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Conditions for the educational system in the United Arab Emirates

Carmen Stevens
Paweł Rogaliński

Historical Conditions

Preceding 1971, when the United Arab Emirates was not yet established as a country, education was restricted to the urban areas of the UAE. There were very few schools, e.g. Dubai English Speaking School, founded in 1963, or St. Joseph’s School in Abu Dhabi, founded in 1967. If one wanted to study at a university, they needed to travel abroad to obtain this level of education. However, since the establishment of the United Arab Emirates, and to this date, education has become a high priority.
Before the creation of the UAE in 1971 and times when common, modern education system became available in the country, the focus was heavily aimed on religious instruction and acquiring knowledge through interacting with others. This meant apprenticeships and acquisition of skill-based knowledge, that was passed down from generation to generation. Education was strongly influenced by Islam and historically took place in mosques or Imam-led study circles. Self-education* was also a legitimate and accepted form of learning.

Self-education, self-learning is a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, and evaluating learning outcomes.


Present times

Currently, the shape of the education system intently resembles that of the United States. It features a K-12 school system, two-year associate degrees, four-year bachelor’s degrees, two-year master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. As there is no consistency in terminology used by different schools, the conversion table is presented below:

Student’s AgeFS1 Year 13 SystemPre KG – Grade 12 System
– 3FS 1Pre KG
4FS 2KG 1
5Year 1KG 2
6Year 2Grade 1
7Year 3Grade 2
8Year 4Grade 3
9Year 5Grade 4
10Year 6Grade 5
11Year 7Grade 6
12Year 8Grade 7
13Year 9Grade 8
14Year 10Grade 9
15Year 11Grade 10
16Year 12Grade 11
17Year 13Grade 12

Elementary schooling is open to all children that are at least six years old. Non-Emirati nationals might also attend some public schools but are required to pay fees, while public schooling is free for Emiratis. Before going to school, children may attend nursery, two years of kindergarten (ages four and five); preschool education is not obligatory in the UAE. However, primary and secondary education is compulsory for boys and girls in the United Arab Emirates.

Primary education lasts 5 years (grades one to five). Arabic and English are the languages of instruction, starting in the first grade beneath the UAE national curriculum. In Grades 1-8, students are taught the following subjects: Islamic Education, Arabic Language, Social Studies, Moral Education, English, Mathematics, Science, Arts, Physical Education, Design and Technology. There are two tracks that Cycle 3 students can choose, basing on their capabilities and interests: General and Advanced. Within both tracks all subjects are compulsory and both include Arts and Science. The Advanced track, though, puts more emphasis on high-level Maths and Science. Interestingly, usually during late primary and secondary phase of education (starting from grade 5) there is a separation of female and male students.

Lower secondary schooling proceeds primary schooling and lasts four years (grades six to nine). Upon completion of grade nine, students have the choice of enrolling in technical or general upper-secondary education (grades ten to twelve). Later, they may also continue their studies at the university level.

Grading scales, performance levels and descriptors:

Source: Internal ESIS attainment and progress table,

Legal Grounds for Schools

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven autonomous entities, each with its own population and economic development. Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain are among the smaller emirates in the north of the country, in addition to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The ruling sovereigns of the seven sheikhdoms form the Federal Supreme Council, which is the UAE’s core decision-making body. All emirates have a high degree of political independence in a range of areas, including education; a truth that affords many challenges to the standardization of schooling between the distinctive sheikhdoms. That being said, the coordination of education structures is presently a great priority in the UAE, and the country is on its continuous way to setting up a uniform, nationwide education system.

When it comes to the child protection**, schools in the United Arab Emirates are required to develop and execute rules that are easy to comprehend and enforce for all stakeholders. Adults who work with children must be regularly trained and educated on the institution’s child-safety procedures. In the United Arab Emirates, schools have a mandate to safeguard and keep all children safe from any type of abuse.

