ABU DHABI // For the past two months, Sunil Zachariah has been searching for a school for his son, Kevin, four. But Abu Dhabi's Indian schools are full and he has found nothing. Mr Zachariah, who works in sales, came to the UAE from Bangalore a decade ago. His eldest son is a Grade Five pupil at Sherwood Academy. But earlier this year, the school announced that it would not be taking any new pupils in its kindergarten next year - to the dismay of Mr Zachariah and other Indian parents.
He approached St Joseph's school but learnt that hundreds of applicants were competing for a small number of places. Then he went to Our Own English High School, but found that, like the others, to be full. Now he is hoping to get Kevin into the Little Flower Private School, which is housed in a villa near Al Wahda Mall. He is not optimistic, however. There is a long waiting list ahead of him. For now Mr Zachariah plans to stay put. "I will send him to a babysitter and will search for a teacher to give him a tuition," he said, adding that this was an option only for next year, when Kevin is ready for kindergarten. He must move to a proper school later.
But if he fails to find a school for his son a year from now, he will be forced to make a hard decision. Failure could oblige him to send his family home. Mr Zachariah is not alone; the Abu Dhabi Indian School has had more than 2,000 applicants for roughly 100 seats. There are just five Indian curriculum schools in the capital housed in purpose-built premises, with the sorts of amenities that parents expect: central air conditioning, a gymnasium, a library. The others are in villas and vary dramatically in quality. The Little Flower Private School uses all the space it can; some of its classrooms are so small they can accommodate only 10 pupils.
Mr Zachariah said he would like to send his son to a school with proper facilities. But his options are limited. "We have no other choice," he said. "Indian school admissions are very, very little." Parents complain that Indian schools in the capital are not equal. The Abu Dhabi Indian School has an indoor swimming pool, a big playground and central air conditioning, but few other CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) schools are so well equipped.
Babit Prabhu has been looking for a school place for her daughter Nisha, five, for months. "I tried all the schools in Abu Dhabi and my number is on every waiting list," she said. Mrs Prabhu said she might have to leave Abu Dhabi if she could not find a school for Nisha. She would wait for another month, but then would have to start looking for a school back in India. "It's a very hard time for the older villa schools," said a principal at one Indian school, who wanted to remain anonymous. "We are hard pressed for space."
The principal said it would be difficult for villa schools to transfer to regular buildings because the costs associated with building a new school would be high. "It's practically impossible for an average businessperson to start a school here," she said. "If you are going to construct schools almost like a five-star facility, what kind of fees will they have to charge?" She said parents with children at her school could not afford to pay high fees. Many of the Indian villa establishments charge low tuition fees because they cater for low- and middle-income families.
"If you are going to stick to this policy, no new Indian schools will come up," she said. "That means bye-bye to the Indian community. This is an indirect way of telling all the Asians or Indians to go back with their families. They will not stay here without their children's education, so they have to go." A spokesman for Abu Dhabi Education Council said the authority was working on plans to address the issue, bearing in mind the economic strain that families were facing. "We recognise there is a need for support. A plan is being developed to require schools to move to more suitable premises," he said.
"There is a substantial difference between a purpose-built school and some of the facilities being used to house private school programmes. "Purpose-built schools have by definition laboratories, halls, sports facilities, IT provision and a great deal more. The council's minimum standards require such facilities to be available at all schools in the emirate." An application process has been developed under which interested operators may seek to set up new schools. The process includes provision for land to be allocated to schools.