Video Credit: Sonia Shah

Even in a nation where change is the norm, the revolution that has taken place in its education sector is nothing short of astounding.

Once home to ramshackle sheds and homely villas that served as classrooms, the UAE now has the world’s largest concentration of international curricula schools, many with large and sprawling campuses. Far removed from the former reality of walking for hours to reach their classrooms, school students now fly out regularly on international study trips.

Ramshackle sheds and homely villas served as classrooms in the past. Image Credit: GN Archives

Today, this small country has become a hub for higher education with close to 100 accredited universities and institutions, eight of which currently rank among the world’s top-performing institutions. Alongside this, literacy rates, technical-vocational training, and the percentage of women in education have steadily risen.

The UAE’s commendable progress in establishing a world-class system across primary, secondary and tertiary levels continues to attract global applause. Narratives from the past and definitive action for the future help connect some of the dots in the vast expanse of its education sector.

Glimpses into the past

The UAE Ministry of Education has documented the schools of the Trucial States era: Taimia Mahmoudia and Al Qassemia Reformation in Sharjah, Al Otaiba in Abu Dhabi, and Salmia, Alsada, Al Falah and Al Ahmadiya in Dubai. In the mid-1960s, they say, there were less than 20 schools with a collective annual enrolment of approximately 4,000, mostly male students.

Al Ahmadiya School was the first national school in the Emirate of Dubai. Image Credit: GN Archives

In 1964, Abdullah Ahmad Al Ghurair, then a young and upcoming businessman and now Chairman of Mashreq, was deeply moved on a visit to his farm in Masafi when he realised local children had no access to schooling. He promptly opened a small school in the mountain town – it was the first private, co-ed, and rural school in the country. He later funded more schools in the still independent emirates of the time.

My father was always attached to education and he felt that through education, we can transform our region.

- Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, CEO of Mashreq

In 1968, he was closely associated with the funding and founding of the Pakistan Education Academy (PEA) in Dubai, attending the inauguration of its new school building in 1988 alongside Pakistan’s president, the late General Zia-ul-Haq.

“My father was always attached to education and he felt that through education, we can transform our region,” explains his son, Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, CEO of Mashreq.

“He never talked about it, and I did not know until a few years ago that he had built four schools, which he later handed over to the government to become state schools. The one in Rashidiya is still ranked among the top five state schools in Dubai by quality of outcome, and it is a model school.”

Abdullah Ahmad Al Ghurair and Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair at the the UAE’s first private school in Masafi. Image Credit: Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education

Already renowned for his philanthropic role in promoting education, in 2015, the chairman of the oldest private bank in the UAE donated a third of his personal wealth, about $1.1 billion (Dh 4 billion), to create one of the world’s largest privately-funded education initiatives. The goal of the eponymous Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) is to provide free university education for 15,000 disadvantaged students in the Arab world over a 10-year period.

His son now explains that the real aim of the AGFE is not just to produce graduates, but to build a generation of future leaders. As Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, who chairs AGFE’s board of trustees, puts it: “These students should be able to return home after their studies and give back to their own communities.”

Educators in the UAE

Saeed Basweidan, CEO of Abu-Dhabi based Ajyal Talent and Chairman of Dubai-based Arabee Learning, is an admirable example of a student educated in the UAE who is now helping shape the future of its education sector.

“I was lucky enough to do my early schooling in Dubai, secondary schooling in Sharjah, a double graduation from the US, and now, I am pursuing a master’s degree in an international institution based in Dubai,” says the Emirati engineer, whose dual professional roles in education lends him unique perspective.

“In my own time, there were hot and noisy classrooms, and teachers who took us outside for lessons when the air-conditioners broke down. Many schools at that time followed the Kuwaiti curriculum.

“What a far cry it is today, when our focus is on technology, applied sciences, technical and mechanical studies and schools that specialise in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics),” says Basweidan.

