DUBAI // Pupils with learning difficulties are being rejected by schools as part of efforts to stay at the top of league tables.
Selective admission criteria means many students with special needs cannot get places.
Many high-performing schools do not follow inclusion policies, setting entry-level assessments that exclude children with learning difficulties from mainstream education, according to officials at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dubai's private school regulator.
Jameela Al Muhairi, chief of the Dubai School Inspection Bureau (DSIB) - the evaluation arm of KHDA that ranks schools as Outstanding, Good, Acceptable and Unsatisfactory every year - admitted that schools doing well may not necessarily be accepting children of all abilities.
"At present, though special-needs support is part of our guidelines, its provision does not effect the grade a school receives in inspections," Ms Al Muhairi said this week, after the announcement of this year's results.
"Many Good and Outstanding schools that follow a selection process are ignoring children with special needs."
The problem is more pronounced in higher grades, where pupils take international examinations that directly affect a school's progress and position on league tables.
The problem was first raised by KHDA in 2011 when it began to push schools to include children with special needs.
"Many parents continue to experience significant difficulties finding a place for their child in an appropriate school," said inspectors that year. "Most private schools claim to be inclusive, and state that places are offered to students when the child's individual needs can be met.
"However, most parents are unable to find places in high-performing schools, particularly if their child's needs are complex or behavioural."
Not much has changed since then. Inspectors still highlight the pitfalls of a selection process that has parents moving between schools and paying expensive assessment fees only to end up being rejected.
One mother, whose child has Down syndrome and attends a British curriculum primary school, said she expected it to be difficult to find her daughter a secondary-school place.
"I was very lucky that I got her into Jumeirah Primary School," she said. "The school has an outstanding special-needs support team.
"But once she is done with primary, I know it will be a struggle to find a secondary school in Dubai. Most of the really good schools only admit children who receive A+."
Fatima Belrehif, acting director of DSIB, said the organisation made recommendations during inspections. "Even if the school has received an overall good rank, the component in which they falter is mentioned in their report," she said.
According to Ms Al Muhairi, several schools visited said they did not have any child with learning difficulties, proving there was no process in place to identify those with special needs.
Several countries insist on the inclusion of children with special needs and place quotas that have to be followed by schools.
In Australia, specific disability standards for education state that all pupils have an equal right to enrolment. In Finland, pupils are given individualised plans, and a quota is enforced on private schools in some states in the US.
The Ministry of Education in the UAE has guidelines that prevent schools from discriminating but they have not been fully enforced.
Dubai English Speaking College (Desc), rated Outstanding this year, said it did not admit children based on assessment scores alone.
"We have a comprehensive intake of students from our sister school, Dubai English Speaking School," said Andrew Gibbs, the head teacher. "Selection, however, is necessary simply because the demand for places exceeds supply."
Desc is among a handful of schools praised for their inclusive admission policies.
At Dubai College, also rated Outstanding, inspectors noted that pupils with special needs were admitted provided they could show potential to progress within a selective school system.
A principal teacher of a British curriculum school that was rated Acceptable but was found to have a good support programme said it was a toss-up between catering for children with special needs or a fast climb up the rankings ladder.
"If I increase the number of children with special needs in each class, the overall progress measured will come down," said the principal, who did not wish to be named.
Carolina Tovar, executive director at Child Early Intervention Medical Centre in Dubai, which helps integrate pupils with learning and behavioural difficulties, said schools had to make more effort and investment to address the problem.
"What happens after primary?" she asked. "It gets a lot harder to teach children with special needs in high school but schools must work towards it."
She said forcing schools to accept pupils without giving them support or training would be detrimental for children. "We need to prepare teachers, who always see a special learner as more work. That is a negative reaction, and a lazy approach to teaching," she said.
Ms Tovar said more subjects and vocational-based programmes should be introduced so that every child had a chance to get qualifications. "We need schools to take ownership of the project and be made accountable for it."