While the continuing problems of the state school system have been preoccupying the federal Government, the past few years have also seen an increased scrutiny of the larger private education sector, whose own problems remain considerable. Over the past decade, the private sector, which consists primarily of for-profit schools, has grown dramatically to accommodate the large number of expatriates.
Now, essentially for the first time, the expanding private school market is coming under the oversight of government education authorities, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in an attempt to ensure uniform standards of quality. "The main problem is there isn't a public option for expatriate children," says Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government. "The biggest issue is quality," she adds, pointing out that wealthier families can send their children to better schools. The Government must ensure private schools "do not take advantage of a captive market", she insists.
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the government body that regulates schools in Dubai, introduced wide-ranging school inspections for the first time last year, pegging fee increases to performance, and painting a grim picture of private education in the emirate. In Abu Dhabi inspections are now under way by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which oversees schools in the capital.
KHDA inspection reports revealed a range of problems, from the use of corporal punishment in schools - a violation of UAE law - to poor provision in key subjects such as maths, science, English and Arabic. Only four schools were ranked as outstanding and more than half were judged to be merely meeting minimum standards. The situation in Abu Dhabi may be worse: there are still some 70 private schools in the capital, catering for low-income communities, which operate out of villas.
Adec first pledged to shut these schools in September last year, but the challenge of finding alternatives for their pupils has made the process a lengthy and difficult one. Baltazar Junio, a financial manager in Abu Dhabi, pays roughly Dh16,000 (US$4,355) a year to send his two children to one of three Filipino schools operating out of villas in the capital. He complains: "The rooms are very small, there are 20 to 25 students in one room, and it's so congested.
"Since it is a villa, it is not designed for kids going to school." Mr Junio complains also that because there is no multi-purpose hall, children are forced to do sports outdoors during the hot summer months: "It's not really healthy." Earl, whose two children attend the Abu Dhabi Grammar School, a Canadian establishment housed in a proper school building, is happy with everything but the facilities.
"There is a big room for improvement," he says. "We would have preferred a school with wider grounds but unfortunately that option was not available." In Dubai, half the school-age Emirati population are now educated privately because many parents have lost faith in government schools. In Abu Dhabi, the figure is 40 per cent. "We have seen a migration of students from public to private," says Dr Abdulla al Karam, director general of the KHDA. "Now we have half of the nationals in the private schools. The worry is unless major steps are taken to reform the public education system in Dubai then this migration will continue to happen."
Most parents in the UAE also believe they are overpaying for education. A recent YouGov poll found that 88 per cent of parents with children in private schools and nurseries thought fees were excessive. "It would be a lot less in the UK," says Gerome Atkin, a Briton who works in construction. He pays Dh28,000 a year to send his daughter to a nursery four days a week. "It seems like a lot of money, really, for very little. In general the school fees over here are quite ludicrous anyway. What surprises me, especially with the recession and everything else, is that fees have not gone down; in fact, they are putting them up.
"So people who are out here - are possibly being given less money due to the recession - but the price of Dubai in general is still skyrocketing. It just makes it very hard." firstname.lastname@example.org