x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Compulsory school bill sparks UAE expats' fears

Parents who home-school are nervous about the prospect of a new law requiring school enrolment up to age 18.

The FNC is mulling a new bill requiring UAE expatriates to put their children in school or risk getting their residency visas revoked, a move that might affect some homeschooling parents like Vera Magnusson, seen here home-schooling her four year old son Bjorn Barakat.
The FNC is mulling a new bill requiring UAE expatriates to put their children in school or risk getting their residency visas revoked, a move that might affect some homeschooling parents like Vera Magnusson, seen here home-schooling her four year old son Bjorn Barakat.

ABU DHABI // A new bill that requires expatriates to put their children in school or face the revocation of their residency visas has left dozens of parents worried.

Many parents, whether for financial or personal reasons, have for many years educated their children at home.

Parents who are following a Ministry of Education-certified programme believe they will be exempt from the new rule, but those following a curriculum from their home country, or following a personalised plan, fear the law will push them out of the country.

The 13-article bill states that education will be made compulsory for every child in the country from the age of six to 18. Exceptions are those who finish secondary school or whose residency visa expires.

The draft law, which is under review by the Federal National Council (FNC) and is still subject to amendment, states that after a warning and fines that could reach Dh50,000, expatriates could see their residency visas cancelled.

The law has excluded children whose disabilities prevent them from attending school, those who have social issues and those exempted by the Minister of Education. But there is no mention of home schooling.

Although there are no statistics of the number of children who are home schooled, it is estimated the law could affect more than 100 families.

Vera Magnusson, a stay-at-home mother who home schools her child in Abu Dhabi, said people chose to teach their children at home for a variety of reasons.

"Some believe schools corrupt kids and some cannot afford it because some [schools] are so incredibly expensive," she said.

Others are in the same situation as Mrs Magnusson, who is unable to find a school that caters for her child's needs.

Another stay-at-home mother in Dubai, who wished to remain anonymous, said she removed her eight-year-old son from school after one year in the country.

"He went to a well-reputed school in Dubai. But because a lot of teachers are not native English speakers, he found it hard to understand their accents," she said. "After one year and paying over Dh27,000 for his primary year, I had to pull him out. He had learnt nothing and had fallen behind. I am a Brit and my son has an [Asian] accent now."

She said, as she was an English teacher and her friend a primary schoolteacher, between them they were able to bring her son up to speed.

"It was cheaper for me to quit my job than pay the school fees, for a babysitter while I was still working, get him tutors and everything else. At least now I know what my boy is learning," she said.

Sending him back to school is unrealistic, she said. "Not because he isn't at the same level as them, he is, but I am worried he would fall behind again," she said.

She fears she may have to leave the country, as her friend did, and go home to put her child in mainstream schools.

"Home schooling is actually the only option when you're a parent in this sort of situation," she said.

Dr Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said home schooling was a popular choice for many families.

"Home schooling is as valuable and effective as regular schooling," she said. "In the US it is a very popular option - many go on to top universities and good academic institutions and have careers after that. They are as good as anyone going to regular school."

She said home schooling allowed for more personalised instruction, and requiring those families to send their children to established schools would be taking away parents' choice on how to educate their children.

The FNC education committee has not finished discussing the bill. Once it the FNC completes its deliberations, the bill will be put forward to the Ministry of Education in closed committee. Afterwards, it will be discussed at an open session in the FNC chambers in the presence of the Minister of Education.

Dr Abdulrahim Al Shahin, a Ras Al Khaimah member, said while he is not a member of the education committee, he would take a stand if home schooling was not exempted from the law. But he did not expect that would be the outcome.

"It will be considered, the bill will be amended," he said.

A majority vote in the FNC is needed to make an amendment.

Dr Al Shahin added that compulsory education should be required of Emiratis because federal schools and universities were provided at no cost.

Maryam Ismail, a mother of four in Sharjah who home schools two of her children, said for the law to be enacted there had to be a tuition-free option for expatriates.

Many Emiratis have welcomed the bill, believing it will help keep their children in school and decrease high dropout rates.

Ahmed Al Dhaheri, a former FNC member, noted that education had come a long way in the country.

"In 1966 Sheikh Zayed would pay students to go to school, now it will be mandatory," he said.