**Child Protection Against Abuse or Neglect

The purpose of this policy is to ensure that all schools have student protection measures in place to:

• Protect them while in the school’s care from all acts and omissions constituting physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, neglect, and bullying.

• Identify and support those students who may have suffered such abuse or neglect.

• Emphasize that all school staff are mandated reporters of cases of abuse and/or suspected abuse inside and outside the school.

• Define the duties and responsibilities of school principals and school staff for responding to suspected cases of child abuse and/or neglect.


In a few of the Emirates, the federal Ministry of Education (MOE) already supervises all types of education, from elementary to university, and sets curricula, admissions standards, and graduation guidelines in the school system.

However, some emirates additionally have their personal regulatory authorities, namely KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Authority) for Dubai, and ADEK (The Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge) for Abu Dhabi. Substantial variances consequently still exist between some of the emirates. In particular, the curriculum of Abu Dhabi had varied from the national curriculum, but in 2017 it was announced, that from 2018, curricula would be consistent in a new Emirati School Model.

In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, private schools are regulated by ADEK and KHDA, respectively, but in the other emirates, they are regulated by the federal Ministry of Education. Although private institutions are not under direct government supervision, they are bound by guidelines established by the federal ministry and local governments.

Higher education was previously overseen by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, a separate federal ministry that was merged into the MOE in 2016. As a result, the MOE is now the country’s designated authority for creating higher education and research policies. It controls the formation of federal public universities and licenses higher education institutions (HEIs) that the MOE funds.

Individual emirates, on the other hand, can create public institutions that they fund through their local emirate administrations. The Abu Dhabi Education and Knowledge Authority (ADEK) has the authority to create academic institutes and educational bodies in Abu Dhabi, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education and with the approval of the Executive Council.

Important dates and statistics

School Calendar 2021-2022

School HolidaysStartsFinishes
First Day of School29 Aug 2021
Winter Holidays12 Dec 2021
30 Dec 2021
Spring Holidays27 Mar 2022
14 Apr 2022
Summer Holidays1 Jul 2022
27 Aug 2022

Number of students enrolled in faculties in the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2019, through various schooling levels (UAE: student enrolment in schools by education level 2019 | Statista

According to the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Education, there was a grand total of 287,725 students registered in public schools during the 2017-2018 academic year. According to the education ministry there were:

  • 38,903 kindergarteners (age 4 – 5)
  • 105,357 cycle 1 school students (grades 1 – 5, age 6-11)
  • 85,769 cycle 2 school students (grades 6 – 9, age 12-14)
  • 57,696 secondary school students (grades 10 – 12, age 15-18)

When it came to private schools during the 2017-2018 academic year, the MOE stated that there was a grand total of 793,295 students registered at these private institutions. The breakdown was as follows:

  • 149,379 kindergarteners (age 4 – 5)
  • 341,538 cycle 1 school students (grades 1 – 5, age 6-11)
  • 195,889 cycle 2 school students (grades 6 – 9, age 12-14)
  • 195,889 upper secondary school students (grades 10 – 12, age 15-18)

The UAE has still a lower number of international students than most international educational destinations, like the United States, or the United Kingdom. However, its inbound mobility ratio of 48.6 percent is one of the highest in the world. The range of global degree-seeking college students in the UAE spiked from 48,653 in 2011 to 77,463 in 2016.

Demonstrative of this growth, the American University of Sharjah, a trustworthy UAE institution, is said to be the university with the greatest share of overseas students in the whole world: eighty-four percentage of its scholar makeup consists of international students.

Private, public and charter education

All Emirati children aged six to eighteen, including foreign residents, are required to attend school in the UAE. Every UAE national under the age of 18 is entitled to free primary and secondary education in state-run institutions and charter schools.
Charter Schools are based on a partnership between the government and the private sector and create the third education model (apart from private and public schools). This partnership’s aim is to support the country’s national agenda and create a knowledge-based, competitive economy.

