x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Pilot education system to expand after pupils progress in tests

Compared with a year ago, the pupils scored 11.5 per cent higher in science, 20 per cent in English and 32 per cent in mathematics under the Schools of Tomorrow programme.

DUBAI // Thousands of children taught under a new system aimed at raising standards in state schools have achieved startling increases in test scores in core subjects.

Compared with a year ago, the pupils scored 11.5 per cent higher in science, 20 per cent in English and 32 per cent in mathematics.

The results are a shot in the arm for the Madares Al Ghad (Mag), or Schools of Tomorrow programme, which was introduced as a pilot scheme five years ago and had appeared to be foundering, with complaints of a lack of resources.

The programme will now be expanded amid growing demand from parents, and given new leadership under the full control of the Ministry of Education.

"We have noticed that there is a demand from parents for these schools and we appreciate the improvement made by the children," said Zahra Mohammed Ali Hashim, the new executive director of the programme.

Mag began in 2007 in 44 public schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, with about 18,000 pupils. It was led initially by the Higher Colleges of Technology with the objective of eliminating the foundation courses in English that 95 per cent of Emirati pupils need before beginning a degree course, and which are a drain on higher-education resources.

The system places emphasis on teaching the English language. Science and mathematics are taught in English and accelerated courses prepare high-school pupils for the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment (Cepa) and International English Language Testing System (IELTS) - both required to enrol at federal universities.

After five years the programme seemed to have lost its momentum, but the ministry now plans to assume full control by June. Eight more middle schools will adopt the system in September, and Ms Ali Hashim says officials are optimistic and working towards ironing out any problems.

The improvements in test scores are attributed to the use of new teaching methods, multimedia, new textbooks and added preparation by the teachers.

"We gave every child the same assessment at the beginning and end of the year to see what they knew and did not know," said Sarah Peoples Perry, an education consultant for Cycle one schools (grades 1-5).

The biggest improvements were recorded by children in the lower grades, where most of the changes were made, but older children showed improvements too, Ms Perry said.

Nevertheless, teachers caution that such progress will not continue unless issues such as low budgets, a shortage of staff and cultural clashes in the curriculum are addressed.

"We were just given the curriculum and books and were expected to make the changes," said one principal. "Where are the budget and resources required to support the Mag innovation?"

Even basic furniture such as desks as chairs were missing in some schools, he said.

Kaltham Mohammed, head of Musharif Model School in Ajman, said more culturally relevant material should be provided to the schools, rather than textbooks brought in from overseas.

"We are teaching Emiratis, after all," she said, "so we need local culture and references in the textbooks and resources as well."

Ms Perry, the ministry's education consultant, said they had to use textbooks from other countries because standards do not exist to develop them here. "There are no Emirati authors to create such content," she said. "If this is an issue then we always invite the principals to work with us in developing the material."

Another pressing problem is in staffing. Fatma Al Hammoudi, teacher development supervisor at Al Raheeb School in Fujairah, said there was a shortage of qualified teachers.

"We are missing team leaders and teachers who are able to teach subjects in English," she said. "The ministry needs to look into the matter urgently."

When it began, the programme employed experts from the United States, Europe and Australia to teach and train local teachers in implementing the new curriculum.

"During the handover from HCT, a lot of those teachers exited the system because they did not trust the ministry's authority," a source said.

Others said the constant effort involved in implementing the new curriculum came without any added benefits and was contributing to the high turnover.

"The main problem is that Mag teachers have too much work without any salary increase," said Ali Mohammed Al Zahmi, head of curriculum for schools in Fujairah. "They are definitely doing more work than non-Mag teachers."

"The work day is lengthy, there is more planning involved. So they should get remunerated accordingly."

Ms Ali Hashim said the ministry was hoping to train existing teachers to bridge the gap.

Two science and maths teachers from each school will attend sessions to prepare for the next academic year, she said.