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New UAE Education Proposals; WSA Responds

New UAE Education Proposals; WSA Responds

Following from the retreat that HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid led on education last week WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s Dr Michael Biggs responds to the recommendations that resulted from it.

Educational provision in the UAE has seen a high level of investment and rapid expansion in a relatively short timeframe. This quantitative achievement is impressive in itself. A stronger focus on the qualitative aspect of this provision is well timed as education stakeholders in the UAE become more informed and increasingly demanding.

A transformational agenda that effectively focuses on the quality of provision is pertinent. However, it must be recognised that there is huge disparity across the educational landscape at present and this will create a variety of challenges that need to be addressed.

The abolition of the preparatory year at university entry should be applauded as this will place the focus on the curriculum and on improving learning outcomes. The advent of school inspections across the UAE has, to some extent, started to address this. However, it is important that these agencies review their actual practice to ensure ‘critical partnership’ with the schools to develop the concept of self-evaluation and a continuous cycle of school improvement. This already happens in the good schools, but it is a relatively new concept for many schools requiring an approach that builds their knowledge, practice and confidence in this area.

The focus to improve the school-based curriculum to support entry straight into undergraduate progammes will require a conversation between all stages of educational provision. Each stage should take its responsibility in the process so that it does not just become a top down demand from the universities. Fundamentally, tertiary education requires confident independent learners who take proactive responsibility for their learning which is complemented by core competencies, skills and knowledge. It should not be difficult to arrive at a consensus on this. Perhaps, the best source for this information is the good schools as they already prepare their students well for this next stage of learning.

In fact, quality of practice can be found in these schools and there is little need for a multitude of ‘outside’ consultants to state what is already evident. It is important to recognise this and to create an environment that utilises and builds on this excellence already in the system.

Learning becomes a key in this and learner-centric learning at all stages should become a driver for qualitative improvements. It does not matter whether one is a student, teacher, parent, leader or administrator we are all learners on a continuous cycle of learning. Recognising this may require an attitudinal change that could be challenging for some. This is clearly evident in the teacher who is still locked into the ‘delivery’ mode and, perhaps, rote learning practices. Moving that teacher’s mind-frame from pure deliverer of content into one exhibiting characteristics of a learning facilitator where actual learning is central to the process will be a challenging process. A teacher licensing system, although it has its own challenges, will help to identify and set professional characteristics and standards to support the aforementioned move and future needs of the learning environment.

An interesting situation exists in the UAE, as in many parts of the world, where a person can become a teacher with minimal training and pedagogical knowledge and practice. Often it is sufficient to have a first degree in the subject being taught. A review of the labour laws will be required to some extent to recognise that, for example, a teacher may have a post-graduate certificate in education and training as a teacher, yet a first degree in a different subject area such as engineering. This is often totally misunderstood by the law which, I believe, still states that this person can only teach engineering and not the mathematics s/he has been trained to offer.


Continuous professional development (CPD) is an important characteristic of a teacher’s life. This can be expensive provision which is even more so for the schools with lower fee structures. The educational agencies should explore ways to create and open up affordable quality differentiated CPD opportunities for school staff irrespective of the fee structure of the school. There are models that can be drawn upon with the BSME (British Schools in the Middle East) professional development model being a particularly successful and sustainable one in the area. This does require leadership, upfront funding, resources and time but the benefits can be enormous when being prioritised by a school leadership and cascaded back into the learning environment. Universities could also take a lead in this and move away from, what is often perceived as a market led course mentality, and into this area. Perhaps, less profitable initially but, over time, could actually generate a whole new market for them.

Moving into a dialogue on curriculum quality issues will also lead to questions being raised about the appropriateness of measuring learning and attainment, perhaps even a rethink of the examination led mentality that is prevalent these days. University entry is competitive and can often reference a narrow set of indicators in this part of the world. A discussion on the need for a broad and balanced curriculum in schools where learning is wide, deep and continuous, further addressing the holistic development of young people, would be fruitful. Many schools in the UAE with an examination focus lack balance in their curriculum and learning in and through the Arts is omitted from these schools’ curriculums. The Arts are, all-to-often, left to chance as a ‘bolt on’ or an extracurricular activity.

Creative innovative thinkers are needed in the future and this should not be left to chance. Creative education in a general sense and learning in and through the arts will support this need and should become a core in a school’s curriculum thinking and design. Easier said than done, as this requires leadership, funding and resourcing. This should be complemented by a public communication programme designed to raise awareness and build positive perceptions towards the learning and developmental benefits of this area at all levels.

Consider the nature of learning in creative education and the arts area for a moment where, through modern child-centred learning, the students are encouraged to explore, see and think differently. Where the creation of a safe learning environment allows the youngsters to raise and address difficult questions and ideas, to take risks find innovative solutions and outcomes. An important outcome in this is that this style of curriculum will also ‘connect’ youngsters to their culture, offer context and thereby an understanding of who they are.

This area of learning would fulfill HH Sheikh Mohammed’s educational focus on so many fronts and we do not have to look far for examples of success stories in this. Just look to those schools that have been designated, through inspection, as ‘outstanding’ where creative and arts education forms a prominent part of their wider curriculum.

So much can be learnt from the pockets of excellence that already exists in the UAE’s educational landscape. Finding ways to ‘unlock’ this resource, share and learn from it is important for the education agencies to further explore. ICT and social media routes to support this may open up opportunities to share and learn much faster than traditional ones. However, this should not replace the opportunity for personal interaction and conversations as this will add the context and relevance to each case.

A final point and one that is often overlooked is that learning is not confined by boundaries and the time constraint of a rigid timetable. It will be important to find creative and innovative ways to tap into learning opportunities at all levels and areas. The importance of the increasing convergence of the formal and informal modes of learning should be not be underestimated in this and will offer ways of addressing and moving HH Sheikh Mohammed’s starting points forward into the quality agenda, actions and outcomes that he clearly wants to the benefit of all at all levels.

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