As it was briefly mentioned before, the education system in the United Arab Emirates is divided into the following levels:

  • Nursery Education: Nursery education in the UAE starts at a young age, with children as young as eighteen months to three years old being admitted to nursery schools. Students of this age range develop basic English language speaking skills.
  • Kindergarten Education: Kindergarten accepts children aged four to five years old and teaches them a variety of disciplines including English, Arabic, Mathematics, Music, and Art. At this level, Religion (Islamic) is also included in the curriculum and is obligatory for all Muslims.
  • Primary Education: The average age of students accepted to primary school is six years old. In most elementary schools, English and Arabic are the major languages of instruction. A lot of schools teach different foreign languages, too.
  • Secondary Education: Students progress to secondary or high schools after completing primary school (generally there is no end of Grade 5 examination). In the United Arab Emirates, there are two types of high schools: academic high schools and technical high schools. Academic high schools focus on academic courses, while technical high schools focus on imparting specific skills to pupils.


The UAE Ministry of Education was established in 1972, shortly after the country was founded, to serve as a central education authority, overseeing the provision and development of education. Even though the MOE was established, schools in the UAE were using a variety of curricula with various standards, most of which were acquired from neighboring nations. The Ministry of Education did not begin its National Curriculum Project to produce a uniform Emirati curriculum until 1979, and it was only in 1985 that it was implemented countrywide. There is a wide variety of curricula provided to students in the United Arab Emirates. Government schools teach the UAE’s regular national curriculum. For all disciplines, Arabic is the medium of instruction. English is used to educate technical and scientific disciplines as a second language.

Private schools provide a variety of curricula, including the International Baccalaureate (IB), the UAE Ministry of Education, British, American, French, German, Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino curricula, to name a few. Independent schools’ owners may choose to implement a curriculum of their choice. Private schools have to offer fundamental programs such as Islamic education, Social Studies, and Arabic as a second language in addition to these specific curricula. Non-Arabic speakers can take these courses as part of a specific class.

Although there is a vast choice of curricula available in the UAE, it is important to note that text and information is often censored and adjusted, and sensitive topics may be completely removed to fit the norms of the Arab country and Islamic religion.

The curriculum, which has been narrowing in many schools in recent years to be left with few practical subjects, continues to be an obstacle to future reform. Physical Education (PE), Art and Music, in particular, seem to be undervalued. The UAE could benefit from expanding its secondary school courses to attract pupils with a wide range of interests.


The Ministry of Education recognizes the need to “standardize student evaluation and ensure that achievement is measured at a national level,” and to that end, the MOE conducts the following exams in public schools:

  • A diagnostic English and Math external assessment in Grades 1-4.
  • Arabic language diagnostic external assessment – administered to all students in Grades 1-12.
  • Summative assessments for Grades 4-12. These are formal, externally-developed examinations in English, Math, Arabic, Science, Islamic Education and Social Studies. They are all taken at the end of terms 1, 2 and 3.
  • Thanawiya al Amma examinations – taken at the end of Grade 12. Successful completion allows students to apply for admission to public universities in the UAE.
  • ACER-IBT assessment in Arabic, Math and Science (Arabic language versions). Taken in Grades 3-9.

American curriculum schools’ students take the following assessments:

  • Assessments in the American system are both internal (e.g. pre- and post-tests), and external (e.g. MAP®).
  • There is no external exam or qualification that students have to pass in order to obtain a high school diploma.
  • In Grade 8, 9 or 10, students may take PSAT test – preparatory version of the SAT.
  • In Grade 11, students can take the SAT/ACT tests, being a prerequisite for applying to colleges in the USA.
  • Grades 3-9 students have to take NWEA MAP® or Iowa Assessments, in Reading, Language Usage, Mathematics and Science.

