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Science lesson

Qatar has continued to improve its Program for International Assessment (PISA) scores, although its results still remain well below the global average, newly-published figures for 2015 show.

The figures were released days before Qatar’s Cabinet announced an upcoming revamp of the country’s independent school system.

The PISA is an exam administered every three years to 15-year-olds around the world. About 540,000 students in 72 countries took the exam last year.

Qatar’s scores went up in all three test areas – Maths, Reading and Science – with particular improvement shown in the final category.

The country now ranks 60th out of 72 countries in Science with an average score of 418, up from 384 in 2012.

Meanwhile, the country’s average score of 402 in Maths represented a 26-point improvement on its 2012 score, while its score for Reading went up 15 points to 402.

However, as seven more countries took part in the 2015 tests than in 2012, the country’s rankings remain fairly static in these two areas.

Qatar remains 62nd in Maths, and is now globally 65th in Reading, down one place from 64th in 2012.

Singapore topped the PISA tables this year in all three areas, with Hong Kong taking second place in Maths and Reading, and Japan taking second place in Science.

Changes afoot

More than a decade ago, Qatar adopted a recommendation from the RAND Corp. to overhaul its public education system so that it mimicked a charter school system.

Under this plan, independent schools for local children operated autonomously, and were regularly audited by the government to ensure they were up to standards.

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Parents were also allowed to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs.

However, the Cabinet has now approved a plan to change the system again, taking a more consolidated and central approach, QNA reports. It added:

“Under the draft law, the state establishes public schools and provides them with the funds to perform their role in educating young people and promoting education innovation and excellence, and that the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to organize public schools and appoint the administrative and academic cadre as well as to supervise them, in order to achieve quality education.”

Literacy is key

In the most recent PISA scores, Qatar came behind the UAE, the only other GCC country to participate. The Emirates ranked 47th overall in Maths, 46th in Science and 48th in Reading.

However, this was still considered below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average.

According to one education expert, the poor scores are in part because Arab students sitting for PISA tests are often unable to read at the speed required to answer questions in time.

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In a report in The National,  Dr. Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, said:

“That is a big barrier and that is I think one of the reasons why we consistently see low performance across the Arab world.”

More work is required to improve literacy in early-years programs to address this issue, she added.

Good progress in science

Although Qatar’s scores remain near the bottom of the global PISA tables, the country was praised in this year’s report for strides made in science education.

While most nations’ science scores have remained fairly static since 2006, Qatar is one of only six countries where mean performance has improved.

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Qatar has also reduced the number of students performing poorly and increased the stronger performers, one of only three countries to achieve both measures, the report said.

“Over this period (2006 – 2015), Macao (China), Portugal and Qatar increased the share of students performing at or above Level 5 and simultaneously reduced the share of students performing below the baseline level of proficiency (Level 2).”

The report also showed that more girls (39.9 percent) than boys (36.3 percent) in Qatar anticipated a science-related career, and that there was no difference between the two genders in terms of their enjoyment of science lessons.

Truancy issues

However, the report also singled Qatar out for its poor truancy figures.

PISA asked students to report whether they had skipped a day of school in the previous two weeks before they sat for the test.

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Forty percent of students in Qatar said they had, twice the number who said they did so before the last PISA exam in 2012.

This means that Qatar had one of the highest truancy rates of all countries tested, coming in ninth in this particular ranking.

The figures come despite efforts from authorities to boost attendance numbers, which appears to be having more of an effect with younger kids.

You can read the full PISA report here.

Thoughts?

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Foods high in fat, salt and sugar will no longer be served in Qatar’s government-funded independent schools, an education ministry official has said.

Banned foods include chocolate, chips, fried foods, processed meats and sugary drinks, said Hamad al Rumaihi, Chief of Canteens at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.

In a statement, he added that cakes and biscuits will now only be served once a week instead of twice. And brown and wholegrain bread will now be offered to students for the first time.

The changes were made following “intensive meetings” at the ministry to decide on new nutritional guidelines for schools, the statement said.

They are being implemented across Qatar’s 191 public independent schools, where more than 100,000 students are enrolled.

Obesity crisis

The ministry’s focus on healthy eating in schools comes as the government continues to urge residents to improve their eating habits and exercise more.

Qatar National Sport Day 2015

Chantelle D'mello

Qatar National Sport Day 2015

Some 42.3 percent of adults in Qatar are obese – the highest rate in the Gulf (which has an average of 36.7 percent).

And worryingly, an increasing number of children in Qatar are also obese, putting them at risk of a host of diseases, including diabetes.

Figures from 2014 show that one-third (33.5 percent) of all boys under 20 years old in Qatar are classified as overweight or obese. That’s the highest figure in the MENA region.

