x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Reforming special needs education

The sudden closing of St Andrews in Dubai shows just how precarious the situation is for students in the UAE with learning disabilities.

It will take some time to sift through the financial facts that led to the closing this week of St Andrews School in Dubai. School officials say the managing director, Christopher Reynolds, drained St Andrews' accounts before fleeing the country; Mr Reynolds denies that. Yet with debts of Dh890,000, and only petty cash remaining in the till, authorities will have their hands full managing the school's collapse.

One fact at least is not in dispute, even at this early juncture: special- needs children are the ones who will lose the most. The closing of St Andrews, one of Dubai's most expensive institutions (Dh20,000 or more per term) and one dedicated entirely to special-needs students, shows just how precarious the situation in this country is for expatriate students with learning disabilities.

As parents told The National this week, the burden of the school's collapse will fall most heavily on the children. "The pain is not for us," said a parent of a 5-year-old. "It's for my son, because he was conditioned that he's going to school and now the school is closed."

The academic year has already started, and so the school's 53 former pupils need immediate help finding new places. Parents and teachers are rallying to find a temporary solution. But they face long odds against recovering their money and finding anything like the type of education that vanished so suddenly.

Historically, the UAE's for-profit schools have done a dismal job of integrating special-needs students. Many schools simply refuse admission to children with autism, social disorders, physical handicaps or other conditions that make learning a challenge.

Around the world the responsibility for educating children who need extra help usually falls on the state. In the UAE, where expatriates and their employers must pay for education, there is a distinct shortage of services of all types for expatriate children with learning disabilities - and for expatriate adults with physical handicaps, for that matter.

As the country continues to develop, mechanisms of mutual support will surely emerge to meet these needs. In the meantime, however, a few stopgap steps suggest themselves, such as better government monitoring of all private schools, and greater parental vigilance about schools' legal and financial status. Perhaps it is even time to consider rules requiring private schools to allocate places for special-needs children.