Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 5 April 2020

Punishing workloads forcing UAE private school teachers to quit, evidence suggests

More staff are opting for government schools where the pressure is less, say teachers

Robert Welsh, founder of Teacher Socials, a support group in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Robert Welsh, founder of Teacher Socials, a support group in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Long hours and punishing workloads are pushing more UAE teachers into abandoning the private sector for government schools, evidence suggests.

Exhausted staff said the prospect of a shorter working week and less stress was more appealing than taking a higher salary.

Many private school teachers said they often worked up to 70 hours a week, especially ahead of annual inspections.

Retaining staff has become a global issue, with four in 10 teachers planning to quit the profession according to an international survey last year by the National Education Union in the UK.

“It was the pressure of working in a private school that pushed me to looking for work at a public school,” said Robert Welsh, 43, who taught business and economics at private schools for five years.

“I worked about 50 hours a week which went up to 60 or 70 hours a week during inspections.

“My mental health was struggling as I was exhausted and constantly in work mode.

"There was no balance and I was going through anxiety, depression and felt demoralised.”

According to the UAE's labour laws, private sector working hours are capped at eight hours a day or 48 hours a week.

The ceiling can be increased to nine hours a day if businesses are given approval from the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation.

But teachers said the “reality” was that these hours were frequently exceeded, in part due to the amount of time staff spent prepping for the classroom at home.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, a global shortage of teaching staff has become a major challenge.

It found 74 countries face an acute shortage of teachers, while nearly 26 million need to be recruited worldwide to provide primary education to all.

Mr Welsh, from Ireland, said that although schools usually finished at 3.30pm each day, management appeared to frown on teachers leaving before 5pm.

He said that since quitting the private sector for a government school, he felt much more in control of his life and was far happier.

“[Finishing at 5pm made your work day from 7am to 5pm, after which you had all the extra after-class work,” he said.

“I found the extra administrative work tedious and started losing my love for teaching because I was doing more paperwork.

"Now I go to the beach in the afternoon after completing work and sit there with my kindle or my book, and I’ve started eating healthy again.

“I’m earning Dh500 less than what I was earning in a private school and have taken a cut on holidays, but I decided this was best for me.”

Although figures for the number of UAE teachers leaving the private sector for government schools are not known, anecdotal evidence of the trend appears strong.

Francesca McArdle, 35, from the UK, said she also quit her private school job in Dubai due to the punishing work schedule.

She is now a middle-school teacher at a government school, where her hours are far less.

“I was sick of the paperwork, the deadlines and needed a change," said Ms McArdle.

“At private schools everything is monitored - it's all about league tables and the results. Teachers are being pushed away.

“There was no time to schedule meetings as the work day was so overbooked. Meetings were scheduled before the day started which meant you had to be at school before 7am and your day kept getting longer and longer.

“You can manage your time a lot better at a public school. I took a massive holiday cut but our workload all year round is easier at public schools.”

Another teacher from Ireland, who did not want to be named, said she had taught maths and business from year seven to 11 at a private school.

She said she had taken the decision to leave within a year after the long hours began taking their toll.

“I would get through the day and would often stay up till midnight correcting assignments or preparing lessons," she said.

"At the time, I was not sleeping well at night and I did not look forward to going to work.

"I would leave school at 4pm and from 5.30pm to midnight I would be working again."

Hind Al Mualla, a senior department head at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai’s private school regulator, said teachers exceeding their working hours should report the issue.

She said teacher wellbeing was a paramount concern and that schools needed to change their culture if staff were being driven too hard.

"If something breaches the employment contract or there are set hours in the contract which the school is violating, then it is straightforward case governed by the labour law,” she said.

“Teachers can approach the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation. Wellbeing needs to be within the ecosystem of the school and culture of the school.”

Updated: January 2, 2020 10:01 PM

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