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Children play at Bright Beginnings Preschool in Abu Dhabi.
Children play at Bright Beginnings Preschool in Abu Dhabi.

Parents struggle to find room in all grades

A crisis in nursery school places is matched by acute shortage of space in private schools throughout the country.

A crisis in nursery school places is being matched by an acute shortage of space in private schools throughout the country. With the new school year about to start, the pressure is particularly high at primary schools, where as many as 10 children have been competing for each place. Schools in Abu Dhabi and Dubai following curricula from a variety of countries are heavily oversubscribed. Many schools filled their quota of vacancies for the new academic year earlier this year, leaving parents struggling for places or having to enrol their children at second or third-choice schools.

The American International School - Abu Dhabi (Aisa) has more than 500 children on its waiting list. "It's enough to start a new school," said Rhanda Raidan, registrar at Aisa. "People want to add their names even when we say it's just a waiting list. The demand is much higher this year." The American Community School of Abu Dhabi (ACS) stopped taking applications for non-American pupils in its elementary school in May. Despite that, it has about 140 children on the waiting list.

"Had we accepted all the applications that we got we would have had about 300 or 400 on the wait list," said Dr George Robinson, the superintendent at ACS. "We will be building a second campus if we can get the money to do so," he said. "We're not motivated to grow because it will bring in more money, we are motivated to grow because of the demand." Even though the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi has almost doubled in size in the past eight years and added 70 places this term, there is still a "significant" waiting list, according to the principal Paul Coackley.

"We are full and we're not expecting any more vacancies," he said. Now in its second year, the GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi, had a waiting list in several grades until qualified teachers were found and new sections opened. "We opened third sections because the wait lists were so big," said Jason McBride, the school principal. At Dubai College, the spokesman Graham Penson said 300 children took an entrance test for the 120 places in year seven.

"If a place comes up, it doesn't take very long to fill it," he said. "That's the case for most of the UK secondary schools in Dubai." Also in Dubai, Our Own English High School, an Indian-curriculum school run by Global Education Management Systems (Gems), had about 3,000 applications for the 300 places available in the kindergarten earlier this year. "A number of our schools maintain wait lists, as they have in years past. This is across all segments and does not appear to be limited to a particular curriculum or fee range," said Monica Harter, a spokesman at Gems, which has 26 schools in the UAE.

Problems finding spaces start with children as young as one. Dr Ziaul Akhtar, a paediatrician at Cedars Jebel Ali International Hospital, said children could be missing out on early interaction with other youngsters, something that was "very important". "They become more confident and have more interaction. That's not the case if the child stays at home," he said. Dr Akhtar said there were few extended families among expatriates in the UAE, so children not at nursery school had a limited number of people with whom to interact.

"They learn everything [at nursery]. Their parents don't have enough time - with most parents, both are working. They cannot care for their children as in a nursery," he said. The importance of interaction is a concern for Debbie Barbour, an Abu Dhabi-based British expatriate whose daughter Charlotte, aged one, has a place at nursery school three days a week instead of five. Ms Barbour, a lawyer, and her husband Simon Lowe moved to the UAE in June, but a friend had started making inquiries about nursery places on their behalf two months earlier.

"We had our name on three or four waiting lists," Ms Barbour said. "I thought it was difficult in the UK - I hadn't expected it to be difficult in the UAE. We struggled a little but, but we eventually found somewhere. "We were quite fortunate, but we knew that other people haven't been able to find a place." @Email:klewis@thenational.ae dbardsley@thenational.ae

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