The UAE's history lesson

40 years of the UAE: Education in the Trucial States comprised mainly of informal learning circles that passed on scripture and penmanship - a fraction of what today's curriculum involves.

In informal education circles, known as Mutawwa, elders of the village helped children memorise the Holy Quran and the Prophet´s Hadeeth (sayings), and taught writing and calligraphy, Islamic rituals and duties. Courtesy Ministry of Education
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DUBAI // When Ahmed Ali Albastaki started school in 1971, he was the first of his family to be introduced to the English language and subjects such as mathematics and geology.

The family had lived in Fujairah since the early 1800s and education was an informal process.

40 years of the UAE:

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Teachers, called mutawwa, would share their world experience with all the children of the neighbourhood by teaching religious texts, the Prophet's Hadith (sayings) and the art of calligraphy.

"The first schools that came up in the different sheikhdoms were based on religious readings," recalls Sheikha Khulood Sager Al Qassimi, the director of the curriculum department at the Ministry of Education.

Only the very wealthy were able to give their children home schooling by visiting academics.

The 1920s and 1930s saw a flurry of education activity as formal schools opened in different Trucial States, including the Al Qassemia Reformation School that opened in Sharjah in 1935.

"In the first few schools, numeracy and literacy were the main subjects," says Ms Al Qassimi. "There was no system of evaluation."

On December 2, 1971, the UAE celebrated not only independence and the formation of its Government but a new schooling system.

One of the first government bodies set up was the Ministry of Education and Youth, which was headed by the then Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

When the author Michael Deakin visited state schools in the mid-1970s for his book Ras Al Khaimah: Flame in the Desert, he found girls sewing sequins onto banners and dresses.

"The teacher, a pretty Egyptian in a fur hat, … showed us the clothes the girls had sewn, made with tiny neat stitches as though by the hands of a Parisian seamstress of a generation ago.

"In the perfect model of an English suburban kitchen, a class was learning how to cook. The girls, dressed in pink gingham overalls, were so absorbed that it was some time before they even realised that they had visitors."

At the time, authorities borrowed heavily from curriculums in Jordan and Kuwait.

Afaf Al Haredi, the director of the Al Amal School for the Deaf, remembers being a part of the delegation that visited Kuwait to review its curriculum.

"We wanted to see what programme they followed for the deaf so that we could bring it back for our children here," she says. "They had a special curriculum covering Arabic, English, mathematics and science but only for primary school."

Work on the first UAE curriculum only began in 1978. Mr Albastaki, who left school in 1983, did not mind being part of the experimentation while the ministry tried to perfect the system.

"I loved going to school, especially when there were activities," he says. "For that time the education was good but the English language teaching was not that strong."

Textbooks came into print in 1983 for Grades 1, 2 and 7, and all resources for primary schools were completed by 1987. "We were still using the Kuwaiti curriculum in government secondary schools, and it was not until 1993 that we began designing our own," says Ms Al Qassimi.

An evaluation of the curriculum in that year revealed shortcomings, which the ministry immediately began to address.

In 2000, the curriculum was modified again as the UAE moved away from the regional unification of content to a more international model after studying systems followed by America and Finland.

More recently, one of the biggest educational developments the nation has undergone is the capital's experimental New School Model. Rolled out in 2008, the revolutionary curriculum puts two teachers in each class - one English and one Arabic - for a bilingual learning model.

Today, there are more than 700 government schools that teach 13 subjects to about 160,000 students.

Ms Qassimi says the education system has come a long way but, being a young nation, more can be achieved.

"We want children to move away from passive education, embrace technology-based learning, build their personality and identity and be prepared for what life throws at them."