x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Abu Dhabi's sardine schools

Cramped villa schools are still a cause for concern in Abu Dhabi, despite officials promising to close the worst.

Pisco Private School library is a cramped place to study.
Pisco Private School library is a cramped place to study.

ABU DHABI // On a Tuesday morning recently, Minella Basuel, 12, and her friends were sitting and chatting on the steps in front of their school. Not much learning was going on, despite the presence of a big banner at the back of Minella's classroom with the mantra "Learning is fun". Left unattended, the girls moved in and out of the classroom while their books remained shut on their desks. "We are like sardines in here," Minella joked as she surveyed the room. "My school in the Philippines was much bigger, it was four floors," she giggled. Pointing at a cardboard box under one of the desks, she added: "Just look at our lockers."

For many expatriate families living in the Emirates, education presents a huge challenge. Free state schools are open only to a select few, and the quality of private schools varies dramatically. Parents able to afford a top-end private school can obtain a fine education for their children - if there are places available - but for middle and especially low-income families, the prospects are depressing.

For Filipino parents, the choices are particularly slim: Abu Dhabi has just three Filipino schools, not one in purpose-built premises. Parents complain that the standard of education at private Filipino schools in Abu Dhabi is worse than at state schools in the Philippines. The Pisco Private School, where Minella has studied for the past year, is one of 72 in the capital operating in converted villas - and all of them are scheduled to close in the coming years by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), the government agency responsible for regulating all schools - public and private - in the emirate.

Fees range from Dh3,000 to Dh6,600, depending on the grade. Adec, which was created four years ago with a mandate to improve local schools, said last year it would close the villa schools, arguing that they were neither safe nor suitable for learning. But that is not a simple matter. About 45,000 children attend them, roughly a third of Abu Dhabi's private school population. Some schools may be able to reopen on new sites, but where that doesn't happen and where no alternative school places are available, the children will have to stay home.

The education council has promised to find a solution, but it will take up to three years. In its run-down villa on a crowded residential street, Pisco is easy to miss unless you are looking for it. But behind the tall white wall that faces the street, the villa is packed with children and surrounded by a mishmash of makeshift classrooms and a big, concrete playground with two rusty basketball hoops on either end - one missing its net, the other missing a rim.

The principal, Geronimo Obaob, was apologetic when asked about the unattended class. "If I knew we could have replaced the teacher," he said. It seems as though every square inch of Pisco's two storeys and grounds has been put to use, even the maid's room, where Mr Obaob has his office. The smallest classroom - a claustrophobic 12 square metres - is crammed with more than 20 desks, so many that it is impossible for Gina Casumlom, a small woman who has been working at Pisco for more than a decade, to move between them.

"I feel guilty about the facilities that we have," Mr Obaob said as he stood under a cracked green plastic canopy used to shade the playground from the sun. When the school opened in 1995, it had only 250 pupils. But the numbers doubled after one year and have continued to increase to about 750 now. Mr Obaob said the school had taken all possible measures to increase capacity, including improvised classrooms in the grounds.

In the main building the upper floor is reached via a narrow and perilous spiral staircase, which makes one wonder about the fire hazard. However, Mr Obaob said the school had fire drills twice a year, and he was convinced it could be evacuated in an emergency. Teachers at Pisco insisted academic standards were fine - but none could deny that the facilities were poor. Because the Ministry of Education had a hands-off approach to private education for years, schools operated with minimal regulation. While rules were in place for private schools, many operated with minimal regulation which led to schools like Pisco. Adec is now taking a more active role in monitoring private schools but unless the Government provides subsidies, many villa schools will be unable to afford construction or relocation.

At the Pioneers International School, an old villa is home to another 600 or so Filipino children. When the education council came knocking last autumn, the school was told to reduce class sizes, so it put up several outbuildings to serve as extra classrooms. "We have no choice," said a parent whose child attends Pioneers. "If there was a Filipino school in a school building, then I would transfer my daughter there."

Hilario Berame, a maintenance supervisor at Adnoc with a child at Pisco, complained that "the school facilities are not so good as compared to the Philippines". "In the Philippines the school is very big, unlike here," said Rhode Iewida, whose children have gone to Pisco for the past eight years. She agreed that the biggest difference was facilities. Another parent who asked not to be named said Pisco should be closed. "We are returning to the Philippines for my children's sake - it's better that they study there. It is not worth what we are paying."

Less than a kilometre away, at the Filipino National School, the largest of the community's three Abu Dhabi schools, pupils have a little more room to stretch out. The smallest classroom is about the size of Pisco's largest, and at 1,500 children the roll is double Pisco's. But despite being spread over three villas, it still lacks basic amenities. There is no cafeteria, for example. When the education council first announced that it would address the villa school problem last year, Dr Mugheer al Khaili, Adec's director general, said they all would be shut within three years. The council, which has announced that it will start inspections for all private schools next year, has yet to release full details of its plan for the villas.

Schools that are not able to fund a move may receive assistance. Adec has already given one building to a villa school. Next year, another 10 will relocate on their own initiative, leaving more than 60 still in villas. Two of the Filipino schools will be among them. Pisco has had a lucky break: it was sold last year and its new owner wants to move to new premises in Musaffah. If all goes well, it could become the capital's first purpose-built Filipino school. The downside is that it will have to raise its fees.

But even if it reopens next winter, Pisco alone will not be able to solve the problem of places for all the Filipino pupils in Abu Dhabi: this year all three Filipino schools had to turn children away. klewis@thenational.ae