As the UAE continues its quest to reform its education sector, the role of private schools will be increasingly important.
However, a recent survey from the consulting firm Booz & Company and YouGov shows that many private schools are not meeting the needs of a critical group: parents.
In Abu Dhabi, 58 per cent of all K-12 students are in private schools. In Dubai, the figure is 88 per cent, including 97 per cent of expatriate students and 55 per cent of Emiratis. The number of Emiratis attending private schools is expected to continue rising in the next decade.
But if private-school operators hope to succeed in these markets, there are a number of areas in which they will need to give more consideration to what parents want.
Of more than 1,000 parents surveyed across the GCC, 34 per cent whose children were not in private schools said they did not see a need for them, because public schools were sufficient.
Nineteen per cent said the location of private schools was not convenient; 14 per cent felt that public schools were more likely to preserve their values; and 12 per cent were concerned about boys and girls being placed in the same classrooms.
In fact, gender mixing was a concern for many national parents, including those whose children were already in private schools. Of all of the national parents surveyed, 80 per cent already had children in private schools that were single-gender or had single-gender classes, and 91 per cent said they would be willing to consider such schools.
This will be an important consideration for private-school operators hoping to make headway in the UAE.
Another important consideration is the curriculum. Fifty-five per cent of national parents in the survey indicated that their children's schools taught an Arabic or Ministry of Education curriculum, but that was the preferred choice for 41 per cent of national parents; 30 per cent would prefer a US curriculum and 17 per cent would opt for a UK curriculum.
Private-school operators will need to take these preferences seriously, as curriculum is one of the most important elements for parents evaluating a private school. Eighty-one per cent of parents in the survey, including nationals and expatriates, rated curriculum "very important".
The four other most important factors were teacher quality (rated very important by 90 per cent of parents), reputation (81 per cent), environment for children (80 per cent), and preservation of culture (74 per cent).
If private-school operators are able to entice parents to enrol their children, they stand to increase their revenues considerably. In the UAE, Emirati parents spend an average of Dh22,038 per year on private schools, but survey respondents indicated that they were willing to spend more than Dh58,000. Similarly, expatriate parents spend an average of Dh16,000 but are willing to spend more than Dh40,000.
Meeting parents' needs is not a concern just for school operators. Governments have a role in regulating the private schools, but they also have a significant part to play in helping parents make the best choices. Many of the region's parents lack the information necessary to differentiate among the schools. If governments were to monitor private schools' performance and publish the results, they would help parents to be more critical and discerning.
Reliable, transparent metrics would enhance competition among schools, forcing substandard schools to improve their performance or lose business to those that excel.
Dubai has begun publishing school inspection results for all schools. It also publishes the combined results of students in public and private schools on the worldwide Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) examination; this has shown that Dubai's private schools outrank public schools in Pisa scores.
More such information, if available throughout the UAE, would make it possible for parents to select schools on the basis of measurable performance.
There is no question that the UAE is dedicated to the reform of its education system and that it has already made notable progress.
Reform in private schools will keep the UAE on this trajectory and ensure that students are getting the education they deserve.
Leila Hoteit is a principal, Jussi Hiltunen is a senior associate and Daniel Tolhurst is an associate with the consulting firm Booz & Company