Over the students’ education journey in a the UK National Curriculum, the following assessments need to be administered:

  • In FS2, an Early Years Foundation Stage Profile is completed for each pupil through observation, generating a portfolio, or by administering low stakes formative assessments.
  • In Year 1 there are: in-class statutory phonics screening assessment (with an optional re-take in Year 2).
  • In Year 2, students take Statutory National Assessments (English Reading, Grammar, Punctuation, Spelling and Maths). The other subjects – Science, Writing, Speaking and Listening – are assessed by a teacher.
  • In Year 6 there are national tests and teacher assessments in English and Maths. In Science there are only teacher assessments.
  • In Year 10, some students may take the GCSEs/IGCSEs.
  • In Year 11, students take the GCSEs/IGCSEs (or other national exams).
  • In Year 13, there are A-Level exams, being a prerequisite for applying to universities in the UK.

As mentioned before, there are a lot of other curricula and each of them offers a different set of assessments.

International Comparisons

When we examine the Program for International Student Assessment 2018 rankings at two of the most important performance metrics, Reading and Math, we can see that the UAE scored substantially worse than its counterparts.

In Reading Literacy, 15-year-olds in the UAE scored 432 points, compared to an OECD countries’ average of 487 points. Also, UAE students scored 435 points in Mathematics, whereas in OECD countries it was an average of 489 points.

The data from the UAE represents a combination of student performance in both public and private schools. As a result, for the majority of UAE expats and half of Emirati parents, PISA results are not a true reflection of their children’s educational experiences.

United Arab Emirates rankings comparison 2012–2018

Even though UAE’s budget for education is significant, the results are still unsatisfactory. This is why there are ambitious plans and attempts (mentioned before) to improve the level of education in the country.

Education during COVID-19 in the United Arab Emirates

During the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, several steps were taken by the UAE government to ensure the safety of those who reside there. These steps were considered preventative and primary measures to control the rapid spreading of the virus. These steps, or measures, included the closing of all schools and higher educational institutions.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, the scenarios were ever changing – trying to see what suits each school’s needs the best. Many schools opted for a hybrid approach to teaching and learning, which meant that students and parents were offered an opportunity of face-to-face learning, as well as participating in online activities should they wish to attend classes virtually.

In some schools, classes were divided into three sections: A, B and C. Groups A and B were hybrid, whereas group C was offered a fully distance learning mode. During uneven weeks, only group A attended school physically and groups B and C were learning from home, joining lessons via Microsoft Teams. During even weeks, group B attended school physically and the other two groups learnt from home.

Schools slowly started shifting back to normal at the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, where more students opted for face-to-face and in contact teaching and learning. There were, however, opportunities for students to remain online should they wish. Although, it was encouraged that only those students who needed to stay at home (at-risk students***) continue with distance learning and while others return back to the classroom.

***An “at-risk” student is generally defined as a student who is likely to fail at school. In this context, school failure is typically seen as dropping out of school before high school graduation. As a result, the characteristics of at-risk students have traditionally been identified through retrospective examinations of high school dropouts’ family and school histories. Those characteristics associated with dropping out of school then become the defining characteristics of at-risk students. However, (…) Students who fail to achieve basic skills before leaving school may also be at risk of school failure.


As the 2021-2022 academic year draws closer to its end, more and more students are opting for in-person schooling, with a minority of students completing the year online.

 Authors: Carmen Stevens, Paweł Rogaliński


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About the authors
Carmen Stevens
She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Primary Education. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Education. Her passion for teaching and learning has always driven her to remain a dedicated and informed educator. Her love for education and the impacts thereof are what encourages her to partake in researches on how education systems work, and how they are constantly developing to meet the needs of the very people that they are designed to support.
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Paweł Rogaliński
a researcher and manager in the media and education sector. Doctor of Social Sciences in Communication and Media Studies (Jagiellonian University). Graduated from the University of Łódź doing the following faculties: Management (2010-12), International Relations: Political Science (2006-11) and English Studies (2006-10). Editor-in-Chief of a popular science online magazine 'Przegląd Dziennikarski' ( and a president of an NGO organization. Working on a managerial level in education sector in the United Arab Emirates. Dr Pawel Rogalinski has received several international awards, e.g. in Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw and London.
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