As it works to build a knowledge-based economy, education has become an increasing priority for the UAE. The emirate of Sharjah is placing particular emphasis on innovation and quality as it positions itself as a centre for education within the federation and the wider region. This recognition of the centrality of education is not news, however, with Sharjah having a long-standing history as a leader in this arena. Indeed, Sharjah was the site of the first modern school in the region, founded in 1930, as well as the first school for girls, established in 1955. It is now home to two of the Middle East’s highest-ranking universities, alongside a range of research, vocational and training institutes.
As the sector continues to expand, it faces new challenges. Standardisation of curricula and outcomes, human resources development and keeping pace with rapid technological changes are just some of the areas of focus for the emirate’s policymakers and sector professionals as they look to build upon the strong educational foundations. In the tertiary segment, funding for research and creating business tie-ups are among the top concerns for higher education establishments as they seek to attract students and staff to their faculties.
As one of the UAE’s seven constituent emirates, Sharjah’s education system comes under the umbrella of the federal Ministry of Education (MoE). Alongside its management of the public education sector, the MoE also plays a role in the regulation and inspection in the private sector.
The current minister in charge of the MoE is Hussain bin Ibrahim Al Hammadi, who has held the post since 2014. Demonstrating the centrality of the sector to the federal government’s long-term development plans, there are two other Cabinet ministers with education portfolios – Jameela bint Salem Mesbeh Al Muhairi, minister of state for public education since 2016, and Ahmad bin Abdullah Humaid Belhoul Al Falasi, minister of state for higher education and advanced skills, who was also appointed in 2016.
Two key laws govern the sector’s practice – Article 17 of the UAE’s Constitution and Article 1 of Federal Law No. 11 from 1972 – which state that education is both free and compulsory for all citizens of the UAE. A further law gives every child the right to education and makes the state responsible for working to achieve equal opportunities for every child.
The MoE thus plays a central role throughout the emirate-level education system. At the same time, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, member of the Supreme Council and ruler of Sharjah, is himself an educationalist with a strong interest in developing the sector. To that end, he established the Sharjah Education Council (SEC) as the right hand of the MoE locally. A strategic partner of the ministry, the SEC is a local government institution with its own budget from the Royal Court of Sharjah, funding its own programmes.
Across the UAE, education is compulsory from age five, for both nationals and expatriates alike. In common with other emirates, Sharjah’s population, recorded at around 1.4m in the most recent census from 2015, consists largely of non-nationals. The census broke the numbers down into 175,000 Emiratis and 1.2m expatriates. Reflecting the fact that most of the expatriate population are workers, often in manual, male-dominated jobs, the gender balance among foreigners is strongly skewed towards men, who make up 68% of the expatriate demographic. The Emirati population, on the other hand, had a slight female majority at 50.8% of the total. Overall, nearly a third (31%) of the population is under 19 years old, representing a school-age demographic nearing 434,000.
Up to age 18, there are four tiers of education in the UAE: nursery, kindergarten, primary and secondary. The first of these takes children from 18 months to two years old, with nurseries representing a key area of focus for the SEC. Some 30 nurseries are currently operated under its auspices, with the emirate planning to more than double this number to 66 by the early 2020s.
“We want to empower the working woman,” Ziad Shatat, a research and training specialist at the SEC, told OBG, explaining the rationale behind this expansion. “We already have 30 government nurseries, and our goal is to have 66 nurseries to cover and serve all of Sharjah. These are available to all Sharjah Emiratis for a nominal fee.”
This project goes in tandem with initiatives such as the Sharjah Baby-friendly Emirate Campaign (SBFC), which seeks to encourage mother-friendly workplaces, breastfeeding-friendly nurseries, and maternal and baby health. In 2015 Sharjah also became the first city to receive the World Health Organisation/UNICEF baby-friendly city award.
Kindergarten, meanwhile, accepts children at four to five years of age. As with nurseries, private kindergartens tend to cater to expatriate populations while publicly funded facilities serve Emiratis. In the 2016/17 academic year a total of 22 public sector kindergartens were registered in the emirate with the MoE, enrolling 5021 children.
After two years of voluntary kindergarten, primary education, also known as Cycle 1, takes children up to age 11, and comprises grades 1-5. This is followed by Cycle 2, which is an intermediate-level school, seeing students complete Grades 6-9 between the ages of 12 and 14. Secondary school, also referred to as Cycle 3, comprises the final two years of compulsory education – grades 10 through 12 – with completion leading to the award of the High School Certificate. A parallel system of technical secondary schools also exists, awarding graduates a technical secondary diploma. At age 17-18 students leave the system, having completed 12 years of schooling, unless they are continuing into higher education.
