x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Outdated curriculum 'is holding pupils back'

Study says public school pupils need more vocational training and a wider range of subjects.

ABU DHABI // The national curriculum for public schools is hindering pupils and is in urgent need of reform, key government advisers say. They say pupils should be given more vocational skills training and offered a wider range of subjects. The teaching of Arabic is in particular need of improvement, they say.

The call was made in a study by the Dubai School of Government (DSG), a research and teaching institution that focuses on public policy in the Arab world. Its authors give warning that targets for education set out in last week's national charter have little chance of being met unless the state curriculum and assessment scheme undergoes major change. A huge push to retrain teachers is also needed, they said.

Dr Natasha Ridge, a research fellow at the DSG and co-author of the study with Samar Farah, said of the current curriculum: "In terms of creating students who are knowledge-based rather than content memorisers, it's really hindering students a lot. "It's creating students who are very good at memorising, but not very good at applying knowledge." In 2008, the Ministry of Education announced plans to replace the national curriculum with one used in more than half of Abu Dhabi's public schools. However, 18 months later, the old curriculum remains in place.

The curriculum "is narrow and covers fewer subject areas than the best performing countries in the world", the study concluded. "Schools do not offer vocational skills training or any elective subjects, such as home economics, environmental science or business studies." The state education system has come in for heavy criticism this week. On Tuesday, a college director said secondary school reforms had achieved little over the past decade.

Earlier, the dean of a university education department said more money was needed to improve the quality of teachers. The DSG study said while greater emphasis was placed on maths and language instruction in the UAE than leading Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, success rates in these subjects were much lower. The curriculum should be standards-based and more broad in scope, said Dr Ridge.

Subjects such as arts and music should be offered right through school, she added. "A new curriculum should have more subject offerings, should integrate ICT [information and communications technology], and should improve and transform in particular the teaching of Arabic," Dr Ridge said. "We need to start tackling the issue of Arabic language instruction." The quality of English language instruction has to be addressed as well, said Dr Ridge.

"Girls are coming out with better English language skills than boys. I think there needs to be a really big focus on how English is being taught in boys' schools." Dr Ridge added: "There is no point in changing the subject offerings if you don't change the number of school hours and you don't change the assessments." Examinations "have retained a heavy focus on textbook memorisation, and therefore discourage teachers from embracing new student-centred approaches to teaching", the study said.

While describing the content of the curriculum as "probably not that bad in many ways", Dr Ridge said the emphasis was wrong. Teachers are assessed on how many of their pupils pass examinations, so they have an incentive to drill them on topics that would appear on the paper. This week, Dr Peggy Blackwell, the dean of the education department at Zayed University, said the ministry budget was not large enough to implement such changes.

Dr Ridge agreed. "I don't think they have the budget required to do the training required to introduce a new curriculum," she said. "It should be introduced in a phased approach. I would begin with the lower grades. But I think that the ministry lacks capacity and it lacks funding." It is critical for Emiratis to be involved, said Dr Ridge. "It needs to take place in consultation with all stakeholders," she said. "In particular, you have to include teachers. "

A ministry spokesman was unavailable for comment.