DUBAI // Parents are calling for better child protection measures in private schools, saying the lack of enforced regulations leaves their children vulnerable.
While public schools are broadly advised by education zones on how to address security issues on campus, some private schools continue to operate without guidelines, or have guidelines but do not implement them.
The Dubai education authority's 2010 annual education report said procedures for dealing with issues of child protection were weak in many private schools. Students had nobody to speak to if they were suffering abuse on campus or at home, said the report from Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
Paul Andrews, who oversees private schools for the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), said many schools were faltering when it came to health and safety, as was made evident during inspections last year.
The lack of a strategy has parents such as Fatma Abdulla concerned. "There should be a policy that defines and looks at every type of abuse, and states what is acceptable and what is not," said Mrs Abdulla, a mother of two whose children study at a private school in Dubai. "The Government has to enforce a uniform protection mechanism."
One area of safety, school transport, was brought into sharp focus recently by the case of a child allegedly molested on a school bus in Dubai.
Lisa Lundqvist, the mother of a five-year-old girl who attends a school in Abu Dhabi, said: "What happened to the child in that school has got me thinking. To be on the safe side, it should be a law that the buses have a female attendant. It should not be left to the discretion of the school."
Ms Lundqvist said her daughter's school used all male supervisors in its bus, adding that the school had informed her it had no plans to hire female attendants.
Some education providers, including Taaleem and Educational Services Overseas Limited, already have female staff on their buses.
The nation's largest education provider, Gems, manages the school attended by the four-year-old student who was allegedly assaulted on a school bus assault last November. Gems said it had begun recruiting 700 female monitors for its buses.
"We are not sparing any effort to make our school environment safe and secure for our students," a Gems spokesman said. "In addition, we are incorporating crime prevention measures within our school designs, in line with international best practices."
A gaping safety issue can also occur at the most elementary stage: hiring of staff. No law governs recruitment at private schools, which means schools are not required to ensure teachers and other staff members have clear records.
"All schools should be scrupulous in checking references and looking at previous records," Mr Andrews said. "Interviews and tests should also be carried out to gauge the character and qualifications of the individual."
Some administrators protest that certain countries that supply teachers do not have systems to make such information available.
That means more diligence is needed in sourcing and checking references, according to Saira Gulamani, the human resources manager at Taaleem.
"For staff coming from countries with less developed systems, we require a written statement from a local police station in the area where the person lives, and a personal character reference, usually from someone who is well known to us," he said.
Last month Adec published safety regulations for all private schools, laying down precise preventive measures and actions.
"When the new regulations are in place, schools will be expected to implement them immediately," Mr Andrews said.
Some of the changes schools will be asked to make include hiring female attendants and installing GPS and closed-circuit cameras on all school buses.
That may comfort parents in Abu Dhabi, but parents of children in other areas of the country say such policies should apply to all schools.
"Safety is of the utmost importance to any parent while choosing a school, and all schools must have the same rules," said Linda John, the mother of a five-year-old who attends a school in Dubai.
"I think reforms like background checks should not be an option but a necessity enforced by the Government," she said.