According to data from the MoE, there were 124 public schools across all levels operating in the emirate during the 2016/17 academic year. The MoE divides the UAE into nine educational zones – one for each emirate except Abu Dhabi, which is divided into three zones. This figure gives Sharjah the highest number of public schools in any one zone, although it is two less than in 2015/16, following some mergers at the Cycle-2 level.
The 2016/17 total included 41 Cycle-1 schools, 24 Cycle-2 institutions and 37 secondary schools. Most of these were single sex, with the emirate’s total breaking down into 51 boys’ schools, 43 girls’ schools and 30 mixed. In addition, there were some 110 private schools operating in Sharjah that year. In terms of student numbers, there were some 41,063 public school pupils and 178,267 enrolled in private schools. This once again reflects the expatriate majority, as expatriate children go to private schools, where they may be taught in their own language and culture, or according to an international curriculum. Some Emirati parents also opt to send their children to private schools, aiming to take advantage of UK-, US- or Australian-based qualifications or the International Baccalaureate offered by these institutions.
Sharjah has a wide range of private schools, with some of the more highly rated including the Al Muwahib British Private School, the ASPAM Indian International School, the Victoria International School Sharjah (VISS) and the Delta English School. There is, however, no official ranking system for private schools in the emirate, and quality varies given the lack of benchmark standards (see analysis).
Some international schools are regulated externally by authorities from their exam bodies – such as the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) – or by the national regulators of their home curriculum. VISS, for example, is regulated by both the IBO and the Australian government to ensure it meets their global and national standards.
The private school sector is highly competitive, not just within Sharjah but also with Dubai, given the close proximity between the two emirates. As is true in the housing market, price is a key comparative advantage for Sharjah’s private schools (see Real Estate chapter). Improvements in transportation between neighbouring emirates has helped to make Sharjah more accessible for school runs, potentially attracting students from next door.
According to MoE data, in the 2016/17 academic year, 3423 teachers staffed Sharjah’s public sector schools, while private facilities employed 3257 teachers in the same period. This indicates much higher pupil/teacher ratios in the private sector than in the public, with the former enrolling some 81% of all students and employing 49% of teachers. The MoE offers a breakdown of the workforce by level, with 36% of teachers working in Cycle-1 institutions. The second-biggest workforce was in secondary schools, which employed 29% of teachers, while 26% taught in Cycle-2 and 9% at kindergartens. Student-teacher ratios are enviable across the K-12 system, never topping the 15:1 level seen in Cycle-2 classes. The lowest student-to-teacher ratio is at the secondary level, where there is roughly one instructor for every eight pupils, while in Cycle-1 institutions it stands at 12:1.
Standards for teachers across both the public and private sectors are due to align – and rise – with the introduction of a new licensing system that will apply to all educators working in the UAE by 2021 (see analysis). Teacher training is currently provided in the emirate by the Department of Education at the University of Sharjah (UOS), which runs a professional teaching diploma course.
Engaging Parents & Pupils
Another focus for the SEC is the development of a system of Student-Parent Councils, launched in 2017. Elections were held in February 2018 for seats on the five councils – one for each of the emirate’s districts. The bodies comprise 13 members, of which nine were elected and four appointed by the SEC. The leader from each council will participate in a central, Sharjah-wide body that oversees the network of councils and will report directly to the ruler.
The establishment of largely elected councils thus demonstrates the importance Sharjah attaches to relations between schools and parents. The commitment to increasing parental engagement runs both ways, with the elections – the first of their kind – attracting a great deal of support, even though the council members will be unpaid volunteers.
Close cooperation between parents, teachers, students and the educational authorities is seen as particularly important at a time when the system is undergoing many changes. A major overhaul of curricula is taking place across the UAE to standardise provision as well as quality metrics (see analysis).
Sharjah is also home to a variety of other bodies representing and engaging children and young people. One is the Sharjah Youth Council, which was set up to bolster the contribution of youth to the emirate’s development process. The council worked with the International Government Communication Forum to host the first Sharjah Youth Forum in March 2018. The two-day event brought 100 young people together with the emirate’s decision-makers to discuss ideas on eight key areas – media, innovation, entrepreneurship, health and sports, sustainability, education and jobs, arts and culture, and values – which can now play a role in the emirate’s development plans.
Another such initiative is the Sharjah Children Shura Council (SCSC), organised by the Sharjah Children’s Centres. The SCSC introduces young children to the world of politics by giving them the chance to model the workings of the governing council. The 72 children elected to SCSC come together to debate key themes and experience government.
