x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Schools

It was the 1960s and things were changing. Gwen Gardiner recalls the early days of education in Abu Dhabi when she taught English at the emirate's first girls' school.

They were the pioneering days of education in what was to become the UAE. Abu Dhabi in the late 1960s was still without electricity, telephones or air-conditioning, but desert traditions were giving way to modern ideas about educating children. Many of the older generation could neither read nor write, and those girls who were lucky enough to go to school would often leave when they reached 14 so they could marry. When oil production began in Abu Dhabi in 1962, the country had a mere 20 schools catering to fewer than 4,000 students. But thanks to Sheikh Zayed, who became Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966 and founded the UAE in 1971, prospects were changing. He believed girls should be able to stay on at school and allocated some of the revenue beginning to flow from the oil industry to further this ambition. One result was Umm Ummar, launched in 1968 as the first girls' secondary school in Abu Dhabi. Gwen Gardiner, from Northern Ireland, was the only English teacher at the school, which accepted youngsters who had finished at the city's three primary schools. Most of the 15 teachers giving lessons in subjects such as science, home economics and physical education were from Jordan and Sudan and all were women; the six classrooms they used were all strictly off-limits to men. "The school had no telephone, no electricity and no air conditioning," says Mrs Gardiner, now an 81-year-old great-grandmother who lives in the southern English town of Cheltenham. "We really were in the desert, but it was very successful. The girls loved it and they learnt to speak English very well - with an Ulster accent." Mrs Gardiner was well travelled even before she arrived in Abu Dhabi. She earned a teaching diploma in the north of England, taught in Portsmouth on England's south coast and worked in Bahrain and Kuwait, where she met her husband William, a dentist. At the time, these other Gulf states were slightly more developed than Abu Dhabi, where the couple, who had three children, lived in a villa close to the Central Hospital, where Mr Gardiner worked. This hospital was later incorporated into Sheikh Khalifa Medical City and demolished only last year. Few modern teachers are comfortable without an array of technological support, including electronic projectors, computers and smart-boards, but in the late 1960s Mrs Gardiner had only a blackboard and a piece of chalk. "I would go round the entire class reading and I would correct their pronunciation and at the end I would ask questions," she says. "They so enjoyed their English and they knew they would travel and speak English. It was a new world for them. "They were marvellous, they were so keen and they worked so hard." While Mrs Gardiner based her teaching on a Jordanian syllabus, she would set exercises herself and include poetry in the lessons. As there was no photocopier, she had to type the examination papers herself. Each night the girls would be given some English words to learn and would be tested on their spellings in the morning. "That was the way to keep them interested," she says. Her pupils were hungry to learn: "They knew very little - they started right at the beginning but they made progress very quickly. If you set homework they would always do half a page extra." The school day began at 7.30am. At 11am teachers and pupils would break for lunch - usually a bread roll and cheese - before lessons continued until 2.30pm. Typically. the girls were the daughters of merchants and fishermen. The oil boom had yet to transform lives and, by today's standards, the families had modest incomes. There were no taxis, SUVs or chauffeur-driven cars and the girls were taken to and from school by bus. The UAE as a whole was unrecognisable from the modern country of today. Even a visit to Al Ain entailed an epic journey across the desert as there were no proper roads and drivers often became bogged down in the sand. Abu Dhabi itself had few of the amenities that today are taken for granted. "There were souks, which were great fun, and there were little Indian shops and tailors," recalls Mrs Gardiner. "And there was Spinneys, of course." As well as doing their homework in their free hours outside school the girls would enjoy shopping trips to the souks or visits to friends. While the school later got an electricity supply, in the early days there was little to ease the searing desert heat, but Mrs Gardiner says she and the girls coped - because they had to. Such was the closeness of the relationship between Mrs Gardiner and her pupils that she spent much of her free time with them. The girls would often visit her at home and play traditional British party games, such as pinning the tail on the donkey, musical chairs and pass the parcel. "The local girls used to bring me chickens and eggs," says Mrs Gardiner, during one of her regular visits to the UAE. "A big disadvantage was when they went home they spoke in Arabic, but when they came to visit me they had to speak in English." Later on, it became slightly more difficult to form bonds of friendship with the pupils. The development of the oil industry meant the country increasingly attracted expatriates from several other Arab countries and class sizes swelled. As early as 1971, when the UAE was founded, the number of pupils had grown to 28,000. At Umm Ummar, where once there were 10 or 15 girls in a class, numbers grew to about 30, and the school brought in English teachers from Jordan. The new pupils "were all Arabs coming in from Iraq, Jordan and Egypt", recalls Mrs Gardiner. "They weren't so good at English because the class sizes were large." Mrs Gardiner has nothing but fond memories of the Emirati girls she taught, but says some of the expatriate children were more demanding. "They wanted everything and it didn't always suit me," she says. By this time, schools exclusively for expatriate children had also opened. The largest British school in Abu Dhabi, the British School-Al Khubairat, for example, can trace its origins back to 1965. The Gardiners, however, sent their children back to boarding schools in England - an arrangement that left the couple's Emirati hosts, with their tightly knit families, bemused. "They thought it was so inhuman to leave your children in a boarding school back in England," she says. "We were a bit of an enigma. They learnt from us." A modest number of Emiratis began sending their children abroad for education from as early as the 1960s, when local schools were poorly resourced compared with those in countries such as England. Among those sent overseas was Mohammed al Fahim, who went to England in 1964 and later wrote about his experience in the book From Rags to Riches. After six months in England, he wrote, on his return to Abu Dhabi he felt like "a fish out of water" and contrasted the local schools with those in the UK. "I had already learned more in my six months in England than my former classmates would glean in the next two years," he wrote. "The local school still lacked the proper equipment, qualified teachers and an atmosphere that was conducive to learning." During the era when Mrs Gardiner taught in the UAE, however, local schools were rectifying many of these shortcomings. When she returned to England in the late 1970s, after about a decade in the UAE, Mrs Gardiner was in for a rude awakening. She took a job as a teacher in a state comprehensive school that taught children of all ability ranges. "The Arab girls would bring me flowers and little presents," she says. "When I went to the comprehensive school and said, 'Will you give out these classbooks?,' a girl said, 'That's what you're paid for, Miss'." Many of Mrs Gardiner's former pupils went on to university. She remains proud of their achievements and likes to visit them during her annual trips to the UAE. Among the most distinguished is Dr Hassa al Otaiba, whom Mrs Gardiner remembers teaching for several years from 1968 onwards. Dr Otaiba was appointed the UAE's ambassador to Spain in October last year. Others have gone on to raise families, but they retain the respect for education instilled in them by Mrs Gardiner decades ago. Now their children are grown-up and they have free time, some have returned to their studies. "All these girls have gone on to do so well," she says. "Now they are wives and mothers, and one is talking about doing a PhD at the University of Dundee. Another girl, she's already done a PhD." Such has been the pace of change in the UAE that Mrs Gardiner and her son Alex, who accompanied his mother during her recent visit to the country, struggled to identify the location of Umm Ummar School, which she believes has been incorporated into a much larger school. She hopes to visit it during her next visit to the UAE. While Abu Dhabi has been transformed since Mrs Gardiner taught here, she insists it has lost none of its appeal. "It's a complete contrast," she says. "It's like the Manhattan skyline but it still has a beautiful atmosphere. It's very peaceful. I love the flowers and the trees. The great charm has not changed." dbardsley@thenational.ae