Improving linguistic skills: Encouraging multi-tier options for education and training in English

With English as the language of instruction at many of Abu Dhabi’s higher education programmes, English proficiency can sometimes hinder students seeking post-secondary school education. While remedial courses are available to help high school graduates improve their language skills before entering university or other tertiary-level institutions, authorities in recent years have started to focus on improving English competency earlier in the schooling process, when it may be easier for students to learn a second language.

OLD SCHOOL: Nearly 90% of high school graduates in the UAE lack the English skills necessary to handle university courses, Ryan Gjovig, the head of the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment (CEPA) at the National Assessment and Placement Office of the federal Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR), told the local media in May 2012. Passing the two-part CEPA exam – there are sections for English and maths – is required for entry into the country’s three federal universities: UAE University (UAEU), the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and Zayed University (ZU). In 2012, some 18,000 of the country’s 23,000 grade 12 students sat for the CEPA exam.

Students with a CEPA English score above a certain level are eligible to enter directly into a degree programme at any of the three federal institutions. This minimum varies by university – ZU requires a score of 185 while this cut-off stands at 180 for HCT and UAEU. However, scoring below this level does not necessarily constitute a rejection. A score above 150 guarantees admission, but these students are required to attend foundational courses before commencing fully.

The details of these remedial courses vary. For example, ZU offers its Academic Bridge Programme to students who score below 185 but at or above 150. This six-stage curriculum focuses on improving English-language reading, writing, and speaking and listening skills. The CEPA score determines the level into which students are placed in the Academic Bridge Programme. For more advanced applicants, they can often fulfil their requirements in just one term, but completing the entire six-level course can take up to two years.

At HCT, more than 90% of students begin with remedial courses, and some 30% of the federal universities’ budget is allocated to these foundational classes, according to local newspaper The National. These figures are perhaps not surprising given that the average score on the English section of the CEPA is 160.

CHANGES AFOOT: According to The National even for those who enrol in remedial courses, they are by no means a panacea, and a number do not complete the programme. Indeed, up to 20% leave during the first year, often because they are failing. The drop-out rate is higher for male students, as they often accept attractive job offers with the military or police.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by officials, with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the minister of higher education and scientific research as well as the president of ZU, calling for reform of remedial English programmes at the nation’s universities in 2011. ZU thereafter altered its most basic English course, lengthening it from nine to 12 weeks. Since the new structure was introduced, pass rates have started to improve, officials from ZU told the local press in November 2012. Other changes set to be rolled out in the near future include iPads in Education: students at all three federal universities who are enrolled in remedial English classes will now use the tablet computers to help them learn the language (see analysis).

Despite these improvements, some students still may choose to leave these foundational courses. Vocational programmes represent one option. Students at one of the largest vocational programmes in the emirate, the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (ADVETI), are obligated to take a one-year course in English before beginning their diploma programmes. Nonetheless, the vocational setting may be more appropriate for students who struggle with the remedial English courses at their universities. For such individuals, completing a diploma at an institution such as ADVETI may make more sense, either as a prelude to university or in lieu of it. The transfer system between vocational institutions and universities has become more flexible, which may attract more students into the vocational system (see analysis).

A NEW APPROACH: In recent years, education authorities in Abu Dhabi have started to place an emphasis on English-language competency in the emirate’s school system as part of their New School Model (NSM).

Launched in 2010, the NSM is an educational reform programme that introduces a new curriculum and unique teaching methods to encourage creative thinking and problem solving by the student. Some of the specific changes proposed by the scheme involve improved teacher quality, better school environment and a focus on bilingual education, with the new curriculum aiming to prepare students to read, write, speak and understand both Arabic and English with a high degree of fluency. As explained by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), a governmental entity established in 2005 that oversees all aspects of the education sector within the emirate, “Literacy in both languages is essential to the personal success of Abu Dhabi’s students in both higher education and their future careers.”

To help meet its bi-literacy goal, ADEC has hired a number of overseas educators to increase native English fluency among the teaching staff. Moreover, in October 2012 the council announced that it was launching a new professional development programme to boost local teachers’ English-language proficiency. The scheme could begin as early as late 2012, and is aimed at having approximately 6000 educators meet required scores in standard English proficiency tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language or International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The minimum will depend on the teacher’s specialty, for example with science and maths teachers required to achieve a score of 5.5 on the IELTS. For English language teachers, this level has been set higher, at 6.5 or above.

At present, about 90% of English-language teachers at public schools meet the required proficiency levels, although this figure falls to around half for teachers of science and maths, according to data provided by ADEC. Mugheer Al Khaili, the director-general of ADEC, told local media in October 2012 that strengthening the skills base of the emirate’s educators was vital to their ability to perform their roles in a changing school system. “Like athletes who train to reach the highest standards, principals and teachers must also dedicate themselves to continuous professional development,” he said when discussing the new training regime.

The success of Abu Dhabi’s NSM will depend both on how quickly it can bring its own educators up to the standard required by the reforms and also on the levels of resourcing provided to schools. Any delays in the scheme will see bottlenecks further down the line, with graduating students needing further remedial assistance to qualify for entry into higher education. However, if implemented properly, the NSM could result in savings for the government by reducing the need for additional preparatory courses in English and other subjects.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

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