Year 4 pupils in the UAE are the best readers among their peers in the GCC and their literacy skills are only improving, according to the latest results of an international test.
The UAE ranked first in the GCC and 40th among 50 countries that participated last year in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls). The test included 12 reading passages and about 180 items used to measure literary and informational reading comprehension among public and private school pupils on a scale from 300 to 700 points.
With a Pirls 2016 score of 450, the UAE was also the top participating Arab country from the Mena region, outperforming Bahrain (446), Qatar (442), Saudi Arabia (430), Iran (428), Oman (418), Kuwait (393), Morocco (358) and Egypt (330). The UAE improved its score by 11 points compared with five years ago.
More than 300,000 pupils, aged nine and 10, across the world participated in Pirls 2016, including 16,471 children from public and private schools in the UAE. The test is issued once every five years.
The pupils’ improved performance was lauded by Minister of State for Public Education, Jameela Al Muhairi.
"The UAE's progress in Pirls is part of the efforts and steps taken by the ministry to realise the UAE agenda and Vision 2021 for education indices," Ms Al Muhairi said when the scores were announced this month by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.
“Reading has always been a key priority to the ministry. To this end, the ministry has launched numerous reading initiatives to enrich the students’ linguistic understanding and boost their reading skills,” she said.
Russia (581), Singapore (576) and Hong Kong (569) were the top three performing countries – South Africa ranked lowest, with 320 points.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi each elected to participate in the assessment as a "benchmarking participant" – a classification for "subnational entities" that includes Canadian provinces, US states and UAE emirates.
Dubai’s public and private school pupils raised the emirate’s score by 39 points to a mark of 515, exceeding the Pirls average for the first time since it began participating in the test in 2011.
When accounting for the achievement of just private schools, Dubai’s performance is even better. As the Knowledge and Human Development Authority announced earlier this month, private schools in Dubai scored 527, an improvement of 37 points from 2011. A total of 6,600 pupils from 147 private schools in Dubai participated in the test.
Jonathan Hughes-D’Aeth, the chief education officer with Evolvence Knowledge Investments, which operates Repton and Foremarke schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, credited the annual private schools inspection framework enforced by the Dubai School Inspection Bureau in part for raising literacy standards in the emirate.
“I am not at all surprised,” Mr Hughes-D’Aeth said of Dubai’s improved standing in Pirls. “Raising attainment in international benchmark tests is a key National Agenda target.
“Schools have responded very positively to the challenge by improving the quality of teaching and learning and by developing independent thinking skills so children are guided to become more familiar with finding out for themselves and thus developing their comprehension and understanding.”
Pupils in Abu Dhabi emirate underperformed slightly in Pirls 2016, scoring 414, which is 10 points less than they achieved in 2011.
Dr Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Al Qasimi Foundation, one of the UAE's leading education research institutes, said the emirate has experienced significant education reforms in the past few years and that the Pirls measured two separate cohorts of pupils five years apart.
She pointed out that "it is probably too early to judge the impact of their education reforms yet," Dr Ridge said.
The Pirls report also surveyed pupils and parents about the books and learning resources available in homes, as well as the parents' levels of education and their occupations.
In all of these metrics, Dubai surpassed Abu Dhabi and the UAE at large. For example, 21 per cent of respondents in Dubai – but only 12 per cent in the UAE and 10 per cent in Abu Dhabi – said they kept more than 100 books at home and had at least one parent who had finished university and at least one parent who had a professional occupation.
In Dubai, 28 per cent of parents surveyed said they “very much like” to read, compared with 22 per cent in the UAE and 21 per cent in Abu Dhabi.
Michael Lambert, the headmaster of one of Dubai’s oldest and best-achieving schools, said these indicators and a number of others reported in Pirls set Dubai apart from the rest of the country.
"The cumulative effect of these differences in each of these areas soon add up to enable students in Dubai to be among the highest performing in the world," Mr Lambert said.
"The KHDA's tireless focus on the performance management of private schools in Dubai is clearly having a positive impact on their performance in international benchmarking tests."
Dr Ridge said Dubai's demographics work to its advantage.
“The educational levels of people living in Dubai are already very high, so the children living there are already high-achieving students,” said Dr Ridge. “You have a natural demographic gift in Dubai for these tests already that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Middle East.”