Sarah Al Amiri: UAE plans major overhaul of government schools

Public education minister sets out vision to boost teacher morale and create dual language citizens in exclusive interview

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An Emirati minister on a mission to revamp the country's public education system has set out an action plan to boost standards at government schools.

Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology, said her goal was to ensure government institutions would one day be the "school of choice" for Emiratis and residents.

Ms Al Amiri was appointed to the role in May 2022 amid a Ministry of Education shake-up, with the remit of upgrading the nation's public schools, with those in the private sector often favoured.

She also leads the Emirates Schools Establishment, which manages and operates 500 public schools and oversees more than 270,000 pupils, mostly Emiratis.

Ms Al Amiri reports to the Education and Human Resources Council chaired by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In an exclusive interview with The National, she spoke of efforts to expand the career prospects of teachers, focus on developing "dual language" learners and put public schools at the heart of communities.

When I started two years ago, the first request from His Highness the President was to ensure that the public school system is competitive and becomes the school of choice for Emiratis and residents
Sarah Al Amiri

When asked whether she hoped public schools could eventually be on par with private schools, she said: "Absolutely, this is the goal.

“When I started two years ago, the first request from His Highness the President was to ensure that the public school system is competitive and becomes the school of choice for Emiratis and residents across the UAE,” said Ms Al Amiri.

"Strengthening our foundations means understanding and addressing underlying issues, not just surface-level fixes. We have a clear vision for transforming education in the UAE.”

Public schools are primarily for UAE citizens but they also accept some children of residents. Government education is free for Emirati pupils, but those from other countries pay fees, but at a lower cost to those typically found at private schools.

Empowering teachers

Ms Al Amiri, a trained scientist who helped guide a milestone mission to Mars as chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, said teachers had a crucial role to play in the growth of public schools.

She said this not only included boosting salaries, but offering clear pathways to career development and removing barriers to personal progress.

The minister said a survey of 10,000 public school staff was conducted to gauge views, while an initiative called "career progression" was set up with the aim of empowering teachers.

“We decided to start with 'career progression', focusing on creating these gradients and improving the competitiveness of our salary scale," she said. "Our first step was to revamp our priorities by listening to our staff."

Giving teachers the opportunity to achieve their aspirations was key, she said. “The structure at the time was quite limited: you were either a teacher, part of the school middle management, or a principal," she added.

“Some wished to remain lifelong teachers but have more responsibilities and room to grow. We didn’t have that in our system, there was a cap on the employee levels one could achieve.”

English and Arabic

Ms Al Amiri said her aim was to ensure future generations were fluent in English and Arabic.

The government previously set out plans to focus on the teaching of science and maths in English from a young age.

But Ms Al Amiri stressed the importance of preserving the Arabic language as part of the vision for the future.

"We need to eventually move towards a system that has a dual language," she said. "So, what does dual language mean? It's different than a bilingual system. A dual language means that students are proficient in two languages."

Plotting our own course

Ms Al Amiri said the UAE could not merely copy other successful education models around the globe, but must strive to finds its own identity.

"Every single country that built a successful, competitive education system built it for themselves," she said. "They did not copy elements from other systems and bring them in."

Ms Al Amiri said public schools must provide learners with the tools to succeed in higher education, ensuring pupils are "among the top candidates for universities, not only locally but globally".

"We need to ensure that our students are always the top selected and, more importantly, that they're able to have a sense of belonging to their community and understand where they are coming from," she added.

She said public education infrastructure – first established to serve a fledgling country – must grow along with a rapidly developing nation.

“We built our education system with foundations to hold up a tower that is 30 floors high," she said. "Today, we want our tower of education to be 100 floors high. This means we need to change our foundational elements to support new requirements for growth.”

Ms Al Amiri said the public education sector would evolve gradually as part of a five-year plan.

Feedback from parents was also invaluable in bringing about change.

Education drive takes shape

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Presidential Court, in September announced the launch of 11 new government schools to serve 28,000 pupils across the country.

The state-of-the-art schools – opened under the Zayed Educational Complex project – are at the heart of a major drive to boost public education standards nationwide.

Each school will have green spaces and at least 86 classrooms. Smart technology will also be available, with a focus on sustainability.

Each new school is about four times the size of a typical public school, based on capacity.

In 2022, the UAE announced the launch of Ajyal Schools, or Generation Schools, which are to be run by leading private sector education groups Taaleem, Aldar Education and Bloom Education and serve about 14,000 pupils.

All 10 schools will be in the Northern Emirates and will switch to the US curriculum.

Within three years, 28 schools will be run under this public-private partnership.

Upholding Emirati values

Ms Al Amiri emphasised that understanding and appreciating Emirati identity and tradition would remain a cornerstone of public education.

"If you don't understand where you came from, you don't understand the nuances of your culture that actually got us to where we are today," she said. "You're not able to further grow that culture and not able to further grow that economy in that nation."

This is why, she said, there is a focus on introducing extracurricular activities involving parents and the wider community.

She spoke of a recently launched pilot initiative in which elderly Emiratis come into schools to educate pupils on national customs.

Public schools "should be at the heart of the community", Ms Al Amiri said.

“We want to go back to the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and we want the schools in each of our neighbourhoods to be that pillar that supports growth.

“You cannot have a public education system thinking only within the walls of a classroom. This is not just something pertaining to the UAE; this is the growth the world needs in its education system.

"We need to build the necessary skills in students for them to remain competitive throughout their careers."

Updated: May 30, 2024, 7:12 PM