x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The 'Michelin Guide' for schools across the UAE

Difficulties in arranging the future education of her toddler daughter opened a Dubai mum's eyes. It also opened a new section on her website Souqalmal.com, a price-comparison site for financial products that now includes a buyer's guide to schools and nurseries. Alice Haine reports

Ambareen Musa, founder of Souqalmal.com, with her daughter Rania, whose future education is in very safe hands. Pawan Singh / The National
Ambareen Musa, founder of Souqalmal.com, with her daughter Rania, whose future education is in very safe hands. Pawan Singh / The National

Ambareen Musa began choosing a school for her 20-month-old daughter, Rania, thinking there was plenty of time to secure a place at one of Dubai's top establishments.

She quickly discovered she was too late. For a 2014 place, many school waiting lists were already full and some were even closed to registration for 2015.

"One school told me I should have put Rania's name down when I was pregnant," says Mrs Musa. "I was shocked how rude some of the schools were on the phone and found the whole process quite stressful."

After spending several days struggling to find a school in which she could register her interest, let alone secure a place, Mrs Musa wished she had a school guide to turn to for help in making the right decision.

There was no comprehensive guide in existence, apart from school-rating lists on government authority websites. Mrs Musa decided to do something about that - and the solution didn't take long to find.

In 2011, three years after she arrived in the UAE, Mrs Musa founded Souqalmal.com, which means "money market" in Arabic.

It is the first price-comparison site in the Middle East that compares more than 700 financial and non-financial products such as credit cards, insurance policies and mobile phone plans.

"We'd always considered having education on the Souqalmal site because we want to compare whatever can be compared, but it was about finding the right time," she says.

"When I realised what a nightmare it was to secure a place for your child, it became a priority to introduce schools and nurseries straight away."

To ensure the education comparison was handled appropriately, Mrs Musa and the website's co-founder, Paula Wehbeh, consulted the two regulators, Adec in Abu Dhabi and KHDA in Dubai.

"They were very welcoming to what we are trying to do and part of the information on our site, such as the school ratings, is provided to us by them," she says.

The updated site went live last week and now lists more than 180 schools and 120 nurseries in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, comparing institutions by fees, teacher-to-parent ratios, languages spoken and registration costs, as well as extra-curricular activities.

Parents can search by location, curriculum and the local authority rating, and then compare all of the schools that fall into that category.

For nurseries, parents can also search according to whether the nursery takes babies from three months and can compare opening hours, out-of-term cover and whether it is open all year.

"Now you don't have to look at every school or nursery website you're considering," she says.

"Suddenly you have all the education providers on a level playing field next to each other, and there was the question of, 'are you allowed to do that?'

"We can because it's all public information. We don't put anything out there that the public couldn't get themselves. We've just researched it for them and put it all in one place. We're pretty much an information aggregator that saves people time."

Saving time was not something Mrs Musa had the luxury of when she began searching for a school four months ago.

"Like many things here I had to rely on word of mouth, so I spoke to a lot of mums and put all their recommendations on a list and started contacting the schools.

"But you can only call schools between 7am and 3pm, which is not always convenient for a working mum, especially a first-time mum who needed time to understand how the system works.

"I ended up taking two to three days off work to get to grips with it all."

Her first decision was choosing a curriculum for her daughter. As a Mauritian educated in a British Curriculum school, who is married to a Belgian with a European education, Mrs Musa decided to choose a school with a British or International Baccalaureate system.

But the biggest issue was registering her child for a place. Having picked six schools rated outstanding or good by the KHDA, her list was quickly whittled down to two because the most popular schools were already full.

"Every school registration system is different. Some open six months before the school year begins, others open five years before," Mrs Musa explains.

"For those people who put their children's names down four years in advance of going to school, well, hats off to them. I already had enough stress to cope with trying to understand being a mum and getting around with a new baby in hand.

"There were no guides telling me to sign my daughter up early or to send her to a nursery affiliated with one of the schools I intended to send her to."

Mrs Musa has paid Dh500 deposits to two schools and will apply to three more when their registration opens, but she has already missed out on her first choices.

"At this stage I still don't have a place and I won't know until the end of the year," she says. "In the meantime I will keep applying to other schools when their registration opens up."

It means that like many parents, Mrs Musa could end up paying Dh2,500 or more in a bid to get a place - money that will not be refunded even if no place is available - as Dh500 is the standard registration fee for each Dubai school. Abu Dhabi schools' registration fees vary from Dh100 to Dh500.

With siblings of children already in a school and those whose parents work for a company with a corporate debenture scheme often having priority over others, securing a place can be a lottery, particularly for new expatriates.

"For new residents trying to find a place quickly, it can be a nightmare. If you work for the right company, you could be OK but if you don't, then good luck.

"It's really getting to the level where it's not a bad idea to look for a school before you look for a house.

"We all talk about the UAE being transient but it is less of a two or three-year posting than it was in the past.

"People are starting to settle here and feel very comfortable and their children need to go to school.

"When I first came here we said once our child had to go to school we'd go back to Europe, but now we want this to be home and with such a good education system there's no reason to go back."

Because Mrs Musa had to rely on word of mouth when making her school selection, she now wants parents to rate and review their schools on Souqalmal.

"Word of mouth and recommendations are key because I don't think anyone can know more than the parents who have already got their kids in the system.

"Instead of just keeping their thoughts in their own social group, parents need to share it with everyone.

"It makes the site a TripAdvisor for education because people do trust those recommendations. If someone has taken the time and effort to post something and you have 10 to 15 people all saying the same thing, you will listen."

And despite only launching last week, the ratings and reviews are already coming in.

"We found this was something that really touched people's hearts," Mrs Musa says. "There is a sense of relief and a lot of people say they wished they could have had that support when they were looking for schools.

"If this had been live when I was looking for Rania, half of my research would have been done for me. I wouldn't have wasted so much time."

arayer@thenational.ae