UAE schoolchildren lagging international peers

Schoolchildren in the UAE are falling behind their international peers, a new international study shows.

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ABU DHABI // Schoolchildren in the UAE are doing less well than some of their international peers, according to two new studies released this week.

Fourth graders were less proficient in mathematics, science and reading compared with counterparts in countries such as Singapore, China, Finland, Hong Kong and Russia, the studies found.

More than 14,300 pupils aged 10 and 14 from 458 schools in the UAE took tests last year for the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

The tests, carried out in 34 countries, were aimed to highlight what governments were doing to make their schools effective, what teachers were doing to make classroom instruction effective, and what parents were doing to ensure their children’s academic success.

Fourteen per cent of fourth graders in the UAE showed a high level of knowledge in reading and science, and 12 per cent did so in mathematics. Only 6 per cent did so in all three subjects.

In Singapore, those figures were 78 per cent for maths, 68 per cent for science and 62 per cent for reading. More than half did so in all three subjects.

“This doesn’t surprise me,” said Mark Atkins, the head of academics and education at Evolvence Knowledge Investments, a private school operator.

“What we’ve got in the UAE is a rapidly improving educational system and you can’t make such huge strides in the educational system overnight.

“We’re looking at lessons of the best performance in the Far East to rewrite our curriculum.”

Regionally, when the UAE is grouped with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, fewer than 10 per cent showed a high standard in all three subjects, compared with 40 per cent in China and 39 per cent in Finland.

“Investment in education is a long-term endeavour,” said Chad Minnich, from Boston College’s International Study Centre, which set the two tests.

“Some countries have been investing heavily and working hard for years, even decades. For some countries, such as Singapore, this investment has resulted in continuing excellence. For other countries, such as Norway, the experience has been different. While a great majority of students in Norway are reaching proficiency in the three subjects, only 8 per cent are achieving the high benchmark in all subjects, which is not too different from the UAE.”

Principals agreed. "The higher achieving countries encourage and expose children to IT skills right from the age of five," said Geetha Murali, the principal at the Indian International School in Dubai.

“Online tests to assess skills in those subjects are also more common in these countries and students are trained with a specific focus to become more adept at solving problems and acquire scientific skills in building vocabulary. Modules for those subjects are built into the curriculum itself so this helps to broaden their perspectives and help to gain insight on various tools and techniques used in gaining knowledge in science, maths and English.”

The high number of curricula in the UAE should also be taken into account, said principals.

“The range of different curriculums delivered across the UAE schools is a factor that prevents benchmark comparisons across the Emirates and with the performances of different cohorts of students in different countries,” said Peter Winder, the principal at Al Diyafah High School in Abu Dhabi.

“The multi-national and cosmopolitan nature of the Emirates is also an influential factor that is a challenge for the teachers to ensure equality of access and delivering an appropriate and challenging curriculum that builds on the prior learning of the students.”

Darryl Bloud, the principal at Gems Modern Academy, added: “There is a globalisation scenario in the UAE – schools have an influx of varied nationality students from across the world almost throughout the academic year.

"Improvement strategies would involve curriculum transaction to increase critical thinking skills in our students and focusing on the need of every student will ensure all are engaged and challenged appropriately."