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UAE Public Schools: How Times Have Changed

The UAE education system has undergone significant reforms in recent decades. Today, it is one of the top priorities of the government and offers primary and secondary education for free to all UAE nationals. Learn all about the UAE education system and the opportunities it offers.
Public schools in the UAE have come a long way from the few boys-only schools in the 1950s.
  • In the 1950s, there were but few schools in the UAE, which were all exclusively open to boys.
  • Primary and secondary education is based on a four-tier system.
  • Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular offer various educational institutions for kids with special needs.
  • Due to education reforms and an adult literacy program, more than 95% of UAE women can read and write today.
  • Since 2001, public schools in the UAE have been accepting expat students.


From Desert to Classroom: A Brief History of the UAE Education System

The school system of the UAE, in the way it exists today, is relatively new and has evolved over the past 60 years. In the 1950s, there were only very few formal schools in the Emirates and all of them were exclusively open to boys. When oil was discovered in the 1960s and the refinement process was taken up in Abu Dhabi, the government took measures to expand the education system and build additional schools. Even when the UAE was officially established, schools could mostly be found in urban areas and accommodated only around 28,000 students. Those who were looking to pursue higher education often attended universities outside the country, usually in the UK or the USA.

Today we can see a significant change in these numbers simply by looking at the number of students attending public school in the UAE. In 2007, around 650,000 students — 60% of all students in the country — attended public schools in the UAE.

A Four-Tier System

In the UAE, education at the primary and secondary level is universal and compulsory up to grade nine. The system, which was first implemented in 1970, is based on a four tier process:

  • kindergarten for four- to five-year-olds
  • primary school for six- to eleven-year-olds
  • the preparatory stage for children between the ages of 12 and 14
  • secondary school for children between the ages of 15 and 17

Some children also attend a technical secondary school from the age of 12 onwards until their graduation at 17 or 18 years of age.

The language of instruction in public schools is Arabic, while English is often taught as a second language. The schools are publicly funded and monitored by the Ministry of Education and, while their main purpose is to prepare students for higher education or professional success, they also incorporate the basic norms and values of the UAE into the system.

For UAE nationals, public schools are free of charge. Since 2001, expat students are also welcome to attend public schools. However, expat families will have to pay a fee for that and the Arabic curriculum might not be easy to follow for expat kids.

Special Education for Special Kids

In order to support students with special needs, the UAE government signed the Protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Moreover, there are various vocational and rehabilitation centers across the country which offer special education. On top of that, people with special needs have certain rights according to the UAE Disability Act.

In education, this means that both public and private schools have to provide equal access to all kids and cannot refuse admission to children with special needs. They can also not fail or hold back students with special needs. Additional fees for special education services have to be previously approved by the Ministry of Education.

Many emirates, though not all, have public and private schools which offer education to students with special needs. Moreover, there are nurseries and therapy centers which support children with learning disabilities. These include the following:

Before you move to the UAE with your special needs child, it is highly recommended to do a lot of research. The expat hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi might be more likely to offer the kind of care and education that your child needs and this should be taken into account during your job and housing search.

Learning from under the Abaya: Women in Education

Today girls and women participate actively in the UAE’s education system, be it as students or teachers. This was not always the case. In 1975, the literacy rate among women amounted only to 31%, compared to 54% among men. After the government, together with the UAE Women’s Federation, launched an adult literacy program, this rate increased drastically. Today, 96% of all women in the UAE can read and write.

Since the education reform, the UAE offers a comprehensive curriculum to both boys and girls. It is safe to say that women in the UAE are taking full advantage of the opportunities offered to them. Each year, women graduate from the UAE University in a variety of fields, including arts, engineering, science, media and communication, and computer technology.

It is worth mentioning that at public schools and colleges, gender segregation is still the norm. Even schools which accept both male and female students teach boys and girls in separate classrooms. This offers Muslim girls a safe space, for instance to remove their abaya on hot summer days. However, some single-gender institutions have started to admit small groups of the opposite sex, in hopes of better preparing their students for working life where they will have to deal with colleagues and business partners of both genders.

A Place for Expat Kids in Emirati Schools

Expat parents who plan to stay in their host country for a longer period of time and want their children to integrate well into local culture, often think about sending the little ones to a local school. Since 2001, expat kids are welcome to attend public schools in all seven Emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai. However, students are admitted based on merit and, considering that not all expat kids are fluent in the language of instruction, local schools may not always be the best choice. When it comes to costs, public schools may be somewhat cheaper than the international schools catering exclusively to expats. However, they still come at a price.

No matter whether expat parents prefer a public or a private school for their child, they will have to prepare themselves for the enrollment process being an uphill battle. You can find out more about international schools in the UAE from our guide.


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