Unhealthy lunches

In the past, experts have suggested that Qatar’s childhood obesity epidemic could lead to many children dying years before their parents.

These same experts said that providing healthy school lunches could make a big difference to children’s health.

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During a visit to Qatar two years ago, Julian Hamilton-Shield, professor of Diabetes and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol in the UK, told Doha News that he felt hot meals at school, as opposed to packed lunches, were a good way of tackling the problem:

“Having a school dinner which is healthy – looked at by a dietitian – is a better way of doing it,” he told us.

“Packed lunches are something that people do quickly – adding crisps and chocolate bars. If you spent an hour making it, you’d probably be fine, but most don’t have the time.”

However, some parents in Qatar are not given an option, as many of the country’s private schools do not offer cooked school lunches for their students.

Thoughts?

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Ministry of Education & Higher Education

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Contrary to rumors on social media, female teachers are not banned from wearing the abaya in local girls’ schools, Qatar’s education ministry has said.

Instead, schools can set their own rules for staff as long as they dress modestly, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education added.

An online furor erupted this week after an independent primary school said in a letter that it had been ordered to ban the abaya on campus.

The notice, dated Sept. 27, was issued by Al-Taawon Independent Primary School for Girls and went viral after being shared on Twitter by a former newspaper columnist.

In his tweet, Faisal Marzouqi questioned the “legal right or educational reasoning” behind the reported decision, which read:

“To members of the administrative and teaching staff,

We inform you all that based on the meeting headed by Fawziya al-Khatir, Director of Education, with the license holders (owners and managers) of independent schools, the wearing of the abaya is entirely prohibited on campus.
Thus, the school administration notifies all members of the necessity of decent and modest attire and for the abaya not to be worn starting October 2016.”

Abaya in the classroom

The school’s decision was apparently made after a meeting between the Director of Education and independent school principals earlier this week, Al Raya reports.

The newspaper cited unnamed school heads as saying as a result of what was discussed, they voluntarily chose to implement an abaya ban on their own campuses.

Speaking to Al Raya, some teachers explained their positions on the matter.

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Ministry of Education & Higher Education

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Teacher Hissa Nasir al-Dirham said:

“A female child looks up to her teacher as a second mother. When she sees the teacher in tidy and decent clothes in pretty colors, it has a positive emotional effect instead of always seeing teachers wearing black abayas and shaylas.”

She added however that she supports female teachers wearing abayas while teaching boys, saying, “Male students scrutinize their teachers’ clothing and talk about them even if they’re dressed in decent loose clothes.”

Meanwhile, teacher Maryam Saad al-Bilim said she supported a ban because it would allow staff “to move more easily and comfortably and creates intimacy with the students.”

But Naima al-Ansari, who wears abaya regularly, called for the national dress to be mandatory for teachers.

Ministry clarifies

But in a clarification, Qatar’s education ministry said this week:

Translation: There are clear policies regarding decent and modest attire in girls’ and model schools. The administrative and teaching staff comply with such regulations as announced by the ministry.

There isn’t a a decree that mandates the wearing or not wearing of abaya. Each institution has the right to stipulate its own regulations regarding attire as long as religion, norms and traditions are not violated.

However, one commenter challenged this statement, asking why several schools have implemented a ban following a meeting with officials.

Translation: How is it that there are no official instructions issued by the ministry when more than one school has put up the notification with a number and date on it? How is it that they (the schools) have the audacity to drag the name of the director of education into this if indeed this isn’t the ministry’s policy? It doesn’t make any sense!

While some people online said they felt it was beyond the ministry’s remit to dictate how teachers should dress, others called for stricter regulations around what they felt was inappropriate clothing worn by some educators.

Translation: Translation: You have no right to ban any person from wearing particular clothes. This is personal freedom and there’s no law that stipulates a uniform for teachers in Qatar.

Translation: There are a lot of schools where teachers are allowed in without a headscarf and wearing tight clothing that show body details, long slits and leggings. There should be a law prohibiting that (instead). 

The controversy prompted this cartoon, which calls into question the education ministry’s priorities:

In it, the poster on the wall reads, “Abayas are banned on campus,” and the man reading it is shown thinking, “Finally, we fixed education!”

Code of conduct

This is not the first time that Qatar’s education authority has waded into the thorny issue of teachers’ attire.

Two years ago, the then-Supreme Education Council (SEC) introduced an updated code of conduct for all teachers in independent schools.

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It outlined expected behavior from educators such as “showing respect to parents,” not breaking the law, setting a good example to students and observing local customs and values.

As part of this, teachers were told they must dress modestly, “taking into account the customs and traditions of the workplace and beyond.”

But at the time, the code did not specify what was meant by modest dress.

Thoughts?