DUBAI // Thousands of parents face an anxious summer waiting to find out whether their children have a place next year at the school of their choice.
About 5,000 children are vying for places in Dubai's British curriculum schools. Officials say the large majority of those currently have no place at all - and will not know for sure whether they have one until days before the start of term.
The uncertainty is caused by a system that allows parents to reserve places at multiple schools. This makes some schools appear to be full even when they are not. Those schools then refuse to take more students, even though only a fraction of the pupils signed up are likely to end up there.
In reality, according to the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the Dubai schools regulator, there are plenty of places.
"All students who need school places will be able to find a school in September," said Mohammed Darwish, the KHDA's head of regulations and compliance.
"However, as the demand for certain curricula and schools is higher than others, there is a perceived shortage of school places in some pockets."
This year, 8,500 parents are expected to seek places in Dubai private schools - 5,000 in those offering the British curriculum and 3,800 in Indian schools.
Spaces at Indian schools were allocated at the start of the Indian academic year in April.
The figures have been calculated on the basis of birth rates and numbers provided by schools.
Between 2007 and 2009, the expatriate birth rate rose by 70 per cent, which is now putting pressure on space in the lower grades.
There has also been more information available about school quality, which has prompted parents to swarm those that are more highly rated, said Mr Darwish.
The Jumeirah branch of the Jumeirah English Speaking Schools, for example, received an "outstanding" rank in the recent Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB) inspections. It has now closed applications for several year groups, and has only a limited number of places left in its sixth form. For the Foundation Stage 1 classes - ages 5-6 - it has a waiting list of 125.
Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications at Taaleem, which has six schools in Dubai, said many parents signed their children up for four or more schools, making it hard to judge the real length of a waiting list.
He said the situation mainly affected parents who were new to Dubai; those who had been here longer, he said, tended to put their children's names down several years in advance.
"Long-term residents of Dubai learn to plan early to make sure they get seats at the school of their choice," said Mr Pierrepont.
A Gems spokeswoman said the pressure had also been exacerbated by parents taking their children out of schools elsewhere in the Middle East.
"Families are moving into the UAE from other parts because it is stable and offers excellent infrastructure," she said. "Many of our international schools have long waiting lists and demand is equally high in our Asian schools."
Tammi Knight, a new resident of Dubai, said the process of trying to enrol her three-year-old daughter Nancy in a good school had been "a frustrating experience to say the very least".
"In the UK you are guaranteed a place in a local school, but here there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiousness among parents."
Some schools had told her they had waiting lists of up to six years.
Nancy now has a place at the new Gems Wellington International School in Silicon Oasis.
Mr Pierrepont said parents should be made to put down a substantial deposit to secure a place. "This would deter speculative applications and encourage parents to commit," he said.
He added that Taaleem was working with the KHDA to work out where extra capacity was needed.
Education officials said they were encouraging good school investors who wanted to expand. "In the academic year 2011-2012, four new schools will be operating fully in Dubai," said Mr Darwish.