x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tougher regulations are on the way for schools

Each school will be responsible for its students' welfare and new standards will cover everything from building care to drop offs.

Children prepare to ride the bus at the PISCO Private School in Abu Dhabi. Officials plan sweeping safety new regulations for all schools.
Children prepare to ride the bus at the PISCO Private School in Abu Dhabi. Officials plan sweeping safety new regulations for all schools.

ABU DHABI // Strict new safety standards will be drawn up after a comprehensive health-and-safety audit of every school in the emirate is conducted before the new school term begins, The National can reveal. The regulations, which will be benchmarked according to international standards, will cover all aspects of safety, including buildings, provisions for safe dropping off and picking up of pupils, and school buses - a matter of particular concern to parents following the death of two young children who had been left on minibuses. Safety officers will be required to be on-site at each school to ensure the standards are maintained, and periodic checks will be made to ensure that schools are complying. The Abu Dhabi Education Council has commissioned an international agency to carry out the audit of both government and private schools before the new term's classes begin on September 23. The agency will report back and set the standards for health and safety. The regulations will also cover the training of safety officers, and Adec has been working with police on road safety around schools, also including parents as well as other drivers. The announcement yesterday came as parents demanded better safety on school buses, with one mother saying it was a "risk" every time she sent her daughter to school. Last week the emirate of Dubai introduced stricter rules covering school bus safety, which include heavy fines on schools and bus operators caught not adhering to them. School buses must be yellow, and equipped with stop arms and a speed-control system that prevents them from going faster than 80kph. In addition, bus drivers must undergo police background checks and hold a special permit that ensures they are trained to work with children. The rules also address the issue of overcrowding on buses by outlawing folding seats and dictating how much space must be between seats and corridors. Seat belts are mandatory for certain seats and first aid equipment and fire extinguishers must be on board. Many parents want similar measures introduced in Abu Dhabi. Since a detailed plan has not been released about the new regulations in Abu Dhabi, it is not clear whether they will cover the same terrain as in Dubai. "Private schools, including villa schools, and government schools, need to make sure that all aspects of their students' welfare are catered for," Dr Mugheer al Khaili, director general of Adec, said yesterday. "There is not one rule for government schools and one for the private schools. Our children are our most valuable resource. Each one is precious. "Our responsibilities go beyond the classroom. We must make sure that we all work together to keep our students safe from the time they arrive at school to the time they return to their homes. Adec will enforce these standards so that all parents can rest assured that their children's welfare is in safe hands." Private schools can organise their own transport arrangements, but they will still be expected to adhere to the standards, Adec said. Each school will be responsible for pupils "from the time they get on the bus in the morning until they return home". Two children have died over the past two years after being left on buses that had dropped off other children at schools in Abu Dhabi. In May 2008, Aatish Shabin, aged three, died after being locked on a school bus for several hours, but police pronounced the cause of death an "unknown illness" rather than heat exhaustion. No post-mortem was performed and the boy's body was cremated in India. The school denied responsibility for the boy's death, stating that transport was a matter handled between parents and the private bus company. But parents said the school had arranged the transport with a private bus company. Last May, Aiman Zeeshanuddin, aged four, died after being left on a minibus that her parents hired to take her from Musaffah to the New Indian Model School. The doctor who examined her body said she had been killed by heatstroke and dehydration. The school operates its own buses, but there were none going to and from Musaffah, so her parents had made arrangements with a private transport company. Neither school notified parents that their child was absent from class. After Aiman's death, Mohammed al Dhahiri, director of Abu Dhabi Education Zone, advised parents not to hire private drivers. Yesterday Mr al Dhahiri said it was parents' responsibility to find safe transport for their children. "I carried out an in-depth investigation over the death of the young student who died after being left on the bus driven by an unauthorised driver," Mr al Dhahiri said. "I know it is difficult for parents where there is a lack of options to transport their children to school, but the consequences of these short-term arrangements can be so great we advise parents to look for safe alternatives." Last February, the Ministry of Education instructed state and private schools to hire supervisors to ride on school buses with children. Under federal rules, schools are also required to take attendance at the start of the school day