The Evolution of Education in the UAE
Zeena Assam, Managing Director and Co-founder, Creative Nest Nursery (cover page)

As someone who spent most of her schooling days in the UAE, I must say the education field has changed tremendously over the past 20 to 30 years. Back when I was a child at a very prestigious school in Abu Dhabi, there was a strong emphasis on academics with rote memorization and frequent testing. Students were expected to passively sit in classroom for traditional instructional methodology, in order to pass examinations. Teachers were seen was ‘transferrers of knowledge” with the belief that children were vessels to be filled with information.

The UAE has made sweeping changes in the educational field in the past few decades. These changes encompass a more holistic approach that aims to develop the whole child and develop critical thinking skills that are necessary to succeed. Children are no longer seen as vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge; rather learning is an active and constructive process.


Technology has impacted almost every aspect of life today, and education is no exception. Tools like Google and Wikipedia have made it unnecessary for children to memorize facts like they did in the past. Children have access to a massive amount of information available at their fingertips. Tablets have started to replace books, and collaborate with learners around the globe. The walls of the classrooms are no longer a barrier as technology enables new ways of learning, communicating, and working collaboratively. There has been an emergence on online schooling as well; where students attend an online school to receive their formal education and high school diplomas.

Parent Involvement

Unfortunately, parent involvement has declined in the recent years. This may be to an increasingly hectic lifestyle for working parents, and especially for working mothers. Parents’ attendance in school meetings and school events has dropped and this has a negative impact on children’s attainment as well as on children’s well-being.

Teaching Methodology

Teaching methods have drastically changed in the past few decades. Classrooms in the past were focused on individual work, with desks arranged in rows. Traditional methods of teaching such as rote memorization, was the norm. Classrooms are expected to be more collaborative in progressive schools, and desks are arranged in groups. Children are encouraged to effectively communicate and collaborate in their learning. The environment is more hands on and uses manipulatives and multiple teaching strategies to consolidate learning concepts. Children are expected to be researchers and reach knowledge on their own with scaffolding from the teacher.

Children now have opportunities for individuality in the classroom, where they typically learn through project-based concepts, to foster leadership qualities, with every learner contributing in their own way.  The modern student has much more freedom in self-expression, which was not evident a few decades ago.

Students are also given more responsibility in the school community. At my primary children’s school, higher primary and secondary students are seen supporting teachers in major events such as Sports Day and Performance days where they have different responsibilities such as monitoring the young children, taking scores on Sports Day, taking photos, and arranging the young children on stage for their performance. This type of involvement develops children to be more responsible and contributing to the community. I recently attended an awards ceremony for schools in the UAE. I was delighted when a winning school was represented by a senior high school student to receive the award for one of the categories. How impactful it was for the whole audience to watch the student receive the award, along with a member of the senior leadership team. This is what I call progressive education and involvement of students.

Schools heavily invest in professional development for their teachers. This is a requirement to ensure that all teaching staff are kept up to date with the latest teaching methodologies and best practices in education. Teachers are trained on how to incorporate ICT into their lessons, how to manage their classroom effectively, and are given opportunities to be active researchers in the classroom. Professional development is not a ‘one size fits all’; rather schools now provide individualized training to teachers based on their needs.

Early Years

Unlike other areas of education, early years or early childhood education laces strong emphasis on developing the whole child – attending to his or her social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs, to establish a solid foundation for long life learning. Parents in the UAE have an increased awareness of the benefits of early years’ education, and many parents are opting for nurseries rather than nannies in the years leading up to school. Due to the rise of incidents revolving around nannies and children, putting young children in a nursery gives modern parents the peace of mind that their children are safe and well cared for. Studies have also shown the numerous benefits of high quality nursery on children, which include improvement in the development of language, emotional skills, and cognitive skills.

Early year’s curriculum has changed in many nurseries and kindergartens in the UAE. There is a strong focus on play based learning, after research and theorists have studied the impact of play on learning. There has also been a rise of different curricula and approached to early years education in the UAE such as the Reggio Emilia approach, which is adopted at Creative Nest Nursery, Waldorf approach, Creative Curriculum, Finnish curriculum, International Preschool Curriculum, High Scope and others.

There are still some nurseries and kindergartens relying heavily on traditional teaching methods such as worksheets and rote learning; however, I’m pleased to see that this is in decline.

Education Policy

Educational reforms, announced by the UAE Ministry of Education, have been put in place to meet the UAE National Agenda Goals 2021. Schools are now closely monitored and inspected by government bodies such as the KHDA, the Ministry of Education and ADEC.

Smart learning programmes, new teachers’ codes, licensing and evaluations systems, as well as curriculum revision are all part of the strategy. A key area of focus has been to transform K-12 programmes, to ensure that students are fully prepared to attend universities around the world and compete in the global marketplace.

Recent education policies have seen a more inclusive approach to special education needs, which was not present in previous decades. The UAE government has made big efforts to include people of determination in mainstream education. Schools are now required to have special education needs divisions with qualified educators to meet the needs of the children.

These are just some of the changes education in the UAE has seen in the past few decades. Robotics, STEM education, and wellness/mindfulness initiatives will further have an increasing role in UAE schools and universities. The UAE is constantly honing its educational strategy to ensure that the programs developed in its schools comply with international standards. This is certainly good news for UAE students.

About The Author

Zeena Assam is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of Creative Nest Nursery in Mizhar, Dubai. Opening its doors in September 2016, Creative Nest Nursery was born out of Zeena’s desire to build a preschool that nurtures positive early learning experiences in children, and a lifelong love of learning by doing. Creative Nest has since evolved into a source of enrichment for children, families and the wider community, providing a supportive learning environment for the students, and all those who love and care for them.

Raised in Dubai, Zeena first qualified as a Civil Engineer, having gained her degree at McGill University in Canada. She later redirected her career towards a passion of hers – education. Today, Zeena is an established educator with more than 15 years of teaching experience gained in the UAE. In 2005, she gained an M.Ed Masters of Education from the University of Gloucestershire in the UK. She has also completed the UK’s NCFE CACHE Level 5 Diploma in Leadership for Health and Social Care and Children and Young People’s Services. Zeena has also been named as one of the UAE’s Educational Influencers 2018 by Which School Advisor.

Bilingual in English and Arabic, Zeena is a mother to 4 children. She enjoys reading, keeping fit and staying up to date with the latest advancements in childcare and wellbeing.

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