DUBAI // Private school companies should not have to apologise for being profit-based businesses, a director of the country's largest education group says.
David Wilson, a former director of education for the British Army who was appointed director of Gems Education's Asian schools in January, says improvements require funding.
"Making Asian schools sustainable is going to be a constant challenge," Mr Wilson said.
"In the last five to six years fees have not kept pace with inflation and other pressures. We shouldn't be apologetic about being a company with profit."
He said parents' demands for affordable fees were justified but "they also want the very best education opportunities for the children.
"I don't think there will ever be a situation where everything is perfect but it is a healthy tension faced by all providers.
"A lot of the improvements - like an AstroTurf playing area, better sports facilities or introducing education innovation in the classroom - are done through the fees parents pay for education.
"If the fees are low there is a limit to how much we can innovate, and how much we can change and develop."
A handful of Gems Indian schools in Dubai were the only ones to escape a fee freeze introduced by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) two years ago.
Gems reached an agreement with the Ministry of Education in 2010 allowing them to circumvent the freeze and increase their schools fees by 30 per cent over three years.
This has led to demands from parents for clearer, more consistent regulations.
"How can some schools be allowed to do something and others not?" asked a father of a Grade 5 pupil at Gems' Our Own Indian School.
"I think the authorities need to work on fair rules," the parent said. "If Gems could go to the ministry once when they were unhappy with the regulations they can do so again for higher increases."
Mr Wilson said the ministry ruling gave schools some respite, allowing them to increase teachers' salaries by 10 per cent this year. But that was not enough.
"The schools built recently are in a much healthier financial position than our old schools that have had years of regulated fee increase," he said. "We feel there is discrepancy between newly opened schools and the older establishments."
Mr Wilson said the fee structure of the older campuses should be allowed to rise to a level that would cater for a consistent increase in quality.
The solution, he said, would be to increase the supply of Indian schools to meet the overwhelming demand.
"The ideal circumstance, and we look forward to this in Gems, is that you have an excess of supply," Mr Wilson said.
"In the interim we have to negotiate with the ministry, as from time to time there will be a school which we cannot develop as rapidly as we would like because the fee structure prevents it."
He said there was a pressing problem of finding qualified Indian teachers, something he discussed with his predecessor, Dr Farooq Wasil.
Mr Wilson said he worked closely with Dr Wasil before taking up the position.
"Initially I was going to be chief academic officer in India and only later got the appointment to the director's position," he said. "To understand my role, a lot of my discussions were held with him.
"Recruitment has become harder and this is my top concern - partly because of the competition and partly because of the quality of teacher training in the home country."
One teacher at a Gems Indian Schools said the challenge was not finding good teachers, but having them agree to low salaries.
"You won't attract the best on a salary that makes it hard to sustain the standard of living in the country," said the teacher, who earned about Dh4,000 a month. "More initiatives to support teachers with learning resources and training will also be beneficial."
Mr Wilson gathered a wealth of experience as the director of education for the British Army in the rank of Brigadier General, where he led more than 700 professionals globally.
Last year, he was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to education.
Dr Farooq Wasil joined the Gems education group in 1986 and was part of the Our Own English High School, Sharjah (OOEHS).
He received the National Teacher Award from former Indian President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam in 2005.
A teacher at OOEHS-Sharjah said the news of Dr Wasil’s departure was shocking. “It was sudden and we received an email from the corporate office telling us a new director has been appointed,” she said.
Gems said Dr Wasil was still employed with them but “is currently on extended personal leave.”
The did not say whether he would be reinstated to the post.
* Afshan Ahmed