The emirate’s ambitions to develop an international-standard education system are also behind the SEC-administered Sharjah Award for Excellence scheme. Launched in 1995, the initiative aims to reward educators who have achieved outstanding results in their field. The scheme has since expanded and now issues awards in 12 different categories and has an annual budget of Dh4m ($1.1m) in prizes.
The categories include outstanding teacher awards, prizes for outstanding students, as well as awards for associated professional roles, such as the top school social worker, or community members, such as outstanding educational families. The awards attract between 400 and 500 applications each year, according to the SEC.
Sharjah has been at the forefront of introducing IT into the classroom, from the nursery level onwards. In 2016 the emirate re-launched its Lughati (“my language”) programme, a Dh15m ($4.1m) six-phase scheme that aims to modernise Arabic-language learning through the development of software that encourages children to read in Arabic and the provision of devices on which to use it. Once complete the programme will have provided tablets to 25,000 students and 1000 teachers. The devices will come installed with language-learning software designed by Horouf Educational Publishing, part of the Sharjah-based Kalimat Group.
February 2018 saw the completion of phase three of the programme, with some 11,000 children already issued with the devices. In tandem with this, charging devices and storage lockers for the tablets are being installed in the emirate’s schools, while teachers are being given extra training on how to use the devices. This addresses a key challenge in developing e-learning – the technology gap that may exist between educators and pupils.
E-learning has also made inroads into the higher and further education segments, although these are still early days. The privately run Skyline University now delivers around 20% of teaching via online platforms, for example. Blended delivery – which involves both classroom and online learning – is also an increasingly preferred model for courses at the American University of Sharjah and UOS, where digitisation of course materials is also ongoing, with more and more courses now paper-free.
Face-to-face tuition is, however, still widely favoured, with university authorities and students maintaining a preference for the classroom environment, which is seen as an important part of the undergraduate experience, in particular.
The next few years may see some development in the use of online learning methods in the fields of continuing education and postgraduate study. In terms of distance learning, the federal Abu Dhabi-based Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research issues a list of foreign universities that are accredited to offer these courses by their own education authorities, advising would-be students to stick to these 105 anglophone institutions.
At the Cycle-2 level, Emirati students have the option of undertaking technical and vocational education by attending a secondary technical school (STS). There are two such institutions in Sharjah with a student body totalling 286 pupils in the 2016/17 academic year.
One of these is the Sharjah Boys STS, which is part of the Institute of Applied Technology, a UAE-wide body that operates similar institutions across all seven emirates. The school accepts pupils at age 13-15 as grade-9 students and at 14-16-years-old for grade 10. Prospective students must pass an entry exam to enrol. Subjects taught include an academic core, along with career-based scientific, engineering and technical, hands-on classes, taught in English.
Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is seen as a vital driver of future diversification and growth throughout the UAE’s economy. TVET institutions are also present at the tertiary level, offering a wide range of programmes. These include facilities working in high-tech sectors – such as the Sharjah Centre for Astronomy and Space Sciences (SCASS) – and sector-specific institutions such as the Sharjah Police Science Academy.
The former includes the largest planetarium in the Middle East and the biggest observatory in the UAE. The centre sees its role as providing support for the development of local space industries, with communications and component manufacture for small satellites – known as CubeSats – highlighted (see Industry chapter). The SCASS is part of UOS, one of the region’s top higher education institutions.
The Police Science Academy not only trains local law enforcers, but also works with Interpol on around a dozen joint courses. It currently has around 200 students on bachelor’s degree courses and 150 students undertaking master’s degree programmes. The student body comes from police stations in Sharjah as well as other parts of the UAE and from across the wider GCC. Attracting students from the other emirates and abroad is an increasing focus for Sharjah’s tertiary sector (see analysis).
Higher education institutions, as well as their related research institutes, are all located in the emirate’s 6.5-sq-km University City, a physical testimony to Sharjah’s commitment to higher education.
Across the emirate’s educational spectrum, the period ahead is set to be one of qualitative increases, more than quantitative ones. The current strategic focus encompasses an improved core curriculum in schools and high-tech ventures in science and technology parks. Funding is also going to be increasingly in the spotlight, as higher education institutions in particular seek to maximise their own revenue-generating capabilities while also maintaining high academic rigour and standards. Face-to-face education will also likely continue to dominate, as education authorities wait to see how e-learning courses overcome the challenge of ensuring the same high quality as traditional classes.
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