School attendance shot up across the country yesterday at the start of the second week of term, with some classrooms virtually full after only about three in 10 pupils turned up last week. "Today is normal. The holiday is finished," said Mohammed al Hammadi, the principal of Al Bayraq, a secondary school for boys in Al Ain.
Attendance had jumped from 30 per cent last week to 95 per cent yesterday, he said, adding that he believed last week's low numbers were due to families extending their holidays and parental anxiety over swine flu. In some cases attendance last week was said to be as low as seven per cent after state schools reopened on Wednesday between the end of the Eid holidays and the weekend. In Sharjah, one head teacher said only 20 children out of a total of 500 had turned up on the first day. Qamber Mahmoud Ghuloom, the head of Halwan Secondary School, said one class only had one pupil.
Suhaila al Muhairbi, the principal of Al Kadisia Secondary School in Abu Dhabi, also reported dramatically improved attendance. Last week the school had been half empty, she said, but yesterday attendance was about 73 per cent. "Maybe the parents were afraid of H1N1 or maybe they were on holiday," said Mrs al Muhairbi, who nonetheless noted that attendance was usually lower at the start of the academic year when many children were changing to new schools.
Attendance was up from 50 to 85 per cent at Aisha bin Abi Bakr, a secondary school for girls in Abu Dhabi, while Al Muntaha, a secondary school for girls in Musaffah, saw an even more dramatic jump from 27 per cent on the first day to 83 per cent yesterday. On the second day of school fewer than one in 10 pupils had shown up. "I think they know that the first two days are going to be spent distributing books," said an English teacher at the school who asked that her name not be used.
"Eid is always like that. If school starts in the middle of the week no one will come. If it is the beginning of the week they will come. Many of the girls who are coming back from neighbouring countries, they will just continue their Eid holiday." The Ministry of Education has not released official attendance figures, and did not provide them upon request. Nor did the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the agency that oversees schools in the capital. Its equivalent in Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, will release attendance figures next month.
The low turnout prompted education experts to call on parents to ensure their children attend classes, and for the Government and schools to enforce attendance policies. They argued that parental neglect of education could have negative consequences for the nation. "Parents need to understand the value of education," said Dr Earle Warnica, who used to work as a consultant for the Ministry of Education. "Learning is important, going to school is important, you need to teach your kids that they need to go to school.
"If the UAE is ever to reach world standards, all must learn that time equals learning." Dr Warnica added that attendance problems might also be fuelled by a lack of commitment attributable to the fact that public schools are free. According to official statistics, in Dubai, more than half Emirati students go to private school, with the number increasing seven per cent annually over the past five years.
Dr Mugheer Khamis al Khaili, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), agreed that attendance and engagement with children are essential. "We have identified increased parental involvement as a key factor in developing our emirate's education system," he said. "We request that parents take school attendance seriously, and work together with our schools to help our students reach their academic potential."
Ali Abdullah, a retired Emirati whose children are in primary, preparatory and secondary public schools, said he saw no reason not to send them on opening day. "It's simply the school's schedule." Other parents blamed the government system for choosing to start school near the end of the week. Ahmed al Hammadi, a government worker who did not send his primary school daughter to class on Wednesday, said the family had been on holiday in Dubai during Eid. "They shouldn't cut the week like that, it should have been either the entire week or nothing at all. The students want to complete the holiday," he said.
One psychiatrist said an apparent lack of concern by parents about education could cause their children to have problems later in life. "Education is a collective effort by parents, schools and the child," said Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, the medical director of the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi. * Additional reporting by Yasin Kakande and Zahra Hankir