UAE schools should think twice about increasing the length of the school day or cramming in more lessons as the country adapts to shorter school weeks.
That was the message from several leading education figures who spoke at an education conference at Expo 2020 Dubai this week.
Schools are this week mapping out a plan for the new year when the school week will change to Monday to Friday.
Most of the emirates plan a four-and-a-half-day schedule from January 2022 while Sharjah has announced a four-day Monday to Thursday working week with a three-day weekend.
Head teachers and parents have yet to hear official word from the authorities on hours but are preparing for a longer school day to compensate.
“It is great the school weeks are getting shorter,” said Kirsti Lonka, professor of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki.
“It would be a dreadful mistake though to make the remaining days too long or too dense. “If you are pushing children too much, they just get anxious and start to hate learning.”
While students in Finland go to school from Monday to Friday, the education system there makes it illegal for children to spend more than seven hours a day at school.
There is also a 15-minute break from lessons every hour, allowing pupils to relax between classes.
Children only start primary school education in Finland at the age of seven.
School pupils flock to Expo 2020 - in pictures
The country was named as the nation with the best-developed education system in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
‘”Children, especially those aged under 12, do not need more than six hours of education a day,” said Prof Lonka.
“It is not about the quantity of the hours, it is quality that counts. One of the worst scenarios for learning is to make the days overly long. It does not matter what the subject is, if you provide too much information children won’t be able to process it properly.”
School uniforms are not required in Finland, where students typically only have a few classes each day.
Children spend an average of 190 days at school each year in the northern European nation.
Finland is not alone in advocating for a shorter school day. Students in Brazil only spend five hours a day at school – they usually eat their lunch at home once school ends at noon.
Schoolchildren in France spend an average of 162 days each year in school, but their days start at 8am and end at 4pm.
Prof Lonka advised against increasing the workload on children with extra private tuition out of school hours.
“It should only be for children with special needs or who have difficulties in learning,” she said.
“Grilling little children until they perform better is bad. I would go as far as to say putting pressure on children under the age of 12 to perform better and achieve more should be against the law.
“Children should be allowed to have a childhood.”
Tom Crombie, chief executive of My Online Schooling, who spoke at the Rewired Education conference at Expo 2020 said the most progressive countries are all looking at shorter school days to boost education.
“People are going to have more time to do extracurricular activities and grow as people as a result,” said Mr Crombie.
“The world is changing and not all learning takes place in the classroom. This is a progressive step that will align the school week in the UAE with a lot of other countries across the world.”
Another education expert said it was vital teachers were trusted to deliver a high standard of education, despite the reduced hours.
“Teachers should be given the requisite flexibilities to be able to get the most of the four and a half days,” said Michael Kocher, general manager of the Aga Khan Foundation, a group set up to help children in poor countries.
“If teachers have the authority to make the necessary adjustments, then I do not think it will be a situation where students will be missing out on anything [by going to a shorter school week].”