x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Schools almost empty on first day

Teachers blame parents' apathy and worries about swine flu for attendance debacle on opening of the new state academic year.

Fewer than one in 10 pupils attended classes in some schools yesterday, forcing at least one to close early, as the start of the state academic year almost turned into a non-event. Anxiety over swine flu was believed to have spurred some parents to keep their children home. Others, however, apparently simply gave their kids an extended holiday.

"The reason is the parents," said Suhaila al Muhairbi, the principal of Al Kadisia, a secondary school for girls in Abu Dhabi. "Some of the parents have a lack of concern, and this was carried over to the kids. "The school day is already long and these are secondary school students, but there is no commitment from the parents. "They've got themselves used to just taking extra days off when they have to go back from holiday."

Ms al Muhairbi said some pupils were still arriving at school at 10.30am because they had returned late from holidays in other emirates or abroad. She estimated that half of her pupils were absent, but other schools reported even more dire figures. Ajnadeen School, a girls' primary, reported only a third of its pupils in class. "Parents are just brushing things off," said the school's assistant principal, who asked not to be named.

Because the beginning of the school year was straight after the Eid holiday and near the end of the working week, many parents did not make the effort to take their children to school, she said. The teacher said concerns over swine flu had contributed to the low attendances, and some parents were refusing to send their children to school until a vaccine was available. However, she said the school was doing its best to reassure parents and promote precautionary measures.

"We're ready, the nurse is ready," she said. The school is planning to teach pupils about the virus and give lessons on hygiene. Some parents were "waiting for a week to check if the school does not have the disease", said Latifa al Hosany, the principal of Al Asael, a preparatory level school in the capital, where only 80 out of 600 pupils turned up yesterday. Attendance at Emam Muslim School was even worse. Just 20 out of 300 pupils were present.

Al Ettihad Model School was almost half full, but Taleb al Attas, the principal, said it had better attendance than other schools because there was more enforcement than elsewhere. Nevertheless, Al Ettihad's pupils were sent home early, at 12.30pm, partially because of poor attendance. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which oversees state schools in Dubai, said it would release attendance figures in October.

Conflicting information on the timing of lessons may have also contributed to a problematic first day. In June, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) said the school day would be extended by 90 minutes for grades 10 to 12 to make students better prepared for university. School hours, which were roughly 7.30am to 12.45pm, should become 7.10am to 2.40pm, including breaks. However, last week, the Ministry of Education (MoE) asked schools to add five minutes to each lesson to make up for lost time brought about by the longer than usual summer break.

Ms al Hosany said her school had not received any official notification, and she had only read about the longer school days in newspapers, so she did not implement the change. Al Ettihad followed Adec's order, adding two extra classes to its secondary level pupils' schedules. Other schools, including Ajnadeen, implemented the MoE's instructions of five additional minutes per class. Adec said it was working to resolve the issue. The KHDA would not comment on the timing confusion, saying it was under the jurisdiction of the MoE. The MoE could not be contacted.

One aspect of the new school year that seems to have started without a hitch was the introduction of native English speaking teachers to state schools. Last month, Adec said it had recruited 456 teachers from the US, UK, Canada and Australia to teach English, science and mathematics, to boost the chances of prospective university students. "We want colleges to completely abolish foundation English studies," said Ms al Muhairbi, of Al Kadisia school, which had taken on four of the teachers.

"Abu Dhabi's students should be able to equal the abilities of students globally. I have hope for these students." kshaheen@thenational.ae