Mixed feelings over mixed school

One of the first co-ed government primary schools opened its doors last week, allowing young boys and girls to learn side-by-side in state-of-the-art facilities. But while the campus is a hit with teachers and some parents, others do not approve.

Mubarak Bin Mohammed school, a mixed gender campus, is one of five government schools to open this month in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National

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ABU DHABI // Six-year-old Ahmed Mohammed is doing his best to ignore his female classmate, but she won't take the hint.

Little Eman Khali wants to know what he is up to. "Tell me what you are doing," she whines at Ahmed, whose head is bent low over his colouring-in assignment.

"I like him," she explains. "I help him with his work."

The two are enrolled at Mubarak bin Mohammed School (MBMS) in Al Bateen, one of the country's first co-ed government primary schools. It opened its doors to pupils last week.

Ahmed and Eman's Arabic teacher, Ayesha Thahabi, has been teaching for 27 years but this is the first time she has ever had boys in her class.

"The co-education experience has been great," she says. "They help each other out if they cannot understand certain things in English or Arabic."

MBMS was built to accommodate boys and girls from four different primary schools that were shut down last year. It is one of several new sustainable campuses designed by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) to replace ageing schools across the city.

Although Grade 1 pupils are placed in mixed classes, boys and girls in Grades 2 to 5 are kept separate on the playground and in the classrooms, which are painted blue for the boys and lime green for the girls.

"A lot of the facilities are segregated and the sports facilities and dining area will be used by boys and girls at separate times," says Fatima Al Bastaki, the principal.

Adec's new school campuses were built to support the objectives of the New School Model, which focuses on bilingual and modern education.

All of the new campuses have the latest technology and Wi-Fi connectivity, while classrooms are equipped with the newest learning aids. On-site facilities include a theatre, cafeteria, library with audio-visual equipment and science labs.

Eric Hilgendorf, the head of education operations at the school, says it has been a big transition for the pupils.

"It is a big contrast from what they were exposed to on their campuses," he says. "Now they have computers, football fields, music rooms … the move from worn-out buildings to this pristine campus has been shocking for them as well. They are getting used to the nice things here."

Jaber Balooshi, the father of Mahra, who is in Grade 4, is happy the new campus has many more resources.

"It is very big and gives so much room for activities for the children," he says. "I don't have a problem with boys and girls together in the same school either, because they are in different classes. My daughter is happy."

But not all of the parents share his enthusiasm.

Asma Abu Bakr is disappointed this is not an all-girls school. "My daughter is not used to being around boys and she is uncomfortable," complains the mother of 10-year-old Reem. "Boys are difficult to manage and they fight. Reem is really quiet." Mrs Abu Bakr says she will be moving her daughter from the school next year.

Ms Al Bastaki admits it will take time for parents to warm to the idea. "This is the first time parents are being exposed to a mixed-gender school, so obviously there have been a lot of questions," she says. "It will take the community some time to get on board but we contacted each and every father and informed them about the change. We tell them that we care about them and that we have the pupils' and community's best interest in mind."