It seems like a perfectly normal scene: children dressed in crisp white dishdashas and others in trousers are crowded into a grade seven maths class at the Mohammad Bin Khaled Secondary School. But the time is 4pm, and the school day has already ended for most pupils. This boys' school is one of 13 state schools in Abu Dhabi that operates two shifts to double its capacity: a regular school day and an evening school.
However, the second shift at Mohammad Bin Khaled runs shorter, from 3.30pm to 8pm and from 3pm to 5pm during Ramadan. Resources at such evening schools are generally limited and they have fewer periods and teaching hours than regular state schools, which already lag behind the international average, according to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) admits the shift system is flawed. At the start of the school year, just after gaining control of all 305 public schools in the emirate, it pledged to close the evening schools and move an estimated 8,000 children to regular schools within three years.
"The children come to school at the end of the day and they are not energised any more," said Dr Mugheer al Khaili, director general of Adec. "They really give little instruction for children." He added that evening schools created a number of problems for families. "It's a safety issue for the children. They stay at home when their parents are at work, where they are not under anybody's eyes. When the parents come back home, the children are out and there is no good quality time to be spent between the parents and the children."
Enrolment of new evening school pupils stopped this year, and next year Adec will start moving pupils to private day schools. The Khalifa Fund will help pay tuition fees for those children who are eligible. Evening schools were started in 1986 to accommodate the children of expatriate families who were not eligible to attend state schools. At the time, the children of expatriate government workers were allowed to study in state schools, but children of expatriates employed in the private sector were denied entry.
In 2001, the Cabinet banned all expatriates from the state school system, with an exception made for families in Ras al Khaimah. Five years later, the Cabinet amended the rules, allowing one in five pupils at a state school to be expatriate. However, expatriate children must be high achievers - their marks from the previous school year must place them in the top 10 per cent of pupils. They also need to pass an entry exam in Arabic, English and maths. Their parents also pay higher fees than those charged in evening schools.
Because of this, evening schools continue to provide a service for families who cannot get their children into a regular public school or afford private school tuition. With annual tuition as low as Dh2,200 (US$600) they are the only option for many. The pupils are mostly from other Arabic-speaking countries. Because they offer a means of earning additional income, the evening schools are staffed by teachers who work during the day as well.
"The teachers are from the government schools. They come the next morning very exhausted," said Dr Khaili. Expatriate teachers make as little as Dh3,225 per month in the UAE, but in Abu Dhabi, teachers were given a housing allowance at the start of the school year, which increased salaries by Dh6,000 per month. Teachers in the evening programme at the Mohammad Bin Khaled school are paid roughly Dh40 for each 40-minute class. They are allowed to teach as many as 12 such classes per week.
Mounting living expenses led Osama al Said, an Egyptian who has been teaching English here for 17 years, to take on extra hours at the Mohammad Bin Khaled school. "The salary before was not enough," he said, adding that the housing allowance has improved his situation. But Mr Said, who works at the Khalifa bin Zayed Secondary School during the day, said the long hours were difficult. "Sometimes it's very enjoyable because the students here are brilliant, but it is very tiring after a day teaching in another school."