x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Parent anger at villa school threat

Parents of children at villa schools facing closure say they do not know where they will send their children next year.

The Al Bustan school is one of the few that is located inside of a villa. ADEC has put out new safety regulations that the school has complied to. A canopy has been placed in the courtyard to protect children from the sun during recess.
The Al Bustan school is one of the few that is located inside of a villa. ADEC has put out new safety regulations that the school has complied to. A canopy has been placed in the courtyard to protect children from the sun during recess.

ABU DHABI // Parents with children at villa schools threatened with closure this year say they are angry at the uncertainty surrounding the issue and worried about where to send their offspring next year.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) sent warnings to 10 villa schools in early April over health and safety issues on their campuses. The schools, all in the capital or Al Ain, were told to rectify the problems or face financial penalties and possible closure in June.

However, authorities have not yet released the names of the schools that will be shut down in the coming months, leaving parents and school administrators scrambling for alternatives, including shutdowns and home schooling.

Alternative locations may include empty government school buildings for almost 5,000 students who may be affected, Adec said. However, while 10 villa schools face closure, there are only five government school buildings available - and 40 applications have been received for them. Names of the school operators that have secured the buildings will be announced at the end of May.

Adec's plan to phase out villa schools by 2013, with closures planned every year, has caused panic among parents who say the short notice allows no time to look for solutions.

"Is it true? Will the school close in the middle of the year?" asked Prasanth Pillai, whose son is at Leens Kindergarten and School in Abu Dhabi. The school follows the Indian academic school year, which begins in April and ends the following March.

Mr Pillai said parents had been told about the situation, but were not given confirmation."They do not know themselves and this is causing a lot of confusion," he said.

The school is close to his home and a replacement may not be a practical solution. "If the new school is far, I will not be able to send my child," he said.

A parent at the Al Bustan Private School said he was angry about the announcement. "I am satisfied with the school and I do not want to move my kids," said Assad Naife, who has children in grades 1 and 3. "It will be difficult to find another school now."

Villa school operators said their hands were tied as they waited on Adec's decision.

Maha Ramzi, the principal of Al Bustan, said she "feels paralysed" because of the uncertainty. "We cannot tell the parents anything - we cannot order books and we cannot plan anything for the next academic year," she said. The school follows an American curriculum.

Ms Ramzi said she had been inundated with calls from parents since the announcement, and had suggested they find other schools.

"They said it's too late to try, and many want to talk to Adec themselves," she said.

The principal said she had taken all safety recommendations by Adec into consideration.

"I recently installed a new fire alarm system and have put up evacuation plans in classrooms as well," she said. "We want to co-operate with the authority and respect the law, but we need more time."

Pierre Scottorn, the section manager of the Private School Improvement department at Adec, said the agency had opened the application process for the five empty government school buildings.

"Four of those schools are in Abu Dhabi and one is in Al Ain," he said.

"We welcome all operators to apply for this, but they have to fulfil certain criteria and set standards before we grant it to them," Mr Scottorn said.

Ms Ramzi said she was competing against too many people for the few replacement schools, and her chances looked slim.

"I need to know if I have a chance or if I will be asked to shut," she said.

Ms Ramzi said she was looking for a plot to build a new school.

According to the law, schools cannot operate out of residential facilities that are made to accommodate fewer than 12 people. Most villa schools educate between 200 and 500 students in partitioned rooms.

The residential locations, with children moving between cars in narrow streets, create the potential for accidents and restrict evacuation procedures in the event of fire, Mr Scottorn said.

At the New Hilal Private School in Al Ain, classrooms built of plywood were ordered to be demolished, Shahnaz Ikram, the principal, said. "But if I take them down, how will we teach the students?" asked Ms Ikram, who was also served with a closure warning.

She said a move to another location would be a financial burden for parents.

"My parents say if the school closes down, we will keep them at home," Ms Ikram said.