Experts call for more life skills lessons in UAE schools

Classes in personal finance or cooking have huge benefits to pupils

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 25, 2014:     Headmaster  Brendan Law speaks during an interview at Cranleigh School on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi on September 25, 2014. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Nick Leech
Section: Focus

Schools across the Mena region must do more to teach students core life skills such as personal finance and cooking, experts have said.

Alberto Biancoli, from The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, argued curriculums should be expanded “beyond” traditional subjects.

He claimed it was right that critical disciplines such as maths and science continued to form the basis of a formal education everywhere.

But he said school authorities should also look to include more lessons in softer skills to fully prepare pupils for their lives ahead.

“If you look at the [Gulf] region, we are not preparing children in life skills,” the UN education specialist said.

“We are not saying it shouldn’t be math or science, but beyond these disciplines what are the core skills we want youths to have?”


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Mr Biancoli spoke out at an education conference held in Sharjah in October last year called Investing in the Future.

His comments come as more and more schools are moving away from traditional textbook learning to teach a wider variety of ‘soft’ subjects.

Some schools in Dubai, for example, are using virtual money and mock investment portfolios to educate youngsters in personal finance.

And at a school in Kentucky, in the Unites States, pupils are taught how to cook, change a car tyre and do their taxes.

“It’s really about focusing on the core life skills and finding a new way to build it up,” said Mr Biancoli. “We have to rethink the role of education.”

Mr Biancoli went on to acknowledge that there were significant regional disparities between Gulf states as to how this problem was being addressed.

He highlighted schools in the UAE as working hard to promote the importance of developing softer skills, but said other countries who lacked similar resources were lagging behind.

“If you look at it country by country, then it varies tremendously,” he said. “You can’t [fairly] compare the UAE with many countries in the region. It’s unique. It has resources [that others don’t] and offers good quality education.”

Brendan Law, vice president of education at schools’ operator Gems, said he was well aware of the need for a “holistic” approach to education.

He further emphasised how academic performance should not be the only criteria pupils were measured against, and said broader life-skills were also crucial.

“All of our schools have life-skills programmes and pupils get access to work experience and paid internships,” he said.

“My vision as an educator is for a holistic education. Children need skills outside the classroom just as much as they need the academic courses and results within the classroom.

“I know there are schools across the UAE sharing a similar vision. It’s an absolute target to develop beyond academic performance.”

In a 2016 study entitled The Skills Gap in the Middle East and North Africa, conducted by and YouGov, researchers found prospective employers said soft skills were often underdeveloped in jobseekers.

The survey of more than 5,000 people reported that while technical skills were seen as posing the least challenge in terms of recruitment, soft skills were “regarded as most lacking”.

Jeff Evans, director of UAE-based Learning Key Education Consultancy, agreed this continued to be an area requiring improvement.

He said more work needed to be done to encourage schools across the Emirate to broaden their curriculums.

"Many curricula don’t cover basic skills like cooking, gardening or how to change a tyre,” he said. “It’s up to the school.

“Even now, many schools are exam-based and memory driven. Schools should build in all these skills.

“The gap is that they are relying on in-school talent for teachers to be able to take on all those initiatives and this varies from school to school.

“It’s important that schools recognise the gaps and plan. Employers are far less interested in memory as they are in things like emotional intelligence now.”