Abu Dhabi pupils reap benefits of a consistent approach, but some fear too many changes may be happening simultaneously.
New School Model under scrutiny after first term in action
ABU DHABI // Tomorrow is the end of the beginning: the last day of the first term of Abu Dhabi's attempt to tackle problems in its state schools.
About 10,000 pupils, the vast majority, leave government schools each year needing remedial English classes before they can start their university degree courses.
State schools also lack trained teachers. A researcher at Abu Dhabi University found this year that many of the teachers in Al Ain's public schools had no degree in education.
A report last month by the consultancy Deloitte found that "teachers are generally recruited from the lower third of university graduates, with a focus on quantity rather than quality". The authors wrote: "Without qualified and trained teachers it is unlikely that our students will come out properly educated."
The soliution from the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) solution is the New School Model. As well as greatly expanding the teaching of English, with core subjects taught in the language rather than Arabic, it marks a shift to continuous assessment rather than grading purely on exams. The exams are different, too, putting the emphasis on thinking rather than rote learning.
At the start of this term the plan was put into action for kindergartens and the first three years of primary school. About 1,500 new teachers were hired from abroad. Part of their job involved passing on their skills to existing staff, giving them four hours of training a week.
Not everything has gone smoothly, with some teachers and parents voicing complaints.
Some Arab teachers have said "it was all well on paper", but expressed concerns over the number of changes taking place simultaneously, and complained about a lack of communication from Adec. The combination of large numbers of newly appointed foreign staff and what they described as excessive hours of training was taking its toll, they said.
Hamda Humeid, an Arabic teacher in Al Ain, said: "The workshops they are giving us are way too many. There should be two a week, not four."
There are also concerns that the emphasis on English has been at the expense of Arabic.
Hamda al Ameri, a teacher at Al Izdah school with a son in second grade, said: "The pupil's proficiency in Arabic is decreasing without a strong curriculum to follow. The curriculum is not strong. There is no problem with us, with the teachers, but with the system."
Klaithem Mohamed, an Emirati mother whose son is in grade two, said she was worried about so much change happening at once.
"Our children, the ones in this new system, are being affected, all we can do is hope for the best," she said.
Dr Lynne Pierson, Adec's head of school education, said concerns were to be expected, especially from parents, "the harshest critics" of schools. "With any change, people question, and we try to reassure them." She said the benefit would be a consistent approach: "If the students move we do not want them or the schools to be disadvantaged."
The changes seem to be having a positive effect on pupils. Roqia Swiss, one of the new grade 3 teachers at Al Samka School in Abu Dhabi, said: "They are improving, slowly."
Ms Humeid said: "There is a shift to make students more independent. All we can say is that we hope it has a positive effect."
That, Dr Pierson said, was the most important aspect of the new system: "We are ultimately looking for students to become independent learners. We won't be around forever."
Attention now moves to expanding the new system to cover all school grades by 2015. Adec is hoping to achieve it sooner.
Dr Pierson said: "We will be meeting in February to evaluate the new system." They would consider expanding it next year to grade five as well as grade four, she said.
Tomorrow, reports on all schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, and private schools in Abu Dhabi