x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Enrolment surge draws foreign schools to the Emirates

With school enrolment expected to grow by 54 per cent in Dubai and Abu Dhabi by 2020, international education brands are vying for a piece of the booming education sector.

When the Repton School opened in 2007, it was the first
When the Repton School opened in 2007, it was the first "brand campus" to set up shop in Dubai.

With school enrolment expected to grow by 54 per cent in Dubai and Abu Dhabi by 2020, international education brands are vying for a piece of the booming education sector.

Booz & Co's projection, based on population growth figures, is a lure for investors that is further sweetened The Parthenon Group's research that shows 22 per cent growth in enrolment of pupils at private schools between 2008 and 2011.

"Expatriate parents, because of the higher income levels, are moving from their own country curricula to international systems," explained Sameena Ahmad, managing director of Alpen Capital Group, which produces an annual report on GCC education.

According to the research, about 17.6 per cent of Emiratis also prefer such schools.

But introducing a foreign school brand in the Middle East is not a process immune to hiccups, and schools must often navigate between high staff turnover and the raised expectations of parents.

Gergana Mineva sent her 12-year-old son to Repton School in Dubai but pulled him out because of teacher turnover. "I enrolled him because of the reputation of the school in the UK and because it is a boarding school," she said. "I was unhappy that there were so many changes in heads of department."

Repton, modelled on a 450-year-old British school of the same name, was the first "brand campus" to open a branch in Dubai, in 2007.

Today, the Nad Al Sheba school welcomes boarders and day pupils aged 3 to 18 and is preparing to open a second preparatory school in Dubai and a third school in the capital. It can cost up to Dh145,000 to send a child to its boarding school for a year.

"I soon realised it would not be easy to provide similar standards here," said Ms Mineva. "To me it looked like we were paying high fees for the Repton tag."

Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth, the vice principal of Repton Dubai, said that it has had its share of challenges. "This is a young school," he said, "and we had a high turnover [of staff] in the senior school last year. Parents see it as a bad thing but it actually allows us to make sure we do not have any backpacking teachers on board and end up with the best.

The school also lost its founding headmaster in 2010, but Mr Hughes-D'Aeth explained, "The first head was here to start up the school and has moved on".

Brighton College, another leading British school with fees of up to Dh72,680, opened its campus in Abu Dhabi last year and has already brought in a new headmaster. Ken Grocott will take up the role at the start of the new term in September.

"The school has done remarkably well in its first year," he said. "We started with 600 pupils and the college leaders are determined to keep that growth going."

He said teacher turnover is inevitable in international schools. "I understand how it can be viewed as a problem but it does not necessarily mean quality has to be diminishing."

Other branded schools have fared less well than Repton and Brighton.

In 2010, Raffles in Dubai cut ties with its Singapore-based schools company. At the time, several parents who were drawn by the brand name aired their displeasure about the split, but numbers have remained steady.

Another school with a Singapore connection, Global Schools Foundation, severed ties with its local partner Score Plus Education this year. A spokesman from GSF said it was "extremely pained by the experience" and would set up a school directly owned and operated by it in Dubai.

Eventually, the success or failure of all branded schools lies in how much grace parents are willing to extend the sector's growing pains.

Parents like Franco Mura, whose 15-year-old daughter studies at Brighton, are prepared to give these campuses a chance to iron out the kinks. "It is quite expensive but so far I think I have got a good return on the price I pay," said Mr Mura.

aahmed@thenational.ae