x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lack of school places requires urgent action

Education should not depend on the luck of a lottery. When thousands of children can't find school places, something must be done.

Two thousand eight hundred. That's how many young minds came up short in a one-day lottery for school spaces at an Indian school in Abu Dhabi at the weekend. With about 3,000 applicants for 200 seats, the majority of parents and their children will now have to scramble, plead or wait until next year for their children to go to school.

There are many more children in the same fix.

Education should never depend on luck. And yet, in Abu Dhabi today the luck of the draw is presenting parents with this nightmare calculus: win, skip a year or send their children home to live with relatives?

Parents will make great sacrifices to ensure their children have an education, from securing loans to taking second jobs. It stands to reason, then, that if the school crisis were a problem parents could solve alone, they would. But it's not, and they can't.

Demographics are one reason. Because many families live on limited incomes, they don't have the means to secure spaces at top schools, where tuition can cost many thousands of dirhams. That leaves other options like villa schools and smaller establishments that have long catered for lower-income families.

But in 2008, the Abu Dhabi Education Council started ordering these schools closed for health and safety reasons. A shortage in school places has since become a crisis. A well-meaning policy designed to protect children may have done more harm than good.

For pupils in the Indian curriculum in particular, the schooling crisis is expected to ease somewhat in the 2013 school year, when an additional 10,000 seats become available. That does not mean, however, that 2012 can be written off. Rather than just shutter schools, the Government should allocate land and facilitate temporary mobile classrooms to provide children a place to learn.

Officials must remember that working families make up a large segment of the nation's workforce. They will do what they must for their children, even if that means going home.

In the end, any long-term solution will have to come by way of the private sector, through the creation of charity schools, non-profit institutions or in other low-cost options. These are solutions that have been effective in other countries. But such an overhaul of the capital's education system will take money and time. Those are two luxuries that thousands of families do not have this year.