ABU DHABI // The tradition of using private villas as schools - some filled with more than 700 pupils - is coming under scrutiny as the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) begins inspecting 66 such facilities. "In the old days it was easy for private schools to come and open," said Dr Mugheer al Khaili, director general of Adec. "What's worrying us is safety." In May, the Ministry of Education gave the education council authority over all Abu Dhabi private schools, part of a plan to decentralise education and give more responsibility to local councils such as Adec in Abu Dhabi and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai.
The education council is also looking into closing government-run evening schools, which see pupils attending classes late in the day, and moving them to regular day facilities. The Government first addressed the issue of villa schools in 1999 when a Ministry of Cabinet Affairs decree ordered that they be phased out. Nearly a decade later, dozens of villa schools still remain in Abu Dhabi, while there are only two left in Dubai.
One of the first actions taken by the KHDA when it was given authority over Dubai's private schools in April last year was to begin shutting down its 17 villa schools. In one case the agency helped to locate new school places, but the other schools moved to new premises and their pupils moved with them. They were not given any assistance by the KHDA to do so. Dr Khaili said the first inspections in Abu Dhabi showed that the villa schools, which were originally licensed by the Ministry of Education and cater for the children of low- and middle-income workers, many from the Indian subcontinent, had qualified principals and teaching staff who were operating out of substandard facilities.
"Safety of children is more important than anything else," said Dr Khaili. Most schools, where children crowd into villas intended to house four or five people, have poor airconditioning systems. None has playgrounds or sporting facilities. "The schools are in the middle of a community," said Dr Khaili. "It's very dangerous for the children to go out - maybe they will be hit by cars." In the past, private schools were allowed to operate as long as they had a licence from the ministry, and some have since swollen in size without expanding facilities. Sharaf al Hashemi, the deputy director of the Pioneers International Private School, one of several Filipino villa schools in Abu Dhabi, said relocating the school would be difficult because tuition fees were kept so low.
"We need the Government assistance because it will cost us a huge amount, over Dh8 million (US$2.18m), because of high building costs," said Mr Hashemi. "It's the Government who is asking us to move from the villas into another building." Pioneers, with fees ranging from Dh6,285 to Dh10,000 a year, has been educating Filipino children since 1990. Little Flower Private School, which has served the Indian community since 1986, charges as little as Dh2,000 per year.