x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

School crisis for low-wage UAE expat families

Children of expatriate parents, who may only attend private schools in the UAE, are running out of affordable education options.

Gems, the largest private education provider, said this week it will close the Westminster School in 2014, but today said if the KHDA approves a fee increase, it could stay open.
Gems, the largest private education provider, said this week it will close the Westminster School in 2014, but today said if the KHDA approves a fee increase, it could stay open.

DUBAI // Expatriate families on low incomes are being priced out of an acceptable education for their children.

Private schools that operate with low tuition fees of between Dh5,000 and Dh10,000 a year are closing because their income is insufficient for them to continue, and public schools are available only to Emiratis and a small number of GCC nationals.

The problem is most acute in Dubai where the private education sector is most active, with 148 schools. At least seven have closed in the past three years.

Gems, the largest private education provider, said this week it will close the Westminster School in 2014 because the level of fees it is permitted to charge makes the school no longer financially viable.

The school has been rated acceptable for four consecutive years in inspections by KHDA, Dubai's private-education regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.

The authority links the fees a school may charge to its performance in inspections.

"Gems believes that using a percentage fee increase based on inspection outcomes doesn't work for low fee paying schools," said a spokesman for the Gems group.

"A 3 per cent increase for an acceptable inspection rating … in the case of the Westminster School, is clearly unsustainable," the Gems spokesman said.

Despite the closer, Gems has plans to open 10 new school in the next two years.

"It's unfair that the education model in the UAE restricts choices for low-income parents," said a mother of two children at the Westminster School, which has nearly 5,000 pupils. "I understand school operators have costs to cover but they are never transparent about their profit margins.

"And no parent would want to send their child to a poor performing school. It's a shame that the authority cannot do more to promote affordable schools."

Highly rated non-profit international schools in Dubai, including Dubai College and Jumeirah English Speaking School, charge between Dh30,000 and Dh75,000 a year in fees.

The few British and American curriculum schools operating with low fees invariably fail to provide the education standards prescribed by the KHDA.

Parents said it had become a toss-up between paying a high price or settling for substandard quality.

Roy Abraham, a parent of two children at a British primary school, believes the low number of private education providers allows them to take advantage. "There are a few groups that control the school sector, and they drive the prices up," he said.

"What we need is good schools run by philanthropist businessmen for children of parents who struggle to make ends meet."

Parents who are comfortable with the idea can save money by sending their children to Asian curriculum schools, where teachers earn less. Many, however, believe a US or UK-style education will benefit their children more.

Bassam Abushakra, regional director of Education Services Overseas Limited, which operates three schools in the UAE, said a satisfactory education could not be provided with fees at Dh10,000.

"We need to keep increasing salaries to be able to attract and retain good teachers," he said. "Salaries are biggest expense item in any school's budget. To continue increasing salaries, schools need to increase tuition rates to pay for these increases."

His schools, which follow the UK and American system and educate 4,500 pupils, charge between Dh28,650 and Dh64,740 a year. About 65 per cent of the schools' budget is reserved for teachers salaries.

At Taaleem, which owns a dozen schools, 80 per cent of the fees go towards staff salaries.

"The quality of a school can never exceed the quality of its teachers," said Clive Pierrepont, director of Taaleem. "Fully qualified teachers for English National Curriculum and International Baccalaureate schools are sought after all over the world. To attract them we have to offer competitive salaries."

The cost of retaining a teacher was between Dh350,000 and Dh400,000 a year, he said. "You also have to build a 5 per cent annual raise into the school budget and take into consideration the rising cost of rent for their accommodation."

Operators said the fee structure introduce by KHDA, linking schools' performance and inflation to fee increases, was also working against struggling schools' efforts to improve.

A spokesman for Gems said the authority had to rethink the framework and "arrive at a formula that does work for schools with fees at these low levels".

aahmed@thenational.ae