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Girls Far Outperform Boys in Reading and Science Tests

Afshan Ahmed, The National
February 23, 2012

An international test that included 369 UAE schools has highlighted an alarming gender gap among the nation’s pupils – one that is among the biggest in the world.

Girls vastly outperformed UAE boys in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which is coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and in which 11,000 pupils in the Emirates participated.

The study found that nearly twice as many 15-year-old boys as girls in the UAE have poor reading skills, one of the highest gaps of the dozens of countries participating in the assessment.

In scientific literacy, UAE girls outscored the boys by 31 points (on a scale where the average score is calculated to be around 500). That gave the UAE, along with Malta and Jordan, one of the largest gender gaps, in all cases favouring the girls. The problem was particularly pronounced in government schools, which have traditionally been divided into boys’ and girls’ campuses.

The gender gap was less pronounced in the maths portion of the assessment, where the UAE girls were a mere six points ahead of the boys.

Overall, the results, announced yesterday by the Ministry of Education, place UAE pupils’ reading skills at 47th out of 74 participating territories.

“For a country that has participated for the first time, we have managed to achieve very good results,” said Mona Rashid Al Ghufly, the UAE Pisa project manager. “In fact, we have performed much better than all the other Arab countries.”

Tunisia, Jordan and Qatar were the other countries that participated from the Mena region.

The OECD average in reading was 493 points. The UAE scored a 431-point average.

Pupils in the Emirates were found to have skills similar to peers in Mexico, Bulgaria, Romania and Uruguay.

In science, UAE pupils received an average score of 438 points, and they achieved 421 on the maths literacy scale.

Alan Egbert, the Middle East manager for the Australian Council for Educational Research, which put together the report for the UAE, said boys’ achievements had been consistently low in all national and international assessments.

“A gender gap is evident in all countries but it is much more pronounced in the UAE,” he said.

Humaid Mohammed Obaid Al Qattami, Minister of Education, said the results of the study would be discussed with the schools and education zones for appropriate action.

“This allows us to assess what progress our education system has made and where improvement needs to occur.”

Mr Egbert said the ministry was looking to implement reforms adopted by high-ranking areas, such as Shanghai. “Shanghai places remedial teachers in schools who specifically work with the low-achieving pupils and it has worked.”

The report also found a strong correlation between socio-economic background and pupils’ reading skills.

In the UAE, “advantaged” children were 16 per cent more likely than the disadvantaged to report positive reading habits. Researchers said a one-point difference on a seven-pint scale of economic, social and cultural status at a school level was the equivalent of 78 score points in the reading performance of children in the UAE.

Natasha Ridge, the Executive Director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said a new study to be published by the foundation in coming months also found a strong parental link to children’s interest in education and their skills.

“We found that the more educated the father was, the more engaged the boys were,” she said. “Children of uneducated parents were more likely to repeat school years.”

Ms Ridge said socio-economic factors could be overcome by improving school resources and engaging the parents.

The Ministry of Education has also started working on initiatives to improve reading habits among children, including a recent partnership with the British Council.

Jancis McGrady, English project manager at the council, said the Kids Read programme in six schools encourages teachers and pupils to read more by hosting reading sessions and providing books.

“Children who read do better in school and we want to instil that love for reading at a young age,” she said. “We also hold workshops for parents to teach them effective ways of reading to their children.”

Ghassan Jarara, an English supervisor at the Sharjah Education Zone, said schools needed to commit more time to leisure reading.

“There isn’t a concept of supplementary reading in schools,” he said. “A child is only studying the textbook with no additional drive to seek more information and read.

“They don’t have enough library hours and can only visit it during lunchtime, which they won’t do.”