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Why Are UAE Boys Dropping Out of School?

Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Gulf News
August 11, 2013

Even as the UAE puts impressive and effective measures in place in education to take its knowledge-based economy to higher levels, there is an occurrence that seems to be slowing down the pace—UAE males at the senior secondary level choosing to drop out from school.

The basic issue of students dropping out of school is a worldwide phenomenon. In every country, it occurs due to various socio-cultural and economic factors and has an adverse impact.

“The purpose of our study is to produce local evidence-based research that can be used by educators and policymakers who choose to address the issue,” Samar Farah said.

Dropouts are defined as students who have left school for disciplinary reasons, poor academic performance, exceeding number of absences, exceeding acceptable levels of retention, disengagement and lack of motivation and other individual reasons.

The reasons for this dropout phenomenon are similar all over the world — poor socioeconomic status, family issues, unpleasant school experiences that result in low self-esteem and underperformance.

According to the Ras Al Khaimah-based Shaikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, in the UAE, previous to their study, there was only one study that has closely examined dropout patterns and this was conducted by Dr Zureik in 2005. It examined 416 students from seven boys’ and seven girls’ schools in the emirate of Sharjah. Zureik (2005) found that close to 35 per cent of males dropped out between grades 10 and 12 compared to 25 per cent of females.

It said that boys sometimes dropped out of school due to family circumstances related to the father being ill or absent, which forced them to turn providers for the family. For girls, marriage was found to be the main reason to leave school early.

Until now, there had been no systematic study on this subject and therefore, this study is important as it consolidates vital facts on this trend and also points out remedial measures.

Headed by Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Shaikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, the study was assisted by research associates Samar Farah and Soha Shami.

Farah, the non-resident research associate from the foundation who collaborated on this research, spoke to Gulf News Education about the intent, scope and purpose of the study.

Over what period was the study conducted and in what regions of UAE?

It is difficult to quantify the amount of time spent working on it as we did not keep track of the number of hours we put into it. It was the main project of both the project investigator and research associate over an year and a half. In addition, three research assistants supported us with the data collection and data entry. While we did not notice any statistically significant differences between men who resided in urban versus rural areas, it is worth noting that the dropout rates were significantly higher in the NorthernEmirates as compared to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

These inter-Emirate differences in the incidence of dropout may indicate differences in the quality of schools as well as socioeconomic conditions, all of which may influence the decisions of boys regarding their futures.

What was the rationale for this study?

This study is a further exploration of the dissertation research of Dr. Natasha Ridge, the lead author of the study, who was comparing the quality of public secondary schools in the UAE. In her earlier research, Dr. Ridge observed that there was a higher dropout rate among boys than girls and that the quality of boys’ schools was overall significantly worse than that of girls.

This led to an interest in conducting a more in-depth study to understand why some boys drop out of school. Also, as there was very little research conducted on this topic. We felt that this study could provide a better understanding of what actually happens on the ground, rather than attribute it to common notions of “boys drop out because they can easily join the policy or army.”

Does this study offer a remedial recourse to turn around this pattern among UAE males or it is a purely academic exercise?

The purpose of research that we conduct at the Al Qasimi Foundation is twofold. The first is to contribute to academic research in the UAE, particularly on issues that are not well understood or researched, and the second is to make the research accessible in order to help in guiding policymaking on these issues. As we find in the study, although dropping out of secondary school is a global phenomenon the reasons vary depending on the context. Therefore, the purpose of our study is to produce local evidence-based research that can be used by educators and policymakers who choose to address the issue.

What do the reasons for dropout indicate?

Overall, research shows that regardless of where in the world a student drops out, there are a range of (family, school, and/or individual) factors that influence that decision rather than there being just one cause. The statement above is based on our literature review and is not reflective of our findings. In fact, we found that in high-income countries such as the Gulf, the findings were more similar to those in the West. Moreover, more recent research from the UK has found that although school factors are the main contributors to school dropout, family factors can be just as important in determining a student’s decision to drop out of school.

In the UAE, based on one earlier study conducted by Dr. Zureik, it has been established that the dropout rate among secondary school males is about 35 per cent. Since it was deduced from a relatively small sample group, is this a reliable assessment? Also, how does a high rate of dropout among males affect a country’s overall performance?

Measuring dropout rates is a difficult task, one that cannot be easily compared across contexts unless it is measured in the same way. While Zureik found the rate to be 35%, other researchers have found it to be somewhat lower in other Emirates and school grades.

Regardless of the exact number, what all the research points to is that there is definitely a high dropout rate in the UAE that is no doubt having some impact the country’s effort to develop a knowledge economy.

At the moment, only approximately 30 percent of students attending higher education are males and since the labour market participation among Emirati women is still relatively low, the majority of the responsibility for the provision for families falls on the shoulders of the males. Therefore, it is important that the country invests in them by improving the quality of their schools and promoting higher education to help them in developing the knowledge, skills, and competencies that are required to succeed in a knowledge economy.

One of the issues about the research seems the sample size of the non-drop-outs (347) vs. the sample size of the drop outs (149). Does the percentage findings on such sample sizes reflect the occurrence across the country?

No research in the social sciences can be conducted without limitations. Unfortunately, due to the difficulty of tracking down dropouts, a problem researchers face across the world, it was not possible for us to achieve the sample size that we had originally hoped to have. This was made more difficult by the relative hesitation and reluctance of individuals to participate in or support research in the region, particularly when on a sensitive topic such as dropping out of school.

