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Ras Al Khaimah | Natasha Ridge | Al Qasimi Foundation | Education

Educator Makes Great Strides in RAK

Melanie Swan, The National
January 25, 2015

After arriving in the Ras Al Khaimah in 2001, Natasha Ridge did not imagine she would still be there 12 years later.

As head of English at the RAK English Speaking School, the teacher has come a long way since, becoming a regional expert on the UAE education system.

The passionate Australian, who arrived in the country at the age of 28, now holds a doctorate in education, and has made educating the young generation her mission.

Her interest in the region began at the age of 12 while doing a project on ancient Egypt. It led her to study Arabic and modern Islamic thought as part of her undergraduate degree in economics.

“I liked that RAK felt like the Middle East,” she said. “I felt I was living in a very authentic and exciting place. It wasn’t very developed at that stage, and it was a very simple kind of life.

“The people were so friendly and hospitable, so you felt like you belonged there. You’d be invited to people’s homes and weddings.

“I realised how lucky I was to have the opportunity that many people don’t have.”

The timing of her arrival was significant.

“It was a time when Sheikh Saud [bin Saqr Al Qasimi, then Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of RAK] was trying to help develop English among Emirati students to allow them better opportunity to study overseas,” she said.

“Sheikh Saud owned the school and was trying to encourage more Emiratis to attend so they had access and take advantage of Western style education in RAK.”

Meanwhile, she was also studying for her master’s degree and deepening her interest in education.

“I became very interested in the idea that western literature talked a lot about problems with the girls in the Middle East, but my own experiences showed the girls were doing very well and it was the boys who were struggling,” she said.

“I wanted to do further studies on the alleged under-achievement of Arab girls and over-achieving Arab boys as I couldn’t see that.”

She applied to Columbia University in New York and, with the support of the RAK government, secured funding which allowed her to investigate the quality of education for boys and girls in secondary schools within the segregated, government education system.

Her love of RAK left her in no doubt she would return there after her PhD was complete.

She set up the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation with Sheikh Saqr, the Ruler of RAK at the time, and spent two and a half years as acting director of the Dubai School of Government. She went back to RAK full-time in 2011.

“Sheik Saqr was very happy I decided to study RAK for my PhD dissertation,” she said.

“For countries that don’t receive aid, it’s very hard to get reports done on your country, so you usually have to pay a lot of money to get that done.”

The organisation launched a scholars programme in 2009 for PhD students, and one of the conditions is that academics must do a portion of their research in RAK and the UAE to ensure money is invested back into the emirate, producing up-to-date, quality research.

At least one student has gone through the programme each year, in addition to visiting scholars from abroad.

“We wanted to attract good academics but also develop local talent,” she said, so that became a part of the organisation’s mission, starting with improving the schools.

She set up the RAK Teachers Network, an online portal where teachers could share problems and solutions. It did not take long for Dr. Ridge to notice that teachers were not technology savvy, which in turn impacted their access to resources and use of technology in the classroom.

As a result, the foundation began to offer continuing education for teachers. There are now nine courses including leadership and instructional design, with more than 600 teachers having taken part since 2005.

In 2008, the foundation formed the Gulf Comparative Education Society, which holds annual conferences from RAK to Bahrain and Oman.

“It allows us to have a community of academics who don’t always have to look outwards for experts and consultants and gives us a community who have a body of expertise and make meaningful contributions to the development of policy in the region,” she said.