Ras Al Khaimah - Arabstoday
Better teachers and opportunities for its people are necessary for the emirate to develop, according to its Ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr.
He said expansion in areas such as industry and tourism depends on education becoming a top priority and will be the foundation for growth.
"The hope for countries lies in their ability to educate their future generation," said Sheikh Saud. "The wealth of nations lies in their human capital. If we are to remain prosperous and be at the forefront of the league of nations, we have to arm ourselves by empowering our people with knowledge.
"This ranks number one for me - to make sure our experiment in education really is great, to learn from it and move to another territory."
At the heart of this is the work of the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research. The facts uncovered by its researchers, said Sheikh Saud, were the only way to tackle the challenges facing education. "Education reform really starts with the teacher," said the Ruler. "If we improve the quality of the teacher, we improve the outcome of our education. This can be done in measured steps, with quantifiable results.
"My dream is to improve the quality of teachers. We need to improve our capacity, which is much longer term. We need long-term mentoring and monitoring of teachers. Our country depends on them."
The foundation has been working with the RAK Education Zone to assess English language teachers in the emirate's government schools, addressing any skills gaps it finds.
"Before any interventions can be made, rigorous research should be conducted," said Natasha Ridge, the head of research at the foundation. "Research is one of the key components of the foundation's work."
The foundation is also conducting a nationwide study to help understand why so few Emirati males stay in higher education.
A vital part of the education strategy is investment, including support for private universities such as the American University of Ras Al Khaimah and the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University.
"What we'd like to do is bring the opportunity to the people who want to study, even if they live in RAK, to give choices and easier access," said Sheikh Saud. "Giving people the opportunities to further their education will improve the quality of life for people here.
"I want everyone who lives here to have the chance to better him or herself. I don't want it to be that living here means he or she doesn't have that chance. It's vital for society. The level of education of the population will correlate to the economic situation, the whole success of that place."
The private universities, said Sheikh Saud, were an essential supplement to RAK's sole federal higher education institution, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), which admits only Emiratis and offers a limited range of courses.
"HCT has been very good but we want to have choices for people," said Sheikh Saud. "These other universities will help fill the gaps."
He is setting up a university council to help the facilities plan their strategies together, to increase communication between them and ultimately to raise standards. He hopes it will prove a vital tool in formulating policy and advancing the sector. "The institutions have to raise their standards," said Sheikh Saud. "We need to have flexibility but to work together to create minimum standards and innovate to create opportunities."
He is also keen to improve youth literacy. In 2009, the Programme for International Student Assessment found that UAE nationals age 15 scored well below the rich-nation average for literacy, ranking 54th of 65 participating countries.
"To inculcate independent thinkers, you need to encourage the culture of reading," he said. "A nation that reads is a nation that can really lead. A nation that doesn't read can never find itself in the forefront of nations."
Encouraging pupils to read is an ongoing challenge for teachers in government schools.
"Children are not interested in reading," said Sadeq Ribhi Alawaneh, who has taught English at Al Rams Secondary School in RAK since 2003. "Only two or three pupils show an interest in reading in my class. The problem begins at primary school, where they are not doing enough to develop the basics of the language. Unfortunately, at our school, at least 95 per cent of the children lack the foundation of the languages."
Abdulaziz Al Khayat, the head of Musa bin Nusair School, said pupils put other social activities before reading. "Who will read when there are distractions like BlackBerry and video games?" he asked. "We have children who go daily to the library but I am talking about a very small number. We have a big library but they prefer football and other activities."