x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Teachers and pupils moving on up as villa school closes

Al Dhafra Private School in Abu Dhabi is the latest in a string of 50 villa schools to be closed by Adec.

Al Dhafra Private School's old villa has been closed in favour of a new Dh100 million facility in Mohammed bin Zayed City.
Al Dhafra Private School's old villa has been closed in favour of a new Dh100 million facility in Mohammed bin Zayed City.

ABU DHABI // A large signboard outside three villas in the Muroor area of the capital declares that Al Dhafra Private School has moved.

Behind that simple message is the latest stage in the mass migration of up to 40,000 children from unsafe, unhealthy and unsuitable "villa schools" in Abu Dhabi city to purpose-built campuses and a better learning environment.

Last year, education chiefs gave more than 50 schools in converted villas until the 2013-2014 academic year to move or close. This year Adec ordered the closure of six villa schools in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, and Al Dhafra was among them.

The 1,030 pupils who once crammed into three five-bedroom villas for classes will assemble in September at a sprawling 24,000-square-metre campus in Mohammed Bin Zayed City.

Few regret the move. "When you entered the villa, you were within 10 metres of 210 pupils at once," says Daniel Bokelman, the newly appointed principal of the school, as they began packing up to move last month.  "Walls had to be put up to divide the rooms and even the kitchen had to be converted into a classroom."

Pupils used toilets in makeshift cabins outside the villas and there was no place for indoor recreation.

Manal Ghamrawi, a middle-school English teacher, is looking forward to the move. "Bedrooms aren't built to accommodate 30 pupils," she said. "During summer it gets stuffy and when we have to move from class to class, it would be from outdoors."

Insects and lizards in the classroom sometimes made it difficult to teach, she said.

Adec's decision to close the villa schools was made in part because of the inherent health hazards, including a lack of exits and small stairways that would hamper evacuation in case of a fire. Pickup and drop off outside schools in residential areas was also chaotic.

Dr George Nader, director general of Al Dhafra Private Schools, which follow the American and UK system, said building a dedicated campus had always been on the cards.

"Financial constraints and Adec's process to ensure schools maintain the highest standards delayed the plan a bit," he said.

"Every parent dreams of educating their children in good schools, and though we have a very good academic record and provide the maximum care to pupils, proper infrastructure adds to the school experience."

The vast majority of parents who have been sending their children to the 30-year-old school are relieved their children will no longer have to study in crammed classrooms - in one poll, 85 per cent agreed it was a good move. But many also fret about the 20 per cent fee increase and the 40-minute drive to the new campus.

Fees at the villa school were between Dh9,000 and Dh16,200, depending on the grade. Parents whose children have been moved from the villa school to the new campus will now pay Dh10,800 to Dh19,440. Parents enrolling their children for he first time will pay between Dh22,000 and Dh38,000.

For Sarah Hamze, a mother of four pupils at the school, the increased fees will be a pinch but she prefers to keep her children there.

"I think its justified by the added resources and facilities that will be offered," she said.

"The travel will be hard and I will have to use the school transport, which will be expensive. But I have seen my children progress so I have decided to keep them here."