x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

20,000 new school places for UAE

Plans to provide more than 20,000 new school places in the UAE have been announced by the Dubai-based Gems.

Dino Varkey says Global Education Management Systems plans more than 20,000 school places.
Dino Varkey says Global Education Management Systems plans more than 20,000 school places.

Plans to provide more than 20,000 new school places in the UAE have been announced by the Dubai-based Global Education Management Systems (Gems). The Dh1.5 billion (US$408 million) expansion will focus on Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and other emirates. Gems, which runs more than 75 schools worldwide, is also looking to significantly increase its international reach. The company's mission is to become the "leading provider of education and learning management services" globally, said Dino Varkey, senior director for business development at Gems. It is currently developing plans to open schools in South Africa, where the company already has a strong presence, and in other nations.

In the past, the company has been criticised for being more concerned with making profits than with the quality of education. However, Mr Varkey said for parents to be given a proper choice, the private sector would play an increasing role in schooling. "There is a huge switch," he said. "I think more and more you will find the view that the private sector shouldn't be involved in education is changing.

"Increasingly, there's going to be a trend where people are disenfranchised to a certain extent with outcomes from the government sector. More and more, the private sector will take on that role. "If you look at our academic results, our outcomes, we outperform the national averages." Gems has 25 schools in the UAE with about 70,000 pupils, which it says equates to a 14 per cent share of the total UAE education market. It is the single largest employer of British and Indian teachers outside the UK and India.

"The UAE is still our home business and there is a tremendous amount of growth," said Mr Varkey. "We will be looking at spending Dh1.5 billion over the next two to three years in school development. We believe in education for all and so we want to take our brand of education to as many parents as possible." Between 24,000 and 28,000 new school places were likely to be created through the building of new schools and the expansion of existing facilities, Mr Varkey said.

"Broadly, our [growth] focus is outside Dubai - you're looking at Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. We're trying to focus on expanding outside Dubai because we already have a base here. " That's not to say we don't want to expand [in Dubai], but it's proportionally less." Gems has 18 schools in Dubai, four in Abu Dhabi and one each in Al Ain, Sharjah and Fujairah. As it grows, Mr Varkey said Gems plans to move away from owning the school buildings in order to concentrate instead on running the schools.

"Because we're an education company, we'll try to separate ourselves from the bricks and mortar. We'd like to leave that to others," he said. "If we can find investors to build the school for us, we can take the land and building on a long-term lease. We have a lot of landlords comfortable with 25- to 50-year leases. It's a quicker way for us to grow." Gems owns and operates 60 per cent of its schools, with 40 per cent owned by others but managed by Gems, a proportion that has more than doubled in two years. Last autumn, Gems branched into the public school sector in the UAE with a subsidiary company, School Improvement Partnership, which runs public-private partnership (PPP) schools in Abu Dhabi.

"We do expect to grow our managed school business for high-net-worth individuals who want to go into education. We manage schools for them," Mr Varkey said. Gems can trace its history back to when Mr Varkey's grandparents, who moved to the UAE in 1959 and 1961 respectively, set up Our Own English High School in Dubai's Bastakia quarter. Sunny Varkey, Mr Varkey's father, took over the school in 1980 and went on to create Gems and drive its growth to date.

The company provides private schools for all income levels, categorising them as mid-market, mid-market plus and premium. "We're very cost-focused," Mr Varkey said. "A parent paying $15,000 to $20,000 is very specific in what they want, whereas the parent sending [their child] to a mid-market school is not concerned about their child speaking five languages or learning the cello. They want a good education and for their kid to go to a good university. It's very aspirational.

"Many of the mid-market schools, which include several Indian schools, offer tuition for less than Dh5,000. "Our Own English High School in Dubai charges just Dh7,500 annually. At the other end of the spectrum, the Gems World Academy in Dubai, which will open its doors in September, will charge as much as Dh92,000 a year." Mr Varkey said he could not rule out a move by Gems into higher education, although the company had no plans to do so yet.

"With Gems we would never say no to anything," he said. He did, however, rule out the possibility of replacing his father as head of the business in the near future. "I'm blessed because my father has a stamina that drives the rest of us. He's incredibly driven and it drives the rest of the organisation. Touch wood it will be a long time before he slows down. It's his life and it's what he's passionate about," he said.

@Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae