x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Shortage of school places tests parents

Al Yasmina already oversubscribed only three months after opening, as education struggles to keep up with the population growth.

Saraia Thotawatle, a year 6 student at Al Yasmina.
Saraia Thotawatle, a year 6 student at Al Yasmina.

ABU DHABI // Al Yasmina School, a new primary and secondary school, has only been open since September. It is located more than 20 minutes from the capital. And it already has a waiting list. Such is the reality for parents seeking school places for their children in the capital. Although the Aldar Academies school was built to serve Al Raha Beach - a development that is more than a year away from completion - and Khalifa City A and B, it has drawn pupils from all over Abu Dhabi and now has a waiting list of 35. "It appears that there is a shortage of well resourced, well run, well funded schools in Abu Dhabi," said Bob Malone, the principal of the school, which runs on a British curriculum. Because the state school system is not open to most expatriate children, parents must send their children to private schools. There are a handful of good international schools in the capital; demand is particularly high for schools that offer the British and American curricula. All the city's British curriculum schools now have waiting lists, as does the American Community School (ACS). In fact, demand was so high for places at ACS last year that it stopped taking applications for non-American children when the waiting list hit 140. Had they kept accepting applications, the list would have reached more than 300. New schools cannot be built fast enough to service a population influx that shows no sign of slowing. Between 1995 and 2005 the population of the UAE grew from 2.4 million to 4.1 million, a growth rate of nearly 75 per cent. Abu Dhabi anticipates population growth of 7.5 per cent per year over the next few decades. The architects of Abu Dhabi's 2030 plan project the city will need 94 new schools by 2013 and another 320 by 2030. Aldar, the developer, alone has plans to build 20 schools, with a capacity for 20,000 students, over the next five years. "We believe schools are at the heart of communities," said Jim Harvey, head of educational development at Aldar Academies. "Without schools you don't have communities." Unlike other education providers in the region, such as Global Education Management Systems, Educational Services Overseas Ltd (ESOL) and Taaleem, Aldar does not make a profit from its schools. "Aldar is a real estate company which has taken its commitments very seriously to helping Abu Dhabi develop," said Mr Malone. "To simply put a house or a flat up without the facilities or the amenities is quite narrow in thinking." Aldar entered into the education business last year when it opened The Pearl Primary School, located on Abu Dhabi island, not far from the Al Wahda Mall. With facilities including a 25-metre swimming pool, sport pitches and small class sizes, the Pearl filled up almost immediately after it opened its doors. There are only a handful of international schools in Abu Dhabi with comparable resources to Al Yasmina. Located on a large plot of land near the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, it cost Dh150 million (US$40.8m) to build and has two covered swimming pools. The music department has all manner of instruments and each classroom has an interactive whiteboard. Classes are kept small with just 24 pupils per class in the primary school and 20 pupils in the secondary school. On a recent weekday morning the Foundation year groups acted out skits while dressed up as nursery rhyme characters, a group of Year 1 pupils swam in the pool and a collection of Year 7 children prepared PowerPoint presentations. The Al Yasmina waiting list does get shorter occasionally. The skyrocketing cost of living in Abu Dhabi - a recent survey ranked the capital as third most expensive in the region - has some parents deciding not to move here after all, said Mr Malone. "I have been surprised by the number of parents who I have spoken to who would love to come to Abu Dhabi but rising inflation and the cost of accommodation is simply pricing them out of the market." klewis@thenational.ae