Abu Dhabi: Education overhaul

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The emirate’s education system is in the midst of a major overhaul, one aimed at making the school system more responsive to the needs of students in a changing community. The new system will reflect evolving social, economic and cultural trends, with English coming to share the platform with Arabic as the language of learning.

According to a recent report by the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (DED), education will continue to remain a major priority for the government in the coming years, as it cements its position as one of the cornerstones of the policy to develop a knowledge-based economy. The study, entitled the Abu Dhabi Economic Outlook Report 2012-16, and issued in late September, said that the education sector was expected to expand by 7% annually during the five years covered by the DED report.

One of the factors that will drive this growth is the increasing emphasis education authorities are placing on English-language competency for students and teachers, a central plank in Abu Dhabi’s educational reform programme, dubbed the New School Model (NSM). Under the NSM, first launched in 2010 and scheduled to cover all grades from kindergarten to final year by 2018, developing English-language skills is one of the core objectives of the programme.

The new educational model is balanced on three pillars: improved teacher quality; improved school environment; and a focus on bilingual education, with fluency in both Arabic and English identified by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) as “essential to the personal success of Abu Dhabi’s students in both higher education and their future careers”.

In early October, ADEC announced it was stepping up efforts to boost local teachers’ English-language proficiency. The aim of the scheme, which is scheduled to begin in late 2012, is to have more than 6000 educators trained to the equivalent of the minimum requirements set out by Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) standards.

Data provided by ADEC shows that while some 90% of English-language teachers at public schools have the required proficiency, this figure falls to around half for teachers of science and maths. With a greater range of subjects to be taught in English under the NSM, the need to reinforce language skills is at the heart of making the programme a success.

Mugheer Al Khaili, the director-general of ADEC, told local media on October 7 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.

This increased emphasis on English is being extended into vocational schools as well. New students enrolled in courses provided by the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (ADVETI) will now be required to take a one-year intensive course in English before beginning a diploma in subjects such as tourism and human resources management. In early September, some 3000 new students began their English-language preparation year at ADVETI campuses.

This shift in the curriculum has resulted in ADEC hiring several new foreign educators and contracting with education institutions and firms from a number of countries to provide training in the classroom and to Abu Dhabi teachers. With school enrolments forecast to increase by more than 50% by 2020, the demand for English-language trainers and service providers will also rise.

There could also be a greater move into the private sector by overseas education firms into the Abu Dhabi market, targeting the needs of older students seeking to improve their English-language skills to meet university entrance requirements. Another niche segment is language skills for the workplace, which will help train young graduates in the written and spoken language of trade, economics and business.

The success of Abu Dhabi’s NSM will not only depend on how quickly it can bring its own educators up to the standard required by the reforms, but also on the levels of resourcing provided to schools and colleges to implement the new curriculum. 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 quickly and well, the NSM will result in massive savings for the government by reducing the need for additional preparatory courses, as well as help streamline graduates into tertiary-level education and then into the workforce.

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