x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Solutions to places crisis at Indian schools 'don't go far enough'

A set of solutions to ease a shortage in places is unveiled, only to be described by community members as inadequate.

ABU DHABI // A set of solutions to ease a shortage in places at Indian schools was unveiled yesterday, only to be described by community members as inadequate. However, the community members said the measures taken by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) were at least a step in the right direction. "We have an immediate plan to deal with the forecasted capacity shortage and are making preparations to create world-class academic environments for each student in Abu Dhabi for the long term," said Dr Mugheer al Khaili, the director general of Adec.

The new plan includes the use of an old public school building to increase capacity, extending the operation of a villa school that was due to relocate to Musaffah and considering additional proposals to increase capacity at some Indian schools. KB Murali, the head of the Kerala Social Centre in Abu Dhabi, said that while the situation was improving, the solutions did not go far enough and there were still hundreds of pupils without school spots.

Some parents were opting to keep their children in the UAE with no places available even though they could miss a whole school year, at an "immeasurable" cost to the children, said Mr Murali. Mohammed Rafi, whose five-year-old daughter was accepted into one of the Indian schools in the capital on March 15, said he struggled to secure a place for her. But even that success is fleeting as her school is moving to Musaffah next year, so she will need to apply elsewhere.

"Next year I have to suffer again," said Mr Rafi. He sees the plight of other parents among his friends, some of whom have "already shifted their families to India because of this crisis". Adec, which regulates schools in the capital, has come under mounting pressure to resolve a chronic lack of spaces at Indian- curriculum schools that may affect thousands of pupils as their April 11 opening date draws closer.

The solutions fall short of addressing the extent of the problem, according to community members. Some of the measures had also been disclosed earlier. A spokeswoman for Adec said the immediate solutions created more than 1,000 additional school places, solving a problem that "seems exaggerated". While the council did not have exact figures, the spokeswoman said the number of displaced students was "a few hundred" rather than in the thousands, disputing figures reported in the media.

Figures drawn up from waiting lists were not accurate, the spokeswoman added, because many parents applied to multiple schools. However, last month, individual schools reported waiting lists of up to 3,500 applicants. The full details of the plan, elements of which had been disclosed earlier, were drawn up after a meeting with Indian investors last week. Adec had earlier allowed two schools to increase classroom capacity by about three pupils each, providing places for between 400 to 500 students.

It also barred one school from raising its fees beyond 2009 levels, saying that was not a solution for overcapacity. The council will look at requests for fee increases on a "case-by-case basis" instead of issuing a general moratorium on fee increases, according to the spokeswoman. In the long term, Adec said it would provide land to investors willing to set up "non-profit sharing" schools, which provide a small return on investment that must be spent on developing the schools.

"The situation is very bad and this is not a permanent solution," said the principal of a villa school in Abu Dhabi with 600 students on its waiting list, who did not want to be named. The Government should provide additional spaces from empty public school buildings "if they really want to help the Indian community", she said. Additionally, extensions should be given to villa schools operating in the capital as they often exceeded other schools in quality, she added.

Only five Indian schools in Abu Dhabi are in purpose-built school facilities, while 12 others are in villas that Adec says pose serious health and safety risks for children. The principal said that figures for displaced students were not exaggerated and questioned whether investors brought in by the authorities had the necessary expertise to run schools. "Have they got an attachment to any educational institute before? You have to look at the credibility of the investor," she said. It would be hard to convince investors to pay for schools with very low returns on investment, she added.

Many parents she knew had already relocated to India, where the school year starts in June. Mr Murali said there were "efforts from all sides to overcome the problem, but what all agencies have done so far is not good enough to solve the problem". He recommended that all Indian schools in the capital be allowed to increase their class size. "I can see parents approaching us, parents in a dilemma, sending their kids back to India to study with no spaces in the Emirates. It is the only way for them," he said.

"Losing one year means you lose that advantage throughout your life." kshaheen@thenational.ae