However, despite these limitations, the size of both samples is large enough to produce statistically valid and robust conclusions that are authentic. It would not be possible, however, to make any generalisations about the occurrence of the phenomenon across the country as the dropout sample was restricted to two Emirates (Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah). It can be reasonably assumed, based on Ministry of Education data and other studies that the highest dropout rates in the country would be in the Northern Emirates, while the lowest would be in Abu Dhabi.

Has this study been widely publicised to help understand the dropout phenomenon in UAE government schools?

The findings of the study have been presented in a number of meetings with local education authorities and stakeholders as well as at regional and international conferences, including the Gulf Comparative Education Society conference in Sultan Qaboos University in Oman and the Comparative and International Education Society Conference in Puerto Rico last year. We have also made the publication available both in English and Arabic to make it accessible to as many people as possible in the region and beyond.

Fact Box
Conclusions of the study

1. The study finds out that the reasons for dropping out of school in the UAE are consistent with similar studies conducted in the rest of the world.

2. Students of low socioeconomic background are more likely to drop out of school than those of wealthier families.

3. Students whose fathers were not working were at a greater risk of dropping out of school that those whose fathers had a job.

4. The size of the family seemed to be related to the decision of a student to drop out. One explanation could be that larger families are likely to be less financially stable and on an emotional level in larger families each sibling gets less personal attention, support and academic supervision

5. Students who had repeated a grade and were not engaged in school activities were more likely to drop out than those involved with school activities

6. Good teachers had a direct impact on a student’s decision to stay in school, while those who had dropped out never forgot their bad and abusive teachers.

7. Parents played a major role in facilitating a students decision to continue with secondary education. Mother’s education level had a positive impact on a child indicating an inter generational transmission of educational attainment effect.

8. Parental involvement in the students education was also vital with the dropouts having little parental involvement in their education. In rural areas, there were accounts of parents not even knowing the name of the school their child was enrolled in. This indicated that schools and communities needed to invest in relationships with families and make parents feel more accepted at the school. That could have a positive impact in improving the attendance of the student at school and also in their achievements in results.


The study made a two-part recommendation to address the issues at school and at home that demotivate a student and result in a high dropout rate.

At home

1. Encourage greater parent involvement in the child’s education. This could take the form of programmes that provide parents with information about the activities taking place at school and have more frequent parent-teacher contact. Have literacy courses for parents, a dedicated parent’s lounge at school, courses for parents on how to help their children succeed at school even when they are not well educated.

2. Help fathers to maintain employment of some sort until at least the age of 60 to set a positive example for their children. Incentive could include running courses in setting up a business and building entrepreneurial skills.

3. Provide financial literacy courses for parents to build up on stable savings base for the family and mitigate the low socioeconomic factors through better financial management.

4. Offer support for children from single parent or multiple mother household in the form of a social worker follow-up from schools, financial supplements for good grades, or assistance for attending special courses/counselling related to resolving family conflicts.

At school

1. Improve teacher quality through:

a. More rigorous entry requirements for teacher education programmes for national teachers

b. More stringent recruiting requirements for expatriate teachers, including mandatory introductory courses in pedagogy and classroom management before starting work in government schools.

c. Minimum competency standards for subject teachers to be maintained. For instance, a minimum of 550 TOEFL for English language teachers.

d. Regular high standard for professional development for all teachers.

e. A mandatory probation period of two years for all new teachers during which they are observed, assessed by independent inspectors before they are granted a permanent status.

f. Five reviews of all teachers based on a combination of observations and feedback from students, colleagues, principals and parents.

2. Provide support for weaker students in the form of extra classes at school, homework help or bringing in specialised teachers

3. Track students’ grades and attendance records and follow up on students as soon as they have four or more absences in a semester or if they have poor examination results. Related to that would be using student records to target young, at-risk males for early intervention programmes.

4 areas of concern and what respondents said:

1: Parental education and support: A lack of the same can have a huge effect on the child. According to most of the respondents, the low levels of their parents' education combined with their low expectations for their children were important determinants in the level of their academic achievement and engagement at school.

“[My parents] weren’t upset when I dropped out because they were illiterate themselves.”

2: Student-teacher relations: The interviewees all agreed that student-teacher relations were one of the most critical factors, within the school domain, that determined young men’s decisions to drop out of school. With the exception of a few ... almost all of the men described having extremely bad experiences with their teachers, and in some cases principals and social workers as well. They mentioned that the teachers offered no support to students who were visibly struggling with their school work, they favoured those who were faring well academically and often resorted to humiliating weak students publicly.

“I actually liked all subjects, but it was the teachers who would make me hate certain subjects and push me to skip classes, especially when the teacher would continually pick on you and blame you for everything that went wrong ...”

3) Self esteem and disengagement: In addition to all of the visible negative school factors such as low achievement rates, retention, misbehaviour, skipping classes and bad relations with teachers that over time, pushed the students out of school, there were a number of other factors that they argued played a role. These included the students’ self esteem and confidence, resulting in disengagement from school.

“if I could go back in time, I would advise teachers who ridiculed students in front of the class when they would ask a question ...{I would} tell these teachers that this is wrong and that they are lowering the student’s self esteem.”

4) Peer influences and social behaviour: Bullying, negative behaviour of classmates and most importantly, getting involved with the wrong type of friends plays a big part in pushing a child to become a dropout.

5) The dropout experience:

"If I could go back in time, I would change my relationship with my family and friends. I would make sure to pass my courses.”