that huge sums of money and effort had been spent to solve the problem to no avail, the state news agency, WAM, reported. The public school system has long been criticised for not preparing pupils adequately for university and the workforce. Education reform has been high on the Government's agenda since 2000, when Dr Ali Abdel Aziz al Sharhan, then the minister of education and youth, introduced his Vision 2020 plan to improve state schools and help them keep pace with rapid developments in education.

But little has changed since then. An outmoded curriculum remains in place in most public schools and there are fewer hours of instruction than in high-performing school systems elsewhere in the world. Last year, only 11 per cent - 1,746 - of university applicants scored high enough in the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment English exam to start their courses without having to enrol for an English foundation year.

Attempts have been made to solve some of the problems. Adec has developed a "standards-based" curriculum to replace the old rote-learning model, which has already been put in place at roughly a third of the emirate's public schools. The federal government plans eventually to use the new curriculum in all public schools. In a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed last Monday, members of the task forces - one on schools, another on higher education and one on vocational studies - presented their findings.

The task forces were formed five months ago, soon after Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, issued a law restructuring the education council and giving it new authority over the education sector. Dr Mugheer al Khaili was named its director general. This was part of a move to decentralise education management and place authority in the hands of local education councils rather than the Ministry of Education.

The education council, whose budget is separate from the ministry's, oversees the education of more than 254,000 pupils in Abu Dhabi's 305 public schools and 146 private schools. Since May, groups of local and international educators have worked on creating a policy agenda for Abu Dhabi. "The intent was to bring experts in the three fields to look independently at what are the best policies driving the best systems internationally," said Ken Thompson, an adviser to Dr Khaili.

According to Adec officials, highlights from the policy agenda will be made public once it has been finalised. Mr Thompson said Abu Dhabi was fortunate because it was in a position to set a comprehensive agenda that would cover all aspects of schooling, from preschool until university. "We're really looking to create choices and flexibility for students." In their meeting with Sheikh Mohammed, members of the task forces said many of the recommendations marked a major shift from current policies. Some will have serious financial implications.

The task forces recommended "bold and challenging moves" in some areas and noted that "strong action would be needed to bring about the dramatic improvements required", WAM reported. The task forces recommended that Abu Dhabi adopt a system to allow university students to transfer credits between institutions. In the public school sector, they recommended that children with disabilities be moved out of special schools and into the mainstream system. They have also proposed developing specialist schools that would allow children to focus on maths and science or performing arts. Another proposal is to allow high school pupils to concentrate on vocational studies as opposed to taking courses that lead to university study.

@Email:klewis@thenational.ae