Discussing Public Education in the UAE — Part 3

This article is the third in a series on NYUAD’s relationship to and involvement in the UAE K-12 education system, as well as the functioning of the ...

Apr 26, 2014

This article is the third in a series on NYUAD’s relationship to and involvement in the UAE K-12 education system, as well as the functioning of the system itself.
Discussing top-down changes in the system tells only one side of the education story in Abu Dhabi. In March, The Gazelle visited the Mubarak bin Mohamed primary school, for more information on the ways in which changes have been implemented.
Mubarak bin Mohamed School has 900 students and a staff of about 100, with about one-third Western teachers who are native English speakers, one-third Arabic-speaking expatriates and one-third Emiratis. The school’s catchment area is the entire city of Abu Dhabi and surrounding islands.
U.S. American principal Cheryl Sanchez spoke proudly of the leaps in attendance since she took up her position two years ago, when four local schools were merged into what is now Mubarak bin Mohamed. She noted that the struggle over attendance policies is not limited to students.
“What I might work on with student attendance in the States, I have to start at the staff level here … and then [I] can start working on the student level,” she said.
The school used to have a very low average staff attendance rate of around 83 percent. This year has seen a significant improvement, with attendance average going as high as 95 percent, according to Sanchez. She attempted to find a UAE average for staff absences but noted that there was a lack of hard numbers, in contrast with Mubarak bin Mohamed’s notable improvement.
“This year, 54 percent [of teachers] are perfect and on time the whole month … In October last year we had 4 percent for the month.”
The staff are being incentivized through a system of public recognition using ‘keys’ that are awarded to staff who arrive perfectly on time everyday for a week. Following further improvements this year, the school has been able to award the keys monthly, rather than weekly.
Sanchez noted the shortcomings of the existing system, which does not deal with staff absences very efficiently.
“Teachers cover other teachers … [If you are a teacher who covers for an absent peer] your free period is no longer free … It doesn’t make for happy people,” she explained.
Another source of pride for the Mubarak school is their students’ soaring literacy and numeracy skills, which contrast a widespread problem of much of the Middle East. The scores are compared by cohort and show a significant and rapid rise in performance.
“You see, there’s not a whole lot of growth in all schools between one year and the next,” explained Smith, pointing to a graph of the UAE’s composite EMSA [English, Math, Science, Arabic] scores. “Our school, in 2012, was below where it should have been, below the average in grade three and about average in grade four and five. But then last year, we jumped way above [the average],” she continued.
Sanchez encourages sustainable rather than explosive growth, noting that the school is not attempting to emphasize all subjects; they cannot hope to see significant changes in more than one or two priority areas. Last year, they focused specifically on reading scores and indeed saw their biggest gains in this area.
“This year our focus is science, and we’re at or below the [national] average so … this year our goal is to be up here, way above this [national average],” she explained.
In addition to resources being focused on the sciences, Sanchez is aiming to see the same gains in Arabic that they have seen in English reading and writing. The teaching system itself is a mirror of sorts; the school now uses the same books for both Arabic and English lessons, bringing a multitude of benefits for students among the challenges of bilingual learning.
“Basically, what we do is teach reading and writing, it can be through any book, and we have the book in [both] English and Arabic … For children to hear the same story the same week, in [both] Arabic and English, the comprehension is much better,” said Sanchez.
“It’s really made a difference [having books in Arabic] that the teachers love teaching,” she noted.
“They teach half the day in English, half in Arabic. English, math and science are taught in English. All the other subjects … are taught in Arabic. That’s the ADEC standard: It’s part of the New School Model,” explained Sanchez.
“It slows down some progress, you know, if you’re comparing the students’ progress to worldwide progress … in the end you need to compare it to places that are also teaching in two languages. But Arabic language in particular is a very difficult language to teach,” she continued.
To compound this difficulty, not all the schoolteachers are bilingual. They have both English teachers (EMTs), who must be native speakers and mostly do not know Arabic, and the Arabic teachers (AMTs), who do not have to speak English. Understandably, this has become problematic.
“Last year I had them planning in the same room, the EMTs and the AMTs … And I thought that was great. I took pictures, then I walk out and they split into two groups [of Arabic and English] … That’s not quite what I meant … so I didn’t know how to bring them together better,” Sanchez said.
Smith used the teaching system itself to navigate around cultural and language barriers. Rather than using the ADEC curriculum in class, the Mubarak school sends it home for homework. By eschewing the ADEC workbooks, the school encourages Arabic and English teachers to choose their school books together. They can then look at the same high-frequency words so that students’ vocabulary advances at a similar pace in both languages.
“From that I see a lot of co-teaching going on: Once a week they’ll come together, the English and Arabic [teachers], in a bigger room. They’ll take their 25 kids and 25 kids and have 50 … and they’ll co-teach a lesson,” said Sanchez.
“It’s really exciting … It’s making the weaker teachers become stronger teachers because they want to do well in front of their peers, so for a lot of reasons it’s making everybody stronger,” she continued.
The Gazelle also took a tour of the school grounds and met with a British student teacher who, as a native English speaker, noted the students’ lack of foundational skills in phonics.
As Sanchez elaborated, “The part that’s been missing is the phonics — before, they would have the teacher recite the word but have no link between the word and the sound … They could just say ‘that’s an s’ … they’re still struggling at second grade with it. They shouldn’t be! They should know … that this is not just an s, but it has sounds to it.”
Mubarak bin Mohamed is deliberately designed to be a community space; it has integrated students from the New England School for Autism and expects the local community to share in its resources. There are large doors that can split off student spaces from community spaces; Sanchez explained that currently, a local theater company uses the auditorium for three days per week.
The large gymnasium is shared with other schools and has been recently revamped to include air-conditioning, more lights, better toilets and better changing areas. There is also a new pool, but co-educational swimming is prohibited — girls swim at this school, along with females from five other schools, and boys go elsewhere. All P.E classes, in fact, are still gender-segregated, although Sanchez explained that Mubarak school now has a partially integrated curriculum along with male teachers, a novel concept for most public schools in the UAE.
Tessa Ayson is features editor. Email her at
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