x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Indian schools overwhelmed by demand

Embassy asks Government to intervene as parents are forced to send children abroad, hire private tutors or move away from capital.

The Abu Dhabi Indian School, where pupils sat exams yesterday, received more than 2,300 applications for 120 places this year, and chose pupils by lottery.
The Abu Dhabi Indian School, where pupils sat exams yesterday, received more than 2,300 applications for 120 places this year, and chose pupils by lottery.

ABU DHABI // A serious shortage of places at Indian schools in the capital is forcing parents to send their children abroad to be educated. Officials at the Indian Embassy are calling on the Government to intervene as thousands of children are without a place at schools overwhelmed with applications.

More than 3,500 children are on the waiting list at Our Own English High School, Abu Dhabi, double the number last year. Even smaller schools such as the Little Flower Private School, which operates in a villa, has more than 600 children on its waiting list. "The demand for admissions has become worse this year," said George Mathew, the principal of Our Own English High School, Abu Dhabi. "Abu Dhabi is fast expanding and there is room for quite a few Indian curriculum schools. This phenomenon is only going to grow."

Gems Education, the owner of Our Own English High School, Abu Dhabi, is in discussions with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) about moving the school, which is in two large villas. Desperate parents have resorted to sending their children back to India to continue their schooling or paying for a home tutor if their child cannot secure a place. Dr Pradeep Rajpurohit, the second secretary at the Indian Embassy, said: "We are trying to approach the authorities concerned here in Abu Dhab. This is a very serious problem because our community is growing."

The number of schools and available places has been constant as demand grew, Dr Rajpurohit said, adding that the embassy would be going through the "proper diplomatic channels" to address the situation. School operators said they had asked Adec to allow them to add more places and some would like to run evening school. Vijay Mathu, the principal of the not-for-profit Abu Dhabi Indian School, said: "If they can allow us to increase the class strength by a few more, that could help a lot more students in getting admission in school."

The school this year received more than 2,300 applications for 120 open places, and chose pupils by lottery. The academic year for Indian schools in the UAE begins next month and many parents are panicking. Some are sending their families back to India or considering relocating to Dubai, where school places are available. Denny John, an engineer from Kerala, has not seen his wife or eight-year-old son Ryan for a year after sending his family home when they could not find a school place.

"I've never been separated from my family," Mr John said. "I cannot concentrate on work because there is too much tension. This is a very bad situation. I feel isolated and lonely but there is no option. I cannot leave the job." Aneze Binu Salim, a long-time resident of Abu Dhabi who is looking for a place for his six-year-old daughter, said: "A lot of people are waiting for admission. Today I went to the school, there were more than 10 or 15 families there waiting."

Mr Salim said he would send his family back to India if he could not find a school place. "There is no other solution," he said. "It will be hard without my family. My daily routine, everything, will change." One principal, who asked to remain anonymous, said parents were coming to the school and breaking down in tears. "They are pleading with you, some of them are crying, 'Please, give us one seat for my child'," the principal said.

Yousif al Sheryani, the executive director-designate for private schools at Adec, said the council was aware of "long-standing" concerns over the number of Indian curriculum schools in the UAE. Mr al Sheryani said the council, "is actively looking into long-term solutions for the problem. It is a complex issue and we appreciate the patience and support of the community as plans are still in the stages of being finalised".

A second principal, who also requested anonymity, said: "You shouldn't wait until March to try to solve this problem, when schools are starting in another few weeks' time. In my estimate there are more than 3,000 children without seats right now." The principal added that he believed the plight of children from poor families were being overlooked. But Mr al Sheryani said the council was "concerned about the education of all students in Abu Dhabi, regardless of socio-economic condition".

The problem, he said, was that "historically, there have been fewer private school operators who apply to provide low-income education, which has led to the existing capacity issue". As part of its long-term strategy, Adec has offered one Indian businessman land and an empty building for a school. The crisis could also be eased if the Abu Dhabi Indian School were allowed to proceed with plans to build a new campus and construct new buildings on its existing site.

But some school operators say the problem will grow as the Indian population expands and Adec proceeds with a plan, first announced in September 2008, to close schools in villas. Those schools educate about 45,000 students. Only five Indian schools in the capital are run in proper school buildings. Although Adec has suggested that some of those schools may be able to move to unused government school buildings, no further plans have been announced.

According to some principals, new government standards for school buildings, which require various health and safety features, will deter investors from opening Indian schools because the low fees make profits unlikely. They claim the new standards may lead to even more severe shortages. Mr al Sheryani insisted the council would not cut corners. "It is Adec's responsibility to ensure that basic health and safety and educational standards are met in schools in the emirate in order to protect our children," he said.

The shortages were worsened, several principals say, by the closure of the Merryland Kindergarten, and the fact that the Sherwood Academy will not take new Indian curriculum students. Mr John said he hoped the Government would come up with a plan to open a number of quality Indian schools. He said the shortage was so severe that parents had no choice but to send their children to low-quality schools if they wanted to stay together as a family.

Ullas Vazhappillya, a finance manager and long-time Abu Dhabi resident, cannot find a place for his daughter who is going into grade 11. Mr Vazhappillya said 300 students were on waiting lists for grade 11. His situation was exacerbated by the fact that a number of Indian schools only teach up to grade 10. "It is a very sad kind of situation," Mr Vazhappillya said of the prospect of sending his wife and three children back to Kerala. "She will be alone taking care of my three children, and she will have a very difficult time."

Action was needed quickly, he said. "We are talking about less than one month. If they do give an approval or a solution the schools can start admitting the people. They have to do it on an urgent basis." klewis@thenational.ae