x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Minister hears educators' complaints

School heads complain of a lack of relevant training for staff during their first meeting with the new Minister of Education.

SHARJAH // School heads complained of a lack of relevant training for staff during their first meeting with the new Minister of Education this week. In response, Humaid al Qattami assured them he saw training as key to education. His department would "work on making sure it is done right". At a three-hour open forum at the University of Sharjah attended by more than 450 heads of public schools, kindergartens and nurseries in Dubai and the five northern emirates, he heard concerns that there was no incentive to attend training courses and that the courses were sometimes irrelevant and did not adequately prepare staff to deliver the curriculum.

"Our teachers have attended lots of training courses, in English or in school leadership, but they never get raises or promotions or bonuses," said Khawla Abdulrahman, the principal at Sharjah's Alnoof High School. "We need something to motivate us." She also argued that courses should address teachers' realistic needs, rather than having staff "sent off just for the sake of saying these teachers are trained".

Fatima Suheil, the principal of Riama Kindergarten in Fujairah, suggested that new teachers should spend six months being trained by experienced teachers in the field as an alternative to being sent to a training centre. "Continuous practical training will be much more beneficial to our teachers," she said. Mr al Qattami was adamant about the importance of career development. "There is no job today that is moving in the right direction, forward, without development and training," he said.

Besides professional development, issues raised included claims of problems in schools' organisational structure and leadership, weak curriculums, and an examination system that was too reliant on memorisation. Principals told the minister that their schools had no clear, internal organisational structure, which meant some teachers held greater roles and responsibilities than others, although they might not have the right qualifications.

They also said they did not have authority to hire staff to suit the needs of their schools. Mr al Qattami agreed: "We need to create a skeleton of roles that are unique to each school, and give principals a clearer idea of whom to hire. We are working on that, and aware of the importance of each school having a say in its own process of hiring, according to its organisational chart." Speakers also mentioned the lack of a social administrator in many schools, or in other cases, having just one social administrator to look after more than 400 pupils. Social administrators are meant to oversee pupils as they arrive at and leave school, and liaise with parents when a child is absent or having problems.

Another point of discussion concerned a lack of Emiratis working in education. A representative from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai wondered how an expatriate could fill the shoes of someone born and raised in the country. "Please show some respect for the skills and qualifications of our Emirati teachers and hire them in education," she said. "Our people can teach their own, and should be doing it. You speak of empowering Emirati women, but foreigners are always chosen."

Mr al Qattami replied: "Your concern is valid, but we must also see it as a way of benefiting from the expertise and experience of qualified, international educators, in order to better improve ourselves." He added: "We will take this into consideration, but the bottom line is that we are learning from others' experience while also enhancing our local abilities." On the questions of whether the ministry would play a bigger role in running Dubai schools, at present the responsibility of the KHDA, Mr al Qattami said there would be continuous co-operation, but he would need time to be able to comment more specifically. "I've only been in office around 20 days or so, and I cannot on this occasion give a clear, transparent opinion on something I'm not yet sure about or haven't examined closely."

Mohammed Hassan, a principal from Sharjah, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said increases in the education budget over the past five years had not filtered down to schools. "Our light fixtures don't work; our computers, if we have them, are old," he said. "Our kids have no playgrounds or sports facilities, and we keep being told that this will all be fixed. When?" Ms Suheil, the kindergarten principal from Fujairah, hoped the exchanges would translate into practical benefits.

"If at least 30 per cent of these issues are solved annually, then we will have progress," she said. Mr al Qattami promised to keep the lines of communication open and said the meeting would become an annual event. "I am here to hold an open and transparent discussion with you, to lend an ear to your concerns, suggestions and grievances, in order to gradually find solutions to the problems you pose," he said.

Mr al Qattami will complete his dialogue with heads in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Principals from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia are expected to attend.