x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai special needs school shut as owner allegedly flees with cash

Stunned parents and their children arrived at a school which specialises in teaching special needs pupils in Dubai this morning to find the gates locked.

The empty exterior area of St. Andrews school in Al Safa. Parents received an email yesterday at around 5:30pm alerting them the school would not re-open.
The empty exterior area of St. Andrews school in Al Safa. Parents received an email yesterday at around 5:30pm alerting them the school would not re-open.

Dubai // A school boss accused of fleeing with all of its funds cleared out the bank accounts by cashing two cheques for a total of Dh210,000, school chiefs say.

Parents were told at a meeting last night that Christopher Reynolds, managing director of the company that ran St Andrews School in Al Safa, had left behind debts of Dh890,000. The only money remaining was the petty cash.

The meeting was addressed by head teacher Barbara Blake and the special-needs school's sponsor and accounts manager.

It was attended by staff who are owed salaries totalling Dh187,000.

"There is no money in the school, not even enough to buy whiteboard markers," Ms Blake said.

"He has literally taken everything."

But Dr Reynolds, whose whereabouts is unknown, denied by email that he had taken any cash.

"Accusing me of stealing my company funds is ridiculous," he said. "There were no funds available across this summer to run off with."

Earlier in the day stunned parents had arrived at the school with their children to find the gates locked.

A group of them, accompanied by Ms Blake and other members of staff, later lodged a complaint against Dr Reynolds at Bur Dubai police station. Other parents will be able to add their names to the complaint.

At 5.20pm on Tuesday the company sent parents an email saying: "It is with the utmost regret that I have to inform you that St Andrews School will not be reopening tomorrow … as the owner, Christopher Reynolds, has left the country and absconded with all the funds."

Dr Reynolds said: "This is only a simple and poor excuse used by the ex-head teacher to try to shift blame."

But Ms Blake said she had never had any involvement with the school's finances, and this was confirmed by another official.

It was not clear whether or not Dr Reynolds had left the country as his passport was being held by a court in Sharjah that is hearing his divorce case.

The National asked him where he was but he declined to answer.

Most of the parents had paid the school Dh19,250 in advance for each child to cover the fees for the first of four terms, although seven had handed over the full annual sum of Dh75,000.

Those who had given postdated cheques for the remaining instalments were assured they would be returned.

The school operated in a large villa and accepted children from Years 1 to 9 with a variety of conditions and learning difficulties. A total of 53 pupils had enrolled for the new term at what is one of the most expensive schools in Dubai.

A therapist at St Andrews, who asked not to be named, said staff were told of the decision to close at 4pm on Tuesday. She said Ms Blake called a meeting at which she said Dr Reynolds had fled with the money.

Yesterday the school was deserted, with the message in the email attached to the front gate. Not all of the parents received the email, and a number learnt of the closure only when they turned up at 7.15am.

An Emirati mother, Arwa Baitelmal, took her five-year-old son Abdul, who has Noonan syndrome, which affects development.

"I'm shocked, now I have the problem of finding another school," Mrs Baitelmal said.

Christian Gueco, from the Philippines, turned up with his son Ioanne, 5, who has mild autism.

"I didn't have a chance to read the email so I didn't know about it until this morning," said Mr Gueco. "It was shocking and devastating."

His wife Mary said: "The pain is not for us, it's for my son because he was conditioned that he's going to school and now the school is closed."

Keith and Sarah Phillips from the UK, arrived at the school with son Samuel, 7, who has autism.

"We bought the school uniforms and we can't return them now," Mr Phillips said. "With everything they probably cost Dh1,500."

The school was operated by an organisation called the British Institute of Learning Development, of which Dr Reynolds was managing director.

It opened in Sharjah 10 years ago before moving to Satwa and then, in 2007, to Al Safa. It was licensed by the Ministry of Social Affairs as a child-development centre.

csimpson@thenational.ae