A decade of pupils called 'lost generation'

A college director says secondary school reforms have achieved little over the past decade and the UAE risks a 'lost generation' of pupils.

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ABU DHABI // Secondary school reforms have achieved little over the past decade and the country risks creating a "lost generation" of pupils who are unprepared for higher education, a college director said yesterday. Uncoordinated reform programmes, high turnover among officials and poorly directed spending were blamed by Farid Ohan, the director of the Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology, for the failure to improve government schools.

"I've been here 12 years," he said. "The evidence that we've not made the progress we should be making in education reform is that we talk about it in the same way we did 12 years ago." Educators have become increasingly outspoken about problems with the public school system, and many have said drastic changes are needed if the country hopes to meet the Government's goal of providing "first-rate education" by the year 2021.

"We still have a very long way to go in this country, despite the fact there's a willingness to try to change," said Michael O'Brien, the associate academic dean of education at the Higher Colleges of Technology. Dr Ohan, speaking at the National Education Research Forum at Sharjah Women's College, said the country "cannot afford to take all this time" to improve school standards. He said pupils were still graduating from secondary schools with inadequate skills.

"We're losing our young generation," he said. "It has an impact on society, on Emiratisation, on economic success." Up to 90 per cent of students arrive at Sharjah Women's College and Sharjah Men's College with too little education, he said. The students must undergo costly foundation programmes before beginning their university studies. "The students coming out of high school are still deficient in basic disciplines, especially language, mathematics and sciences," Dr Ohan said.

"There have been some improvements, but not at the rate we would want it. There isn't the sense of urgency that's needed. I would like to see this [recognised] as a national problem that people say we will solve sooner rather than later." Dr Ohan said too many organisations had their own reforms, adding there "really needs to be more co-ordination" at the national level. He also said high turnover among senior officials hampered efforts to introduce reforms, and that models imported from overseas were unlikely to work here.

"We're bringing these people from outside who want to import - their ideas that don't necessarily fit in with the needs of the country," he said. Lack of resources was not the issue, he also said, but rather how the money was spent. Emirati parents, too, appear to be losing confidence in government education. A recent study showed that 52 per cent of Emirati children in Dubai attend private schools; five years ago the figure was 37 per cent.

Although there have been many initiatives to develop improved teaching methods and curricula, officials have said a lack of qualified teachers remains one of the biggest challenges facing state education. Most new teachers entering the UAE system have, on average, just two weeks' training, according to Ministry of Education research, and fewer than half have degrees in education. Christina Gitsaki, the Unesco chair in applied research in education, said some UAE schools used educational practices, such as the memorisation of facts, that were a century old.

"The whole emphasis on rote memorisation and traditional teacher-centred approaches are still widely used in the UAE," she said during a presentation at the forum. Schools should focus on "inquiry-based learning" and "student-centred learning", Dr Gitsaki said. Ten years ago, the Ministry of Education released its Vision 2020 plan, which pledged to encourage creativity instead of memorisation, and to shift the focus away from having a teacher lecturing.

"Even though these sentiments were expressed 10 years ago," Mr O'Brien said, little progress had been made in achieving those aims. "Often there are initiatives started that don't get carried through to their conclusion, or we have different agencies trying to achieve the same end and maybe the co-operation could be more effective," he said. Clifton Chadwick, a senior lecturer in international education management and policy development at the British University in Dubai, said Dr Ohan's comments were "right on the money".

"We need a lot of teacher training and we need incentives to make people stay" in teaching, he said. Dr Chadwick said consultants brought in to aid reform efforts often became disenchanted and left because "they don't find a responsive atmosphere". dbardsley@thenational.ae