x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Test of demand for top-end learning in the UAE

A private operator plans to offer 6,000 premium school spaces in the next three years, but experts have questioned whether high-end education can address demand.

Mark Atkins, head of academics and education at Evolvence Knowledge Investments, the company's education division.
Mark Atkins, head of academics and education at Evolvence Knowledge Investments, the company's education division.

DUBAI // A private operator plans to offer 6,000 premium school spaces in the next three years, but experts have questioned whether high-end education can address demand.

Evolvence Capital said last week it would begin expanding its network by opening early-childhood education centres and setting up branch campuses of UK independent schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, starting this September.

“As a company we have recognised the primary market as the next big area for expansion,” said Mark Atkins, head of academics and education at Evolvence Knowledge Investments, the company’s education division.

“If you look at the statistics on population, it is very heavy at the younger ages.”

Evolvence set up its first school, the Dubai campus of the 456-year-old UK Repton boarding school, in 2007.

The group will open Formarke School, a UK preparatory school, in Dubai and Repton-Abu Dhabi in September.

Two new nurseries are scheduled to open this year and next, in Safa Park and Al Wasl.

“We are looking to bring premium brands to the country because of what is happening with the population at the moment,” said Mr Atkins.

“Two thirds of the population is in the 20 to 30-year-old bracket. They are staying longer and that means there is always a capacity for good schools to come in.”

A recent report by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dubai’s private schools regulator, confirmed an impending shortage of spaces in primary schools.

The authority expects the school-going population to reach 450,200 children by 2023. The highest rate of growth seen this year occurred in the kindergarten phase, with an increase of 14.7 per cent.

According to Dubai Statistics, about 26 per cent of the population will be under the age of 14 by 2020.

“It is expected that this high growth will lead to continued growth of student enrolments,” said Dr Abdulla Al Karam, director general of the KHDA.

Mr Atkins said the company  was looking to provide 6,000 schools spaces in the next three years, of which 25 per cent will be for pupils aged five and under.

But will parents be able to afford the cost of those seats?

A survey of 1,016 parents in the Middle East conducted by the consultancy Booz and Co in 2011 found Emirati parents were ready to pay up to Dh16,252 a year for private education, while expatriates were willing to extend about Dh11,500.

Repton Dubai charges between Dh46,325 and Dh92,650 a year, with an option for boarding taking the cost up to Dh152,650.

Brighton College in Abu Dhabi, another UK brand school, charges between Dh47,530 and Dh72,680 a year for classes up to Year 11.

Leila Hoteit, a principal researcher at Booz, said the demand for schools at these prices was among parents looking for social prestige.

“The clientele typically comes from a combination of families well established in business and civil service,” Ms Hoteit said.

In the UAE, that includes demand from expatriate professionals.

“There is also a latent demand for boarding options from high-net-worth families in some of the countries in the region where a comparable quality of education is not available in a safe environment,” Ms Hoteit said.

Mr Atkins said he understood parents’ concerns about high fees, but the cost of running the school justified it.

“The money is going straight back into education, getting the best resources and teachers in,” he said.

“This is very expensive to get into, especially if you are doing it really well.”

aahmed@thenational.ae