x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A thousand pupils still without places

Strict regulations for new schools and knock-on effect on fees are major factors in the problems over places for Indian pupils.

ABU DHABI // With the start of the Indian academic year just 18 days away, around 1,000 pupils are still believed to be without school places despite last-minute efforts. "I would think it's nearly a thousand from the number of calls I'm getting," said KB Murali, the president of the Kerala Social Centre in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which has faced severe criticism from Indian parents over the shortage, has allowed a few schools to increase class sizes. But parents and school administrators say the moves fail to address the magnitude of the immediate crisis, and many parents still face having to send their children back to India to continue their schooling. The only long-term solution, all parties agree, is to build more Indian schools, especially as the education council plans to shut existing schools operating out of villas by 2012. Roughly half of the 21,000 Indian pupils in Abu Dhabi and Musaffah study in 12 villas, one of which closes this year. The rest are in five schools.

Adec announced two weeks ago that it would offer free land to entrepreneurs willing to build new Indian schools in the capital, but some school operators say that new building standards issued last year will make the cost of opening new schools prohibitive. The regulations, school owners say, are excessively strict. Several pointed to the requirement that buildings provide 1.8 square metres of classroom space for each pupil, observing that the comparable Indian regulations require only one square metre.

"The specifications are too high," said Saji Oommen, the principal of the Upper Wisdom School, a villa school in Musaffah. "The costs then become very high and the fees then have to be high, but the Indian parents cannot afford such fees." Sunny Varkey, the chairman of Gems Education, the country's largest operator, said it would be willing to build new, compliant schools in Abu Dhabi. "We have the size and scale to build schools quickly and in compliance with the current building regulations," he said.

But few can match Gems' resources. Just one other Indian investor, the owner of Dubai's Global Indian International School, has announced plans to open a new school in the capital, for which it hopes to use an existing building. It has also indicated that it would be willing to build a new school. Adec officials have suggested that they are considering giving an unused government school building to another Indian school in the capital, but no details have emerged.

Two existing Indian not-for-profit companies, the Abu Dhabi Indian School and the Sunrise School, have announced plans to expand, and each said they could build schools under Adec's new rules. It remains unclear how many villa schools will be able to find new, approved premises. Some owners said that they would need government subsidies to survive. However, Mugheer al Khaili, the director of Adec, said last week that such help would not be forthcoming.

Mohamed Haris, the principal of the Al Noor Indian Islamic School, a villa school in the capital with 1,200 students, said he would have trouble raising the funds to relocate. "It is middle-class Indians who are studying with us, so we can't charge more from our parents," he said. JSS International, a not-for-profit school group based in India that recently opened a branch in Dubai, agreed that Abu Dhabi's new regulations are too stringent.

"It will be more expensive. It will be very difficult to make the break-even point," a spokesman said. @Email:klewis@thenational.ae