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There are Many Reasons Why Boys Drop Out of School in the UAE

Ayesha Almazroui, The National
March 31, 2014

On International Women’s Day last month, I had a conversation with a friend who works at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). She said to me that when it comes to education, “you know what? We don’t have to worry about women. We need to worry about boys.”

In education, Emirati females surpass their male counterparts in both attendance and performance.

In schools, girls outperform boys at all education levels across the majority of subjects. They do better in standardised tests, such as CEPA, and in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

In higher education, women make up 71 per cent of graduates of government universities.

Women are even bucking the trend when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or Stem subjects), traditionally male-dominated fields.

According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study, more than half of the UAE’s federal university graduates in Stem subjects are women.

But what is it about females that makes them more academically successful than males?

One could argue that this is a global phenomenon. Girls do better in education systems in many countries around the world. Are the issues in the UAE consistent with that trend or is it something that is unique to this country?

The same study found that female students usually view education as more than a means to make money and regard it as an important part of their development.

A graduate from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Nada Al Meqbali, told the National that “women want to compete and prove we can do what men can, that we can be at the same level or better, and this is what’s happening.”

Women have taken advantage of the opportunities for social and economic mobility offered to them as the country has developed. But the situation with boys is notably different.

Numbers also show that many young men are opting out of schools and universities – although it is not entirely clear why.

Across the UAE, boys are dropping out of secondary school at rates of up to 20 per cent in a single year, much higher than the female dropout rate, according to KHDA. In Dubai, although the dropout rate is the lowest regionally, the rate for male nationals is more than twice as high as dropout rates in the West.

A 2013 study by the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Foundation for Policy Research found that the causes of secondary school dropout are similar to those in countries across the world, and include low socio-economic backgrounds, poorly educated parents and below-par teaching. There are also certain characteristics that add to the problem in the Gulf region.

Researchers say that this is the impact of the rentier state, a term associated with this region’s resource-rich nations.

A study by Dubai School of Government in 2011 on the low percentage of men in higher education also suggests that “evidence from the UAE is consistent with the opinion that males view connections in pursuit of employment opportunities as more potent in achieving social and economic mobility than attainment.”

Traditionally, our culture places higher expectations and more pressure on young females when it comes to success and achievement. We have an old saying in the Gulf that says “al rayyal ma ya’eeba shay” or “the man is never at a disadvantage.”

In many cases, the failure of boys is often more tolerated than by girls.

Female students are often described by educators as “more dedicated” and “have more willingness to learn” than their male counterparts. And this creates some sort of an “intellectual gap” between the two genders.

The quality of education in public schools must also be considered.

Another 2011 study by KHDA links the high percentage of male dropouts with the low quality of education in UAE schools.

The report, Addressing the Early School Leaving Challenge, reveals that students fade out because “the current structure and ethos in UAE public schools does not satisfactorily challenge students with a rigorous and engaging curriculum that is relevant to their everyday lives”, which leads to the lack of desire to learn and eventually detachment from schools.

Reforming the education system is required, but cultural change is also vital.

The fact that dropouts face much tougher job prospects than previous generations could definitely change attitudes. So too does the recent military service law requiring dropouts to do two years of training, compared to nine months for those who complete secondary school.

But as my friend reminded me, we need to start by worrying about the issue in order to make substantial changes.