x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Private schools form lobby group

Representative body will deal with education authorities and hopes to give a voice to operators in Dubai.

The Dubai Modern High School in the Nad Al Sheba area.
The Dubai Modern High School in the Nad Al Sheba area.

Dubai's private schools are forming a group to represent their interests in talks with education authorities and policymakers. The move follows controversy over the introduction of school inspections last year by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), and the linking of its findings to the size of fees private schools are allowed to charge.

The Dubai Private Schools Group, as it will be known, is being set up in conjunction with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. According to the chamber, at least 30 schools expressed interest in forming the group. Asda'a Burson-Marsteller, the PR firm representing the new group, declined to reveal which schools intend to join but said the group would be set up within the next month and its members made public then.

A company spokesman said it was too early to specify the issues the group hoped to address, although improving education standards and school operating efficiency would be on the agenda. "Among the many things it would do is discuss with government authorities how they could move the education agenda ahead," he said. School operators have criticised the KHDA's decision to link fee caps, which have long been a bone of contention with education authorities, to performance in inspections.

Some also question the validity of the inspection process and accuse inspectors of uneven standards and unfair grades. Based on the inspectors' findings, schools are rated as "outstanding", "good", "acceptable" or "unsatisfactory". Those in the lowest category face the risk of closure if they do not draft and implement plans for improvement based on the authority's recommendations. However, poorly rated schools contend that the fee caps will make improving their performance even more difficult, though the new fee caps for them are only slightly lower than what was previously allowed.

Sunny Varkey, the chief executive and founder of Global Education Management Systems (GEMS), the largest private school operator in the Emirates, has been particularly outspoken on the issue. Mr Varkey had suggested at a press briefing last month that "a private school council" should be created to address policy issues with local education authorities. At the time, Mr Varkey and GEMS were embroiled in a dispute with the KHDA over fee increases at the Dubai Modern High School.

Hamad Buamim, director general of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said yesterday that private school operators had approached his organisation to "streamline their efforts" and become recognised as a business group. "The Government accords highest priority to education, in which the private sector plays a critical role," he said in a statement. According to the chamber, the new group will join 22 other specialised business groups under its umbrella.

The formation of the new group has elicited mostly positive reactions from school operators and owners. Clive Pierrepont, director of communications and marketing for the private school operator Taaleem, said he thought the new forum could benefit the education sector in Dubai. "If the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry facilitates a forum for honest debate, where views can be heard, a balanced and representative opinion formed that is agreed collectively, then this will be of huge benefit to all parties," Mr Pierrepont said. "The initiative of creating direct and effective channels of communication from private education providers to government decision makers is laudable, as is the opportunity to work collaboratively towards a greater vision."

When contacted for comment yesterday, Mohammed Darwish, chief of licensing at the KHDA, said the government agency did not have enough information about the group to be able to say how it would affect school education in Dubai. "KHDA has heard about this group but is unaware about its goals and objectives. As we have no details right now, we cannot comment on the workings of the group and how it will affect the educational landscape in the emirate. Once we have more details we will be able to comment."

Since its formation in 2006, the KHDA has taken a more active role in regulating private schools than was previously the case under the Ministry of Education. Because free public schools are open only to UAE citizens and a small number of Arab expatriates, more than 85 per cent of Dubai's schoolchildren are enrolled at one of the emirate's 144 fee-paying private schools. The KHDA introduced the inspections regime last year in an effort to raise standards at all local schools and to offer parents more reliable information about the quality of private schools.

The inspections have revealed a number of troubling trends in Dubai schools, including serious health and safety issues in 17 per cent of private schools; instances of corporal punishment; and the revelation that a number of private establishments have not employed bus monitors, despite a government regulation issued last year after a five-year-old was found dead on a school bus. "In many of the poorly performing schools," the KHDA noted, "there are too many hazards and too little attention is paid to health and safety. Buses are often overcrowded, seat belts are inoperable, and there is no adult supervision during journeys to and from school."