Opinion and Editorial

Consistency is the Way Out

Maryam Ismail (AT HOME)
Filed on December 5, 2009

In the beginning of the year, many schools were complaining about the new bus safety rules, this despite the very rare, but still, very tragic deaths of children on school buses. Parents are being looted on books and this includes me too. I paid Dh140 for books that should have totaled half of that.

This is relatively low in that because I was late in purchasing the books. If I had been early, I would have paid quadruple, I am sure. Schools skip out on teaching Arabic and Islamic studies and feel righteously indignant in doing so.

Yet, even in the days leading up to the 38th National Day, I saw some interlopers of scientology selling their wares over in Sharjah and selling them like hotcakes. Their teaching tells them, there is no need to depend on Allah, and so, if this Muslim land converts from Islam to the religion of Ďsuccessí, then I guess weíll all be singing a different national anthem not in a distant future.

These issues cannot be addressed adequately and effective and lasting solutions found as long as rules are flouted or not made national, as some emirates have rules that some donít. Rules for bus safety, pricing for school materials, Islamic values ó none of these seem to matter anymore. Soon, weíll have Jehovah Witnesses knocking on our doors. Maybe it will be okay if they speak Arabic.

Consistency and transparency are critical to resolving these issues. In the recent bus rules, which may have only affected Dubai, has not been effective in that from what I have observed, only a few companies have followed the rules.

Kids are hanging out of buses, being left off on the road, and parents not being there to pick up their three and four year olds; leaving bus staff to walk them to their doors and leaving the rest of the children on the bus unsupervised. I am talking about buses, because we all can see them, but what goes on behind the school walls we canít see.

Recently, a teacher came to school drunk. Before that one slapped a boy in the face. In between these two, a teacher symbolically beats a student, in a Palestine vs. Israel mock scuffle. In other instances, one teacher is found abusing students but is allowed to remain in the school to abuse more. Two teachers gang up on another child in an international school after the child says there is no Santa Claus, forcing her to recant her statement. Also, comments about childrenís colour, ethnicity, language, and even religious discrimination are routinely ignored in our schools.

Yes, we are a diverse society. But we need to set rules that are consistent and nationwide. How many abuses have our children suffered and felt too afraid to tell? Whoís teaching them? Do we know anything beyond their names and faces? No, not too much. Then, of course, it would be easy for an at-risk person to just show up. One who finds a job in one emirate that doesnít have a safety rule; he can slip in once he has experience and a decent reputation, then he can make mischief throughout the entire seven emirates.

A crucial factor in who is teaching in our schools is the fallacy that every teacher has a degree, that they have experience, or that all are trained and qualified.

Many are not and this should not block them out, if they are already working in our schools. This will prevent the loss of experienced, teachers who know our kids, the culture, and inner workings of our education system.

Many teachers work without visas or labour cards, which many of the schools forcibly make them pay if they do get them. So when the schools donít offer them, if they donít need them, then everyone keeps mum.

At a recent dinner, a teacher joked how even the principal didnít have a labour card. When the inspectors came, they were told that he had gone to India. He actually had gone out the back door with half of his staff. But why do Ministry of Education officials have to do policing? Why canít they just follow the rules? Well, because, for the most part, schools when they are caught have to pay fine or carry on. Most do just that. Perhaps they should just shut the violating schools down. That would make them think twice.

In the case of this American school in Abu Dhabi, I know that it is a school that is loved by parents and their children who attend the school. I know that they were shocked to find that one of the teachers in their school was a potential threat. One factor in that story I found particularly frightening was the thought that one person would be responsible for a group of children going on an overseas trip.

In most cases, schools donít send a single teacher on trip locally with a group even half the size. It would be wise to have a group of adults go with the kids.

It is a huge task, but finding out which teachers are record free, should be relatively easy, since at least in the States, most teachers have to fingerprinted and get clearances, before they can even work as a part-time substitute. This might discourage some who have a record or inclination to abuse children or others to not apply to our schools at all. In hiring teachers directly from the US, UK, Australia, and South Africa, or anywhere, it would not be much to ask them to simply ask for a letter of clearance from their local police department.

I know in that in my home district, Newark, New Jersey, itís routine and costs less than $20 dollars. There are also, websites based in the US where for a fee, you can find out almost anything you want to know about someone, from credit rating to court records.

There is also the possibility of creating a liaison between the police departments in major cities that you recruit from. This will help build up a data base, also, our children need training to be unafraid to tell their parents when they feel strange about an adultís behaviour towards them.

Children are fairly innocent and will not be able to pick up on what is happening until itís too late. In terms of keeping our kids as safe as possible we have a lot of work before us.

The first thing is to get everyone on board. Next, we have to be consistent, even if it means nudging everyone to get in line with some harsh restrictions, fines, and punishments. It will make going to school in the UAE safer ó in better schools, and with better teachers too.

Maryam Ismail is an American sociologist based in Sharjah

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