x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Old buildings and shortage of teachers in rural areas

Adec may be able to make schools in the western region look clean and bright, but is that enough to attract foreign talent?

RUWAIS // Dilapidated school campuses and reluctant staff are two obstacles facing education reform in rural areas of the capital.

But schools in Al Gharbia need to be able to educate Emiratis to a level where they can help the Government realise its industrial plans for the Western Region, which include the country's first nuclear plants.

"We closed a lot of old schools and merged a few depending on the number of pupils in those areas," said Dr Mugheer Al Khaili, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec).

"There are further plans to renovate existing schools there to align them to our standards."

More than 10,700 pupils study at Adec schools in Al Gharbia and each year the council selects 10 schools across the emirate to refurbish.

"We look at the worst schools first," said Dr Al Khaili. "In Al Ain, some schools are 42 years old and they need to be replaced. The worst schools are our priority."

Last year one school was refurbished and three built in Al Gharbia.

Pupils formerly taught in caravans that posed safety and health issues were also moved to campuses.

In Al Ain, seven schools were renovated, while 13 new campuses were opened.

Once renovations are done, the next hurdle is convincing teachers to take jobs in these places.

Salah Kamel, the principal of Al Ruwais School, said teachers were leaving mid-term.

"Last year three teachers left," Mr Kamel said. "One just got up and left in the middle of the day. This is a problem."

A shortage of Emirati teachers who meet the standards of Adec's new school model means the authority has been relying on thousands of expatriate teachers to fill positions in state schools.

"The major concern then is the lack of social life for these teachers, which deters them from taking jobs in the Al Gharbia area," Dr Al Khaili said.

He said the solution required a combined effort with other social-service bodies and the Western Region Development Council.

"There are a lot of plans to make Al Gharbia attractive for people to reside there," Dr Khaili said.

Mr Kamel said that for some teachers, adjusting to the culture was difficult.

"Communication is hard for them but we do our best to overcome that," he said. "Here, I explain that we should avoid talking about religion.

"Talk about the camel or horse instead of the dog because that can be offensive. And engage the kids by giving examples from their favourite sports like football. They won't understand terms like soccer."

Jan O'Brien, the faculty head at Al Khama'el School in Madinat Zayed, said she would like more teacher training opportunities and workshops for the children.

"Its very difficult to travel to the city from here for such programmes," Ms O'Brien said.

Jason Johnson, a Grade 3 English, mathematics and science teacher in Al Ruwais, said there was a shortage of outdoor activities.

"It's tough at times after school," Mr Johnson said. Another educator who was hired to teach at a rural school said discipline was a big problem.

"It is sometimes difficult to manage the class, especially when an Arabic teacher is not around," the teacher said.

An Adec survey on job satisfaction last year found that 76.3 per cent of public school teachers were unhappy with behaviour in their classrooms.

"Also, there still is a disconnect between schools and the parents," the teacher said.

Dr Al Khaili said schools had set up parent councils to fix that and make learning more attractive to pupils by offering more resources.

He said they were also working to provide more incentives to teachers who agree to work in Al Gharbia and Al Ain schools.

"We are building accommodation facilities for them," Dr Al Khaili said, adding that at least six housing complexes for teachers would be built in Al Ain and Al Gharbia this year.

"That is not our business as our job is to give an allowance and they can find their own accommodation. But because of the urgent need we have received instructions from the Executive Council to do so."

aahmed@thenational.ae