x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Minister in pledge on school facilities

The Minister of Education promises action to address complaints from principals about basic facilities.

ABU DHABI // The Minister of Education told school principals from across the emirate yesterday that he was fully aware many public schools lacked basic facilities such as gymnasiums, canteens and shaded play areas, and pledged to remedy the situation. Meeting heads of public schools, kindergartens and nurseries during a three-hour forum at the Armed Forces Officers' Club, Humaid al Qattami, the newly appointed minister, responded to pleas by the principals to make their schools "fit for students to prosper".

"Schools and those who work in them are the basis of any Ministry of Education strategy or plan for the future," Mr al Qattami said. "In the next few weeks, God willing, we will be forming an education committee to address the issues of educators that have come to our attention over the past few weeks, and we will have as many representatives from schools and educational zones as possible, as they are the ones concerned."

In addition to pleas for gyms, canteens and shaded areas, the principals - from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia - also clamoured for libraries, science laboratories and auditoriums. "There is no doubt that the school environment, in terms of buildings and facilities that cater to student needs, is a key factor in achieving success in education," Mr al Qattami said. "I am fully aware that out of more than 700 schools throughout the country, there are many that are still lacking in facilities.

"This will be dealt with." The Abu Dhabi Education Council announced in May, in response to other appeals, that 30 new school buildings would be built throughout the emirate - 15 to be completed by 2011 and 15 by 2012 - to replace ageing structures. Latifa al Hosali, the principal of Al Assayel School for Primary Education in Khalifa City A, said she hoped the minister's remarks yesterday were unrelated to the decision to build the new schools.

"My school is not old or falling down, and of course will not be torn down soon and rebuilt; it is a new school relatively," she said. "But that does not mean that my school, like many others, is complete, or does not need attention. We have no science labs for the students, and nowhere for the students to learn different sports. Some schools have great facilities for students and other don't. All schools have to be consistent."

Last week in Sharjah, the minister held a comparable forum with heads of 450 schools in Dubai and the five northern emirates and dealt with similar complaints. Mohammed Hassan, a principal from Sharjah, said at the time: "Our light fixtures don't work; our computers, if we have them, are old. Our kids have no playground or sports facilities, and we keep being told that this will all be fixed. When?"

Mr al Qattami conceded yesterday that the complaints were warranted. "When visiting the schools during the recent 12th-grade exams to see how students were doing," he said, "I had to walk in the sun between the school buildings, and some of those schools had no overhead umbrellas or tents protecting students in their playgrounds. "I was there in the early morning, and already the sun was unbearable. Of course I thought to myself, 'What are these students and their teachers going to do when noon rolls around and the heat is even worse?' Our students cannot thrive in schools that are lacking."

Although it was not clear how many of the 722 public schools countrywide - or the 301 public schools in Abu Dhabi - were lacking in facilities, Mr al Qattami said these numbers would be forthcoming. "We have a responsibility to care for our students and their needs, and not just their academic needs. All schools should have shaded areas for the children, and sports facilities for physical activity. We want to achieve that."

Fouzia al Jenaibi, the principal at Sheikha Bint Suror school in Al Ain, said there was no canteen or cafeteria for the students. "We also have problems with shading, and the lack of a theatre is a problem," she said. "Our activity rooms are the same as our classrooms. The art room is not that wide and does not have water facilities, and the floor in the PE hall is not suitable." Other principals also argued that children at state schools should be afforded the same kind of sporting facilities, including swimming pools, as students in private schools.

Mr al Qattami said he hoped a reworking of the annual budget allocated to schools would address these issues. "We have to develop our budget breakdown to make it more in line with schools' needs," he said. "We have to guarantee that maintenance is taken care of, and facilities are improved, without having that infringe on educational programmes or expenses like teacher training." He also encouraged private industries to address the needs of the schools that "house their children".

"The private sector has a responsibility towards the community, and especially towards schools," he said. "We need to see more involvement by companies in the UAE, which should be investing in education for our youth, and providing the financial backing towards building things like libraries, sports facilities, auditoriums or other facilities lacking in schools." The principals appeared satisfied with Mr al Qattami's decision to hear their concerns and suggestions.

"We really appreciate his taking the time to come listen to us," said Fatima al Shahyani, a principal from Al Ain. Mr al Qattami promised to keep the lines of communication open and that interaction with educators in the field would become a bi-annual event, to be held at the end of every school term. "We want to start providing solutions," he said.