and call parents if children are absent. Since private transport has not been outlawed in Abu Dhabi, hundreds of children continue to travel to school on private minibuses in cases where schools do not offer transport. "We have to depend on the private transportation and it is not up to the grade," said Mrs Habib, whose six-year-old daughter attends Merryland Kindergarten, the school where Aatish Shabin was a pupil. Merryland does not provide transport for its students, said Mrs Habib, 30, and she has had to arrange for private transport for her daughter with a company referred through the school, located near Khalifa University. "There should be a responsible person taking care of the kid, if a kid is sleeping in the back or something," she said. Mrs Habib requested that her first name be withheld so as not to cause trouble for her daughter. "When we send the kid to the school it is something of a risk." Since the incident last year, she said, the school sends a SMS message whenever a student is absent from class. Some parents complain that school buses in Abu Dhabi are not kept to the same standards as in Dubai. Rowan Gabriel, who sends her son to the Filipino National School in the capital, does not use school transport because of the incident last year at Merryland. "I am afraid something might happen to him on the bus," she said. "They need to make some stricter rules," she said adding that tougher regulations would prevent further school bus deaths. Manoj Joseph, who sends his seven-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, to St Joseph's school, said the two cases of children dying on school buses showed there was a need for tougher regulations. "The rules should officially have one person who has to take care of all of the students who have come out of the bus," he said. The private company he uses provides a driver and a monitor but he said: "There should be somebody from the school on the bus." Khawla al Mulla, principal at the Al Noof High School in Sharjah, said transport arrangements were safer in state schools because they were run by Emirates Transport. "The buses are new, and they have air conditioning and general training for the drivers," she said. A safety expert said emirates needed to work together to introduce a national uniform standard for school transport, "I think it could be really good for Abu Dhabi to adopt very similar regulations [as Dubai]," said Dr Michal Grivna, a researcher at the UAE University in Al Ain who focuses on injury control and prevention. "It could be really very useful, and, this is again why I think it is quite important to have co-ordination between emirates about child safety," he said, adding that an inter-emirates committee should be formed to evaluate such regulations. Parents also complain that conditions on school buses can be dangerous. Varghese Mathew, 35, a parent of two children attending Leens School and Kindergarten near Al Falah Plaza, said they complained to him regularly of having to sit on the lap of another child in a car with little air conditioning. "They don't get any AC and they feel very bad, but what to do?" said Mr Varghese, who works at an air- conditioning company in Musaffah. "We cannot go from the office and get the kids." Mr Varghese, who lives near Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research, pays Dh300 (US$2) per month to transport his children, Noel, seven and Nova, six, from school. He drops them off in the morning before work. He would welcome rules that guarantee children would be monitored and transported in vehicles with working air conditioning. "The schools, actually, they should take more concern about this," he said. Hersc Tony, a Grade Four pupil at the Abu Dhabi Indian School, complained of crowding, bullying and "untidy" conditions. "The bus is very crowded," Hersc said. "In a one- or two-seater there are like four people. Sometimes they bully and they throw stuff. A lot of kids from the bus have been reported to the principal." Hersc's mother said she would rather not use school transport but had to because both she and her husband worked. Vince Acabado, whose daughter is a pupil at the PISCO private school in Abu Dhabi, said he stopped sending his child on the bus because conditions were poor. "First of all it is a little bit congested and some of the buses are not good in their air conditioning," Mr Acabado said, adding that the bus also took a long time to go a short distance. Robert Thompson, a spokesman for Adec, said the agency was "very serious" about health and safety in both state and private schools. It took over control of private schools in the emirate from the Ministry of Education last year and has since started inspecting schools. Col Gaith al Zaabi, traffic director for the Ministry of Interior, said the police started a three-month school bus safety campaign last week with the Ministry of Education and Emirates Transport. "Due to the increase in student accidents and students getting run over by school buses, we are carrying this campaign aiming to raise awareness about school bus safety and to educate drivers about how to drive safely and how to commit to the rules," Col al Zaabi said. The transport company is distributing pamphlets with 10 safety points written in English and Arabic for parents, drivers and students. Tips in the pamphlet for students include: "The bus driver needs to concentrate while driving, therefore I do not disturb him" and "I always implement 'Golden Rule' when I exit the bus (move 10 steps ahead of the bus)." klewis@thenational.ae mchung@thenational.ae