Many private schools in Dubai are far too traditional and need to better prepare pupils for the future, according to a cross-section of parents.
They want schools to shift away from the cookie-cutter approach that involves worksheets, tests and regular memorisation of information for exams.
Instead, some said they want children to be given more space for hands-on learning and creativity – and be taught skills that are relevant to a rapidly changing job market.
The National's interviews with parents with children attending a range of schools with different curricula match the findings of a poll this month that found nearly half want an alternative to traditional education.
The results were detailed in a survey by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which regulates private schools in Dubai.
Soha El Halfawi, an Egyptian-Canadian mother of two who lives in Dubai, said: “The system itself is very traditional and it’s not what the current environment needs.
“It needs more flexibility and personalisation, more individuality and more skills focus on relevant subjects.
“We have said time and again that education is not one size fits all, but it really came to light during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some pupils thrived during online learning and some did not.”
Ms El Halfawi’s son, Adam El Rafey, 11, is a popular speaker on the need for education reform. He has talked to audiences at TedX, Global Education Supplies and Solution conference in Dubai, Gitex and Dubai Future Week.
Her daughter, Laila, 13, is a gymnast.
Ms El Halfawi said what children are taught and how they are being educated were crucial.
She said her children were being taught the same subjects she studied, but new-age skills should also be considered.
“My 11-year-old, Adam, is an advanced learner and when I talk to him, I hear of subjects that I have never heard before in my life, such as cellular agriculture and biomimicry – these are his world. None of that is being taught in schools at the present,” she said.
She said children should not be made to memorise facts for tests and worksheets, but be encouraged to learn by following their curiosity, doing projects with a tangible effect and understanding the relevance of the information in the real world.
She said her son’s school allowed him the flexibility to attend classes across years seven, 10 and 11.
Ms El Halfawi said a change in mindset was needed as the entire purpose of schooling at present was geared to passing a test.
“Standardised testing, in the way it’s done, is becoming redundant … I would hope that these would be done away with but it’s a system that has been around so it will take time,” she said.
Parents believe personalising education and giving pupils more choice in what they are learning will ensure they feel motivated.
A recent KHDA survey found that 61 per cent of parents said they were now much more engaged in their children's learning.
Lalita Yelen-Nur, a stay-at-home mother of two in Dubai, said personalisation was the way forward for education.
“The world is so competitive you can’t have children with the same set of skills,” said Ms Yelen-Nur, who is from Turkmenistan.
“You have to develop the strongest sides of the child rather than fitting all children in the same cookie cutter.”
Ms Yelen-Nur’s son Alex, 12, is a pupil at Hartland International School where he is on an accelerated programme in mathematics, often studying with older children.
Finding a school that did not hold her son back was not easy for Ms Yelen-Nur, who knocked on many doors.
Alex is in Year 8 but is doing Year 13 mathematics.
“It was very difficult when we went to schools, and Alex had to change schools a couple of times,” she said.
Ms Yelen-Nur said that subjects such as coding should be introduced at an early stage.
Schools should completely remove the marking and grading and focus on ensuring the concepts are well taught, said Nausheen Shamsher, a mother of one in Sharjah.
Ms Shamsher, an Indian freelance public relations consultant, said pupils should be assessed on moral values, not only academics.
She said schools needed to ensure that children learn through hands-on experience and not only theory.
Jeffrey Smith, director of International School Partnerships at iCademy Middle East, said parents who were looking for flexibility and personalised learning options often choose online schools.
The school is licensed by KHDA and pupils can move back to brick-and-mortar schools should they wish to.
The school has 1,300 pupils enrolled, up from about 700 in 2019.
“They get support but also have flexibility. They don’t have to sit at home because we have a knowledge hub and a learning centre,” Mr Smith said.
“This is where I think education is headed. It doesn’t have to be totally virtual but there is a lot of flexibility offered.
“When people were looking for alternatives, they realised children wanted flexibility.”