x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Poor literacy in Arabic is 'the new disability' in the UAE, FNC told

FNC members blame new grading system but minister says the fault lies with teachers.

The Minister of Education, Humaid Al Qatami, said poor-quality teachers were letting pupils down. Sammy Dallal / The National
The Minister of Education, Humaid Al Qatami, said poor-quality teachers were letting pupils down. Sammy Dallal / The National

ABU DHABI // Hundreds of children are unable to read or write Arabic in an epidemic of illiteracy that is "a new disability", the Federal National Council was told yesterday.

FNC members from an education background blamed a new "no fail" electronic grading system for providing an inaccurate assessment of pupils' abilities, while the Minister of Education, Humaid Al Qatami, said poor-quality teachers were letting pupils down.

Dr Shaikha Al Ari (UAQ), told the minister of her experience overseeing a Grade Three class of children aged about 8. When the teacher asked pupils to take out their Arabic textbooks, three could not tell one book from another, and did not know which was the first page and which was the last.

"This was something horrendous," she said. "I asked the teacher. She said they passed Grade One and Two, then came to Grade Three and they still didn't know how to read or write."

Dr Al Ari said this was not the only school to suffer from the "new form of illiteracy": pupils at other schools were being allowed to pass early grades without earning specific marks.

She described visiting an elementary school and in the corridors seeing young Emirati men with facial hair. "I was happy that the school had Emirati teachers," she said.

"Then I went to a class and found them sitting in the pupils' chairs. These pupils were not disabled, but suffer from a new disability in society, which is illiteracy."

Dr Al Ari said pupils should not progress through school grades without mastering essential skills, such as reading and writing.

She recalled another case she came across of a pupil who was absent for 30 consecutive days. When she called the pupil's parent to enquire about the absence, the parent was surprised.

"The parent said why did you call? He will pass anyway," she said.

Dr Al Ari said she believed the new system encouraged slackness among teachers, because they knew pupils would pass regardless of their efforts.

"In my opinion this electronic system is causing educational retardation," she said.

Mr Al Qatami acknowledged there was an illiteracy problem in state schools, but the minster insisted the grading system, which gives letter grades but does not fail pupils, has been used for only three years and was not the reason pupils were promoted to the next grade still unable to read or write.

He said the system, used in a number of developed countries, was studied carefully before being introduced, and helped to show parents and teachers in which areas pupils needed to improve.

He admitted that the new system has positives and negatives, but blamed teachers for the illiteracy problem.

"The big struggle right now is reading and writing," he said. "There are a lot of reasons, most of which are on the teachers."

He said a new system would be introduced to evaluate teachers. "The teacher will take responsibility in this," he said.

In other education questions to the minister, Dr Mohammed bin Ham (Abu Dhabi) said extended school days were counter-productive because pupils were coming home tired and "hating school", and had no time to spend with family or to study.

The minister said school days, and the school year, were previously shorter than those worldwide and that added time would empower education.

The majority, 23 of the 38 council members present, voted for Dr bin Ham's recommendation - a study of how the length of the school day can change to work better with the country's culture and lifestyle - to be sent to the Cabinet.

The two former school principals in the FNC voted against.

Ayesha Al Yammahi (Fujairah) called for social workers and other staff at schools to be given pay increases, as were more than 7,000 teachers in 2012. Mr Al Qatami said the ministry was working on the issue with the Ministry of Finance.

osalem@thenational.ae