x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Children left out as nurseries overflow

Nursery waiting lists are at record lengths as an influx of expatriate families worsens the shortage of space.

Children play at Bright Beginnings
Preschool, Abu Dhabi.
Children play at Bright Beginnings Preschool, Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // An influx of expatriate families is exacerbating a serious shortage of places in nurseries, where waiting lists have grown to record lengths. Some nursery schools are oversubscribed by more than 100 per cent and parents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are frustrated and concerned that they will have to keep their young children at home.

Owners say the obstacles to opening new nurseries or enlarging existing ones mean there is little chance of the situation improving soon. In both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, administrators of nursery schools say places were filled months ago - a situation consistent with heavy demand for places at every level of education, with many primary schools heavily oversubscribed. "We've lived here a long time and we've found that this year is the worst year," said Susan Alrumathi, the director of the Lady Bird Private Nursery School in Abu Dhabi.

The school, which can accommodate 100 children, filled all its places for the coming year by April, without advertising. "There are a lot of people coming in and the schools can't take the children," said Ms Alrumathi. The crisis feeds into an already worsening shortage of places in elementary and secondary schools. "Nursery education is vitally important in preparing a child socially and emotionally for the transition between parental separation and the start of their full-time education," said Lisamarie Blackburn, the principal of the Humpty Dumpty Nursery school in the capital.

"All children deserve a good start in life. I'm saddened by the fact that so many are going to be denied this positive and beneficial head-start and that parents will be forced to make alternate childcare arrangements that may be detrimental to their child's developmental progress during these sensitive years." Humpty Dumpty, which has a capacity of 100, also closed registration in April. "There are still 160 children on the waiting list and we have had to stop taking any new names and numbers," said Ms Blackburn. "We're getting more than 15 calls a day."

Bright Beginnings Nursery, which has two branches in Abu Dhabi, with room for about 250 children, currently has 150 children on the waiting list. "There are so many expats," said Marie Rossel, an administrator at the ABC Nursery, which opened in 1979. With a capacity of 120, it is full for most age groups, with just five places left for infants under two. Paul Coackley, principal of the British School - Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, which takes children from three years old, admitted it was "difficult to find nursery places". "There are more applications than places," he said, "but we don't keep long waiting lists because there's not much point. "For parents with preschool and pre-nursery children, they seem to have difficulty finding places. You tend to get a lot more demand in the younger ages because people decide, if they're coming overseas, they're more likely to do it with children of that age." Existing nurseries were unable to expand to accommodate more children, in part due to the high rents in Abu Dhabi that have acted as a deterrent to the opening of new ones, said Agathe Amatoury, a headmistress at Kids' Island Nursery in Jumeirah, Dubai. Former colleagues who had hoped to open new nurseries in the capital had been frustrated, she said. "It is the perfect time to open, but the problem is there are no premises," she said. "If there's no building, you cannot open a nursery; it's impossible unless you're willing to pay an astronomical amount of money." Some parents in Abu Dhabi, she said, were considering teaching their children at home until they were of school age because they had been unable to find nursery places. Kelly Morrison has been trying to open a nursery school for disabled children for the past eight months, but has been frustrated by high rents. "To rent is just not feasible when you're trying to do non-profit," she said. "People are asking for Dh300,000 [a year]. That's a lot of money and you have to pay it all upfront. If we could do it monthly it would be easy." Ms Blackburn at Humpty Dumpty is keen to open a new nursery and believes that renting is no longer a long-term option. "It's very difficult for existing nurseries to expand their business because of escalating rent prices," she said. "I've looked at a couple of properties in Abu Dhabi, and even Al Ain, and the costs are just way too high. I think that the way to go is to purchase a plot of land and actually purpose-build. It's too hard to rent and to find a suitable building." Ms Shaban spent six months searching for two locations for Bright Beginnings. "It's not easy. You have to get approval from the Government and find the right facilities and have a background in education to do it properly," she said. Similar difficulties are facing school administrators in Dubai. "It is difficult to open a nursery and to get land designated for a nursery, since the regulators have stopped allowing villas to be used for such purposes," said Melissa Jarvinen, the marketing manager at Taaleem, a private-schools firm. Studies from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, indicate that a quality nursery education can substantially increase a child's chance of success later in life. Children who attend quality nurseries are less likely to repeat a school year, less likely to require special-needs classes and more likely to complete high school. dbardsley@thenational.ae klewis@thenational.ae