In late February, the national Ministry of Education (MoE) unveiled its new Educational Strategy 2010-20, which it describes as a plan that will allow students to match the highest international standards thanks to a restructuring of the curriculum.
Under the strategy, which still has to be given final official approval, 50 separate initiatives are to be implemented, with the aim of developing an education system better placed to ensure that students are best equipped for higher education and the workplace.
The education system will be made more flexible, with a restructuring of secondary education to include elective courses, encouragement for students to take part in extracurricular activities and also be more involved in decision-making concerning their own studies.
In order to gain public feedback on the strategy, Dubai's ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also holds the offices of UAE vice-president and prime minister, had the 27-page document posted on the prime ministerial website.
Though mainly directed at state schools, the strategy will also have an impact on the private education system in Dubai, which currently serves 85% of all pre-tertiary students, one of the highest ratios in the world.
Nationally, 39% of the 1190 schools currently operating in the UAE are private establishments, with the split between private and public being 467 to 723. In Dubai, this ratio is reversed, with just over one-third of all schools being state provided. Of the 224 schools in Dubai, 79 are part of the public education system, with their curricula set by the MoE. The remaining 145 facilities are private schools that between them teach 17 different curricula, including that laid out by the ministry.
Though private schools generally follow a separate curriculum from state-funded facilities, all schools in Dubai are monitored by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the state body set up in 2006 to develop all relevant resource sectors in the emirate.
While the recently announced reforms are to be applied across the national educational system, in Dubai at least some of these measures are already being practiced, according to Abdulla Al Karam, the chairman of the board of directors and director-general of the KHDA.
There were strong parallels between the MoE's strategy, which focuses on the needs of students, and what KHDA is aiming to achieve by also concentrating on students as the heart of the education system in Dubai, Al Karam said in a statement issued on February 23.
"We are working to provide social, educational and personal development, working with partnerships and through teamwork to achieve our goals," he said. "This practical work focuses on quality, not quantity, while adhering to our principle of transparency."
And quality, in particular at the end of the education process, is at the core of the new strategy, which has as a major objective of improving the skills of students entering higher education. MoE studies have shown that more than 90% of grade-12 graduates that enter UAE higher education require a foundation year of additional classes in order to bring them up to the required levels in a number of key courses, particularly science, mathematics and English.
The planned reforms are intended to improve education at secondary level to the point where students graduating the system can move seamlessly into the state tertiary system, resulting in a saving of time, money and valuable resources. According to some estimates, up to one-third of the teaching budget of the nation's three universities is expended on providing foundation year courses.
For this to happen, the overhaul of pre-tertiary education will have to be dramatic, said Mustafa Abu Shagur, the president of Rochester Institute of Technology Dubai, located at Silicon Oasis, with students needing to be taught independent learning so they can better adapt to university and the world beyond education.
"Pupils are used to being spoon-fed and this needs to change," he said in an interview with local press on February 25.
While the large-scale revamp of the education system is sure to be expensive, the cost to Dubai and the other emirates will be recouped in future years, both in savings from scrapping the foundation year and earnings generated by a more highly educated population.