Manuela Chaaya, Deputy Principal – Primary at Dubai International Academy, recounts memories from the time when her Lebanese-Italian family arrived in the UAE, and she was a toddler. “In the 1970s, I did my early schooling at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Dubai, and later moved to The International School of Choueifat — Sharjah, which at that time was just old barracks converted to classrooms. The drive to school was very long, textbooks were always in short supply, and classes were dismissed for days whenever we had rain. But we formed very strong bonds then; everyone knew the value of relationships. And children were more resilient.

“As the mother of four adult children, and as an educator for over 25 years, I have to lavish praise on the tremendous progress we have made in the last few decades. When I look at the advanced technology that today’s students are familiar with, I still remember my first school trip to a computer lab, where what we really learnt was how to use the on-off button.”

Dubai English Speaking School (Dess) was started by three families and some volunteers in 1964. Image Credit: Supplied

Vision for the future

Growth in the UAE’s education sector can be attributed to a combination of factors: the far-reaching vision of its rulers, philanthropic gestures from individuals and institutions, strategies and actions of government authorities, and steadfast commitment and continuity from stakeholders.

The Al Ahmadiya School now serves as a microcosm of this nexus. The first national school in the emirate of Dubai was founded in 1912 by a pearl merchant, Shaikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk. A front-runner in the field, the school attracted several scientists and scholars from the Arab world as teachers and educated several hundred students, among them rulers and ministers.

In 1994, the Government of Dubai transformed it into a historical museum, which offers us an opportunity to understand the successful model of cooperation, communication and collaboration between generous merchants, local governments, and early educators.

Around us other living examples such as Dubai English Speaking School (Dess) which was started by three families and some volunteers in 1964, with a first enrolment of 10 pupils in a small villa. The prestigious St. Mary’s was established in 1968 as a little classroom, with 30 students and a handful of teachers, on land granted by former Dubai ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Al Ain’s United Arab Emirates University, which was founded in 1976 by the first president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is the oldest university in the country and one of the finest in the Arabian-African region.

The main campus of UAE University, the first university in the country in Al Ain. Image Credit: GN Archives

Chaaya stresses that student welfare, psychological assessments and assistance, and the holistic development of children are vital as we move forward.

Basweidan advocates preparing for the future. “At Ajyal, for instance, we use a new language, the language of coding. This language of the future has artificial intelligence, robotics and algorithms at its core. Our focus is also on early starts – we are concentrating on 7 to 14-year-old students under the remit of various government bodies.”

Meanwhile at Arabee, Basweidan is busy promoting easier learning for students, better resources for teachers, and greater cooperation between schools and authorities, through the company’s interactive Arabic language learning platform.

Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair champions another focus area when he says the alliance that AGFE has formed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will bring a sea change to learning. “We have partnered with MIT to open internet learning in the region, when half the study will be done here and the other half on campus in Boston.

“Our government has responded positively to open learning. We brought together MIT professionals and the UAE’s ministers to see what it will take for local universities to adapt open learning. This will revolutionise the way our students can access high-quality learning.”

The AGFE’s outlook on the future is focused on enhancing college and career readiness of Emirati and Arab youth. By harnessing the latest innovation in education, career guidance and technology, the foundation aims to forge partnerships and develop solutions to contribute to this outcome.

AGFE partnerships

The foundation’s first foray in integrating technology with education was through the Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Programme. Through this programme, the AGFE in collaboration with Arizona State University, offers scholarships for online study for 29 different specialisations, spanning the fields of future including engineering, technology, health and education. More recently, the AGFE launched the Al Ghurair Young Thinkers Programme in the UAE to empower youth between 15 and 25 years old to make successful transitions from school to university and from university to the job market.

The technology-based programme offers free online courses, access to success advisers and an application that provides awareness about the jobs and industries of the future and helps young Emiratis develop the skills required by top employers. The programme was launched in the UAE in October in partnership with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation.

Everyone urges more active participation from the private sector, alongside greater enthusiasm from students, and unstinting support from parents.

As the visionary Al Ghurair says, “We cannot teach everybody. We will pick up those who are committed, those who want to put in extra hours, in the afternoon or in the summer break. We need sterling students who say they are ready to upscale, and we need parents who offer them support.”