x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Catching up with school demand

News of plans for 47 new schools within two years will be welcome, especially for Indian families. Now attention must turn to finding teachers.

A father in Abu Dhabi sees his two sons once or twice a year because he could not find an appropriate school in the UAE for one of them, who requires a speech therapist. After spending a year trying to find a school that offers the needed help, the family had to make a tough decision: the mother and the children travelled to the UK for schooling and the father stayed behind for work.

Special-needs families are not the only ones with a chance to profit from the news that Abu Dhabi has approved 47 new private schools, to open within the next two years. High tuition fees, crowded classes, lack of facilities for special-needs pupils, and a shortage of first-rate teachers have combined to create a serious problem for numerous families.

Examples of parents having to break up their households for the sake of education are too abundant, especially in the Indian community. This reality runs against the UAE's aspirations to usher in an inclusive society with quality institutions for both expatriates and citizens.

As things stand, schools have little need to compete, because demand for places is greater than supply.

For the same reason fees may have only a tenuous connection to the quality of education provided. The spurt of new schools aims to address these issues and provide more choice.

But authorising the opening of 47 new schools is only the start. The 60,000 additional places being promised within two years create demand for more than just classrooms.

If we assume an average of 35 students per class, those 60,000 places mean over 1,700 new teachers will be needed, plus teachers' aides, support staff and administrators. Manpower planning will have to start soon.

Because pay levels are generally low, teachers frequently resign as soon as their contracts allow them to do so; too many of them leave the profession altogether. Retaining good teachers is a constant challenge.

And as our example above suggests, even that is not enough. Particular attention will have to be paid to special needs students.

Education at all levels is the direct route to prosperity, and personal success. With this new initiative Abu Dhabi has again shown determination to do the right thing. But it's never simple, or cheap.