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Are we preparing UAE students for life at university and beyond?

High school is the last stop before students enter the real world of university, career, and adult life.

It’s where adolescents are supposed to develop both academically and socially, so they’ll graduate prepared for all the future has to offer. But does it?

With 22 years as part of the education community, I have lived and worked in Dubai for the past eleven years with many of them spent working with high school students. Having worked in and with several schools across the country it has been awesome to have supported and guided many students to their high school graduation, but l do have to wonder if we are doing right by them in preparation for the next step on their educational journey or career path.

So what is the expected pathway in the UAE? A student joins a school at some point from KG onwards and will generally stay in that school until they graduate at grade twelve – year thirteen. Do l think this is a good pathway? My answer must be yes and no.

I recently conducted a quick survey in my current school, a typical US curriculum K-12 school in Dubai and was not completely surprised by the results. We have around 180 students in our Grades 11 & 12, l got just 24 completed results. Even after many prompts, for me, this is a real indicator of where students are mentally these days. I am often asked in class and for activities such as this the ‘what is in it for me?’ question. Is it graded, when is it due, how much work do l have to do, is it formative or summative? All questions as teachers we hear daily!

So what else did l learn … of the 24 students who replied, 33% said they were planning to attend a university here in Dubai, whilst 49% said they would either be leaving to go to a university in their home country (as on their passport) or another international campus, 1 student was leaving for military service, 1 to paid work and 2 were not sure yet. Not surprisingly, this indicates that a high percentage of students (young adults) wish to continue with their education pathway before entering their chosen work field. University is now considered the next step out of high school, in the hopes of ensuring a career path which pays well.

Most of the 24 students had not heard of employability skills (62%) but did realise that they were important for future success (70% yes, 29% maybe, 1% no). 66% of the group felt that it was important to learn about these skills whilst in high school, with 29% saying maybe, and just 4% saying no it was not necessary.

What did surprise me was that when l defined the term transferrable skills 70% of the group felt that they had had the opportunity to use these skills in high school but had not explicitly known that this was part of their learning and development. As a high school, we follow a blend of US and IB curriculums and l gained from further conversations that those students who have a teacher who teaches both pathways seem to have a better understanding of the transferable skills mentioned and how they impacted their learning and outcomes.

And l guess the answers to the last question should not have surprised me, what other subjects would they like to have learnt during the last years in high school. Alongside the typical variety of additional language choices (Japanese and Italian) and AI, criminology was also mentioned a few times. But what did jump out was the number of students saying personal finance, university and life skills, daily life skills and business (entrepreneurship).

When will schools learn!

So l come back to my original question, are we preparing UAE students for life at university and beyond? In my opinion, the answer is yes academically but not socially. What are we missing? Just as the survey results show, the everyday life skills we as expats would have had access to from a much younger age are what our UAE students are missing now.

Think back to your days at university, for most of us it was the first opportunity to live away from home, and that meant the need to cook, write a food shopping list, sort our washing, do the cleaning, get to and from student digs to university lectures (on time), and needing to paying the bills. Learning how to budget was vital and to quickly understand that if we spent all our money in the first weeks of the month, we were living on pot noodles for the rest of the month! For some of us, it might have been the first time to got a part-time job if this hadn’t been an option or necessity whilst at high school-college. For me the driving force for financial independence had started much earlier, at age 12 l was cleaning tables in our local pub. l wanted to save (I had a bank account all of my own) and spend my money on what l wanted, whether it was going to the cinema or buying clothes and CDs.

Honestly, how do you think our current students will fare with this?


Are we hindering our student’s ability to enjoy the social side of university life? The majority of schools across Dubai don’t teach food technology (including the basics of nutrition), most families have a maid (full or part-time) who will clean, sort the washing and even cook, many of our students get on a bus in the morning (collected from their doorstep) or are dropped to school by parents or uber, and have a better allowance than we certainly did as teenagers. And finally, in the UAE it is not possible for anyone under the age of 18 to have their own bank account without their parents acting as security and thus no real understanding of budgeting and saving. I am sure that there are more points l can raise but this seems like a good place to start.

At this point l am reminded of the comments raised by the students that they want to learn more about everyday life skills.

So what do l think can be done? A good start would be a compulsory university preparation course, and what would l include? Well, students want to learn about but also need to know about personal finance (not just investing and cryptocurrency), how to cook some basic meals, the basics of cleaning and how to use a washing machine (without turning all their clothes pink!) how to iron a shirt, mend a button and how to change a plug. What about writing their CV, interview techniques and even how to dress for their future career? Tying a tie is a dying art! All this reminds me of my old school curriculum of Home Economics and Life Skills which all students had to participate in. We did have gender-focused pathways, but they still covered topics which we all needed growing up.

When l look at our high school students’ timetables, especially in grades 11 and 12, there can be many ‘study hall’ sessions. Students at times have more prep time available than their teachers and do not always have the self-discipline to use this time wisely. As a school could we develop a life skills programme built around the topics raised earlier? Yes, this would need teachers to deliver the life lessons but think of the relationships and personal skills that this would build for our graduating students. Or an alternative would be to hire an external group to deliver workshops on the key topics, we have plenty of options out there if you start looking. Or could parents get involved and support this phase of learning?

A major change l would love to see would be the teaching of high school students (grade 11-12) in a separate building/facility to their younger siblings. This could include a change in uniform or business dress code. I appreciate the impact on families if you are having to transport siblings to different venues, but maybe schools can start to accommodate this more within one site. The impact of older siblings constantly on the lives of their younger siblings is that they don’t have the independence and maturity to cope with being away from their families. Please don’t hate on me regarding this but l observe our senior students getting involved in friendship concerns that are of no relevance to them just because they are ‘looking out for’  their younger siblings, and the disruption this causes is extensive. Research shows that today our grade 12 students have a less mature outlook than just 10 years ago, how can we help change this to a positive? Maturity plays a significant role in a person's ability to accept responsibility for his or her thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It also affects a person’s ability to keep track of his or her thinking and, in this case, to control the various emotions they may experience in a learning situation.


Finally, would it be possible for all schools to provide work experience weeks or internship days for students during their high school years, the reality of what is expected from you as an employee does focus the mind on what skills you need to develop as a contributing individual to society? The benefits of completing a work experience are huge, understanding the needs and responsibilities of having a job, learning a new skill, meeting new people and the importance of timekeeping and keeping to deadlines are all valuable life skills.

Please don’t think l am ‘down’ on our current students, they can be smart, confident, great at social communication and with a great sense of humour (even if it makes no sense to us at times) but they are also telling us themselves that they don’t feel prepared for the next step.

higher education

I certainly don’t have all the answers but hope that this has made you think. Whether you are a teacher, school leader, student, parent or just someone interested in the future of our society, this is a topic you should be having conversations about.

So my last question must be how can we help to prepare students for life at university and beyond? Answers on a postcard (another lost skill, writing letters and cards) or email me at I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Written by: Rachael Pryce, Founder of EducationYalla