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Emirati Boys Face "Cultural border" at College

Melanie Swan, The National
June 24, 2012

Emirati schoolboys face a "cultural border crossing" before they are ready for the challenge of being taught in English at college, a leading academic has warned.

"There is that sense of disengagement," said Peter Hatherley-Green, who has taught at federal colleges since 1995.

"Students have to feel socially integrated before they can feel academically integrated. In too many colleges, this is done the wrong way round. Making them emotionally and culturally comfortable must come before you start teaching them."

Mr. Hatherley-Green blamed the problem on low standards of English teaching in schools and a lack of parental involvement in their children's education.

About 40 percent of students drop out of college in the first months of their foundation year - a year spent learning English sufficiently to take college-level classes - usually because of difficulties with the course work or job offers from the military or police, who recruit after the academic year begins. Many boys skip straight to the workforce.

Dr. Christina Gitsaki, head of remedial programmes at the federal Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), which has 17 campuses, said the boys were in classes with about 20 other Emiratis, which should make them comfortable.

"Most students when they enter college are very happy," she said. "Drop-outs have much more to do with the fact that if they are not succeeding, they know they can earn a lot of money in the army or police."

Dr. Dave Pelham, outgoing director at the Fujairah HCT colleges, said one way to overcome this challenge was to pay students using sponsorships, which has proven successful at other colleges.

"This way they are not weighing Dh20,000 or Dh30,000 to go into the military against no income for five or six years to study at HCT. Unfortunately, we have had limited success in securing these sponsorships in Fujairah."

He said sponsors were unwilling to support students until they committed to a particular field of study.

About 90 per cent of all Emirati students must take remedial classes for up to two years to bring their English skills up.

"This is due to the poorly trained expatriate Arabic teachers of English in schools," said Mr. Hatherley-Green, who is writing his PhD with Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. "They rely on traditional methods of instruction like rote learning and teaching to the test."

In 2009, Dr. Natasha Ridge, now head of research at Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, published a paper about the low number of Emirati boys in college. They make up only 30 percent of the student body.

"The English language is a big issue," she said. "A lot more needs to be done in terms of recruitment and the mentoring system when expatriate teachers are brought here. At the same time there needs to be a raising of standards of the teachers being trained at the federal institutions."

Mr. Hatherley-Green said the influence of foreign housemaids and a lack of pre-school education were factors that delayed student development. Dr. Ridge, however, said there was no hard evidence to support the long-term effects of a pre-school education.

Mr. Hatherley-Green identified a lack of parental input and guidance in interviews with teachers and school heads, who told him parents were often not present at special school evenings. Mothers would not come alone, fathers often worked in another emirate and if anyone at all attended it might be an older brother. Dr. Ridge said that because many parents were not well educated, they might not see the need for participation in their children's education.

"We need to help them to understand the school system better so they can become more involved. Maybe they themselves had a negative school experience or are simply intimidated."

These negative school experiences, said Mr. Hatherley-Green, influence the attitude of students entering college.

"They suffered at high school so for the first four or five weeks of college they're waiting for something better to come along. They don't want to be there.

"The boys need to be offered more pathways after high school, like vocational education, Arabic language education. Not everyone needs to have a bachelor's degree."