Abu Dhabi: The UAE federal government understands full well the benefits of empowering its citizens with knowledge and has made education a top priority, with an allocated budget of Dh7.4 billion for 2009, an increase of 23 per cent from previous years.

Despite the economic crisis, various wars and political problems across the world, a country will always have an advantage if it prioritises education, explains Education Minister Dr Hanif Hassan.

The Ministry of Education has introduced a new curriculum that marries the best that the world has to offer with the country's ethical, cultural and moral beliefs - what the minister calls "the cornerstone of the UAE's development."

To maximise its resources and ensure that money can be spent where it has the biggest chance of improving educational standards, the ministry has cut its staff by 50 per cent over the last two to three years. Certain teachers, school principals and officials were transferred to more suitable positions.

In an exclusive interview with Dr Hassan, Gulf News learns more about the ministry's plans for the country's education system.

Gulf News: What system is the ministry currently following in terms of curriculum?

Dr Hanif Hassan: We are following a new advanced international system that coincides with our country's identity and culture.

What do you wish to achieve through the curriculum?

I encourage students to benefit from the new school system: work hard, come to school well prepared, gain the skills and abilities they need to compete in a global environment and transition smoothly into university life and go on to achieve leadership positions.

With our improved curriculum, students in public schools should not require remedial courses.

What is the ministry's biggest challenge and how do you plan to overcome it?

Our biggest challenge is to increase the professionalism and performance of the employees in the ministry and in education as a whole. We are doing this through professional development and training programs and by applying best international educational practices.

Kindly name a few obstacles faced by the ministry at the moment?

I don't call them obstacles but challenges, since they involve developing the education system and raising society's expectations of us.

The UAE has made great strides in this area. Our education reform plan coincides with the development of our nation and new century technologies that will definitely have a positive impact on the younger generation.

How do you plan to improve education in the short and long term?

In the short term, we are working hard to enable students to emerge from high school and enter universities without the necessity of first taking a bridging course or a remedial program.

In the long term, we plan to raise the level of the entire educational system, develop and recruit more highly qualified teachers, apply the latest technologies in our schools and enable our students to be more competitive in the workforce.

I heard that the ministry was phasing out night schools, is that the case?

Night schools were originally introduced to cater for more mature students who weren't fortunate enough to receive an education earlier in their lives and wanted to take extra courses to increase their knowledge and skills.

Then, five to six years ago, a number of expatriate students were banned from morning schools and had nowhere to go. We then made evening classes available to them in which the curriculum was exactly the same as in morning classes.

However, two years ago the education Cabinet allowed those students to enroll in morning schools, so we are phasing out the idea of an evening school. It's simply not healthy for young students.

What's your opinion on home-schooling?

As long as these students are following an accredited school certification course I have no issues with home-schooling, even though I do believe a school environment is healthier for a child, since they engage more with other children and have the option to participate in group activities of their choice - such as in art, music and sports.

The ministry is more focused on public schools and is somewhat ignoring private schools, why is that?

Private schools are accountable for anything they do and are the ministry's partners in providing quality education.

However, if a private school decides to increase its fees, it should consult the ministry first.

Many parents have complained about increases in school fees at private schools. What is the ministry doing about that?

School fees are affected by the inflation rate but as i mentioned earlier, the ministry must approve any increase in fees.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council and the zones are also ready to take up any complaints or address any concerns that families or parents may have. We have allocated these two bodies to handle such issues.

The Teachers of the 21st Century is a huge project for the ministry. Do you have a timeline for the project and what do you hope to achieve?

The Dh200 million project will take five years to realise and involves 10,000 teachers from the northern emirates. The goal of the project - which is the first of its kind in the Middle East - is to provide teachers with the highest educational qualifications, which in turn will result in improved teaching and better students.

The Madares Al Ghad (MAG) schools are considered model schools that are helping to revolutionise education and enable students to make the transition to university life easily. How do you think MAG schools will help to achieve the ministry's ambitions, goals and strategies?

MAG schools are the best example of quality education in the UAE. They target students from KG1-12 and offer advanced curriculums and programs.

We are very keen on providing an advanced educational environment that enables students to be bilingual, think critically, solve problems, conduct research, benefit from modern learning resources, apply the latest technologies and transition smoothly to university life.

This development will reduce the amount of money that the country currently spends on providing foundation courses in our universities.

Profile: Notable achievements

  • Dr Hanif Hassan has been working in the education sector for the past 10 years and his achievements were recognised when he became UAE Minister of Education on February 1, 2006.

Some of Dr Hassan's notable achievements as minister include:

  • Enacting a strategy for education reform in line with the UAE federal government's policies
  • Opening the Madares Al Ghad (MAG) schools
  • Introducing a new national curriculum
  • Putting in place professional development programs to improve the skills of the nation's teachers
  • Instituting additional training programmes for teachers and principals

What does the minister do on a daily basis in the course of fulfilling his official duties?

  • I regularly visit schools and encourage students to develop their skills, knowledge, cultural awareness and creativity.
  • I strongly believe that a visible presence in the educational field gives students confidence and encourages them to redouble their efforts. That's a national duty and also in keeping with my responsibilities as a father and an official.