ABU DHABI // Go back to the middle of the last century and the education system was as small as it is now vast and diverse. Formal education in the UAE began with a Kuwaiti educational mission in Sharjah in 1953. By the following decade, the number of schools had grown to 20, though they had fewer than 4,000 pupils, a fraction of the potential number. Today there are more than 400 public schools, with hundreds of thousands of pupils.
But, for a decade, acute concerns have been expressed about the quality of these schools. In the early 1960s, schools typically were without electricity, air-conditioning or telephones. Blackboards and chalk were as hi-tech as the classroom got. State schools have relied mainly on expatriate teachers, although in recent years colleges have been set up to train Emiratis. In the 1980s and 1990s, literacy rates for UAE nationals grew, reaching 98.5 per cent for children aged 14 to 15 in 1999.
But by 2000, the idea that state education was lagging behind best practices was starting to be publicly expressed. The Ministry of Education published Vision 2020, which said schools should promote creativity and not just memorisation. Five years later, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, then Minister of Education and now Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, described the teaching and examination system as "appalling".
In 2006, the Abu Dhabi Education Council launched its public-private partnership programme in which private-sector education specialists were brought in to help reinvigorate government schools, overhauling teaching methods and curricula. A year later, the Ministry of Education introduced the Madares al Ghad, or Schools of the Future, programme, in which experts, many from western countries, attempted to introduce reforms. Such initiatives have been criticised by those who feel that they threaten national identity.
Dr Khadeegha al Zouebi, the assistant principal at the American International School, said reforms would not work if overseas practices were simply "dropped here". Dr Mick Randall, the retiring dean of education at the British University in Dubai, believes reforms remain compromised by tensions between advisers from overseas, who are keen to introduce new ideas without a detailed knowledge of local conditions, and local teachers and officials.
The physical as well as the human elements of government schools are letting pupils down, according to Peggy Blackwell, dean of the College of Education at Zayed University. "You see schools built like they always were, classrooms with rows of desks lined up," she said. "Research has shown that in those classrooms with the best teachers, you hardly ever see those rows of desks." Experts agree on one thing - change takes time. Dr Randall said the authorities should think in terms of eight or 10 years.