x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Problems mounting for Abu Dhabi's villa schools

Poor maintenance, unsatisfactory sanitation and inadequate fire procedures are just a few reasons why new buildings are urgently needed.

Grade 12 students sit exams at the Al Raya Girls' School for secondary Education in Dubai yesterday.
Grade 12 students sit exams at the Al Raya Girls' School for secondary Education in Dubai yesterday.

As the deadline nears, the capital's villa schools feel the pressure to close is mounting. Many have shut their doors already, while others are looking for new premises.

Citing health and safety risks, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) ordered six to close last June. In the past year, 15 others have closed of their own accord.

The schools, which cater primarily for Indian, Filipino and Palestinian children, have been told they have until 2014 to close or move to purpose-built school buildings.

Some of the villas, designed for a single family, were found to cater for more than 500 pupils. Some had holes in ceilings and broken air conditioners, making classes unbearable in the summer. Inspectors last year found broken sinks in the toilets, out-of-date medicines, and cramped classrooms with small windows and minimal ventilation.

Yousif al Sheryani, the education adviser to the director general of Adec, had a list of further concerns. The schools were poorly maintained, he said, with hazardous wiring, unstable buildings, shoddy extension blocks, unsatisfactory sanitation and inadequate fire procedures and equipment.

Fifty remain open. Between them they accommodate more than 30,000 pupils.

At the start of this term, three renovated former government schools opened to cater for some of the students from the shuttered villa schools. Some, though, lived too far away from the reopened schools, and had to look elsewhere.

Up to four more will open next year, with the contracts out to tender. Beyond that, Adec plans to give six plots of land to build new premises; it is considering 13 bids. No announcement has been made about when they will open.

Teachers at several of the schools have been increasingly vocal in their complaints about their working environment and wages.

Last month, 60 teachers at Al Mashael Villa School on Muroor Road in the capital signed a letter to Adec threatening to strike. They said they had been promised a Dh500 pay rise, but had instead seen their salaries fall by Dh500. Adec told them to return to work, warning them that striking is against the law.

They did, but staff discontent remains. One teacher at the school, who earns Dh3,000 a month, said she has to give private lessons to make ends meet.

Neither are the parents content. Some feel the quality of teaching does not justify the high fees, and complain the schools are not held to external standards like government and other private schools.

The school raised its fees by 60 per cent this year, without consulting Adec. Schools are not allowed to raise fees by such a high percentage, and Adec is considering forcing the school to reverse the increase.

"There is a lot more room," said Kasey Conrad, the project manager of RFP appointed by Adec for the transition. "Everyone is happier." Pioneers International School was one of the six closed earlier. It reopened in September as the 21st Century Academy in the buildings of the old August 6th school.

For the heads of the villas still operating, this is a frustrating time. "This is a very clear message they are given us; you want to educate your child and you have low income? Then send them home," said the principal of one Indian villa school.

However, Ms Conrad insisted that not only are fees at the new schools capped at no more than seven per cent above those of the ones they replaced, at the 21st Century School they are substantially less - between Dh1,000 and Dh5,000 below the fees at Pioneers. This, she said, was a problem.

The schools may be new, but the buildings are not - and that means a lot of costly maintenance, at the schools' expense.