x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

'English in 14 weeks' classes for Emiratis

Ministry of Education aims to boost proficiency among students so they can bypass foundation courses.

Dr Hanif Hassan Ali, the Minister of Education, wants to eliminate the need for English foundation courses for university applicants.
Dr Hanif Hassan Ali, the Minister of Education, wants to eliminate the need for English foundation courses for university applicants.

Education officials are offering Emirati students an intensive English course to help them avoid a foundation year in the language before starting university. But two local experts are critical of the programme, with one saying better English teachers were needed in primary and secondary schools, and another claiming the foundation year is still the best way. Last year, only 11 per cent of applicants to federal universities scored high enough on placement exams to start degree courses without a year or more of English studies.

Federal universities report that up to a third of their budgets are spent on getting students up to scratch in English. The Ministry of Education's 14-week programme, which started on Saturday and will run to May 9, is open to Emiratis in the northern Emirates and Dubai. The programme was launched by the Minister of Education, Dr Hanif Hassan, who has said several times that he intended to rid the system of the need for foundation years.

But experts say the problem may be structural: most UAE state schools teach mainly in Arabic; whereas federal universities mainly hold lectures in English. Natasha Ridge, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government, said the ministry needed to improve English lessons in primary and secondary schools. "I think the foundation year is too late," Ms Ridge said. "After age 12 the potential of becoming completely bilingual decreases.

"I think we always get back to the issue of quality; quality teachers and curriculum. I think teaching English from the start of primary to the end of secondary school would be vital and beneficial if it was taught correctly." Ms Ridge said five or six hours a week would be enough if lessons were given by well-qualified teachers, but that was not happening, particularly in boys' schools, rural schools and in the Northern Emirates.

Dr Mick Randall, the dean of the faculty of education at the British University in Dubai, believed the foundation year was the best solution. Dr Randall said children cannot be expected to become fluent in English with five or six hours a week at primary and secondary school. "The system here persists with the idea that they can go five hours a week and get kids up to a level for an English language university," he said. "The whole policy is crazy."

The new programme will end a week before students in state and private schools sit the pre-university Common Educational Proficiency Assessment (Cepa) test on May 16. Intensive English classes will be held for five hours on Saturdays at Zayed University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and the Applied Technology Institutes. More than 1,400 students have registered for the programme, and almost 1,000 students in the northern Emirates and Dubai started classes through Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology on Saturday.

The ministry said 400 more students would start next weekend through the Applied Technology Institutes. klewis@thenational.ae