What is at the heart of the foggy, tangled maze of why schools cost so much? It's a lack of transparency about what, exactly, parents are paying for.
Every parent I know can list their problems and questions relating to their children's schools - not to mention suspicions of outright thievery. Even after Dubai's inspections, schools are still putting one over on parents and laughing all the way to the bank.
Don't get me wrong, the inspections by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) have been very useful, putting a speed bump in front of breakneck fee hikes, but many parents feel that more needs to be done.
Preparing for the start of the new term in September, my nephew had been looking for a school for his daughter. Since he's new in the country, he asked me to look around for him. I went straight to the grapevine, asking my friends and neighbours how they felt about their children's schools.
One of my friends has a child at one of the schools my nephew was interested in. She liked the school, but I wasn't so impressed when I checked its website and found out that the school charged extra for Arabic and English-language classes. How can they get away with charging extra for core classes?
Transportation fees are another thing that irks parents. One parent told me that she and her husband were being charged Dh8,000 a year for their child to be driven 15 minutes to school. For that kind of money, it just makes sense to drive them yourself.
Many of the schools use buses that can seat 50 pupils. Fifty times Dh8,000 adds up to a lot of money. Are we supposed to believe that Dh400,000 in transport fees is simply to cover costs as some schools claim?
I had to take my heart pills after seeing the fees that some schools have been demanding. "It's a mafia," my neighbour told me, and I couldn't argue with her. Another school was asking for a deposit of nearly Dh30,000 on top of regular tuition and registration fees, which totalled nearly Dh50,000 for kindergarten. Why am I thinking of The Sopranos instead of the A-B-C's?
It wasn't long ago when you could find advertisements in the classified ads with parents offering used books for sale. Also, uniforms were passed down from older siblings who attended the same school. It was a way of defraying costs, but not anymore. Parents are forced to buy new uniforms and books that they don't need and to pay for materials that come late or not at all.
When searching for a school these days, you need to keep your calculator handy. My Quran teacher told me that she had been asked to pay Dh490 ($133) for a book that I know costs $49 on the publisher's website. She refused, saying: "Why should I buy it when I can get it from my friend?"
They rejoined: "We've changed the books this year." She didn't budge however.
Another trend is that some schools are teaching only a portion of the curriculum in school, while offering another portion of the lessons for an extra fee. There are the usual, non-refundable registration fees, but Dh12,000 for an extra intensive English class for Grade One? That's outrageous.
They use the excuse that there's no time to finish during school hours. Another friend was livid when she learnt that in order for her son to graduate, he would have to take extra lessons that cost up to Dh1,500 per subject.
Parents just want a fair deal for their hard-earned money. They want schools that are keeping their promise to do what is best for the pupils in their care. I know that authorities have put restrictions on fees that schools can charge, but it might be helpful to look into the epidemic of hidden charges that seem to arise. This would help to ease the minds of parents who are lying awake at night wondering where they will find the money to pay for their child's education.
Maryam Ismail is a teacher who divides her time between the United States and the UAE