x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Parents furious as Westminster School in Dubai is axed

Parents of children at a British curriculum school that will close in 2014 say it is close to impossible to find an affordable alternative in Dubai.

Families affected by the closure of Westminster School will be given priority at some of the other schools in the Gems group that follow the British curriculum. Razan Alzayani / The National
Families affected by the closure of Westminster School will be given priority at some of the other schools in the Gems group that follow the British curriculum. Razan Alzayani / The National

DUBAI // Parents of children at a British curriculum school set to close in 2014 say it is almost impossible to find an affordable alternative in the emirate.

Some of the pupils have now started a Twitter campaign seeking to reverse the decision to shut.

Gems, the largest education provider in the country, today announced its intention to close the 17-year-old Westminster School in Dubai because it was no longer viable to operate.

But parents say they are unable to find a good school within the same fee bracket – the school charges up to Dh10,000 for annual tuition.

“I couldn’t sleep last night knowing I will have to run from pillar to post to find another school now,” said Jameeli Gulbahar Balooch, who has five children at the school.

“The school has the quality and fees I can afford. Finding another with the same balance is going to be a nightmare.”

Pupils of the school took to Twitter today to express their disappointment. Hashtags #KeepTWS and #SaveOurSchool were created and were trending starting at 5pm.

Aarshia Vazirani D’mello, a Grade 11 pupil, was trying to gain as many supporters as she could through the social networking site. “I have been at this school for eight years,” she said. “We know what goes on in our school and I adore the teachers. They do make us better people.”

Aarshia said the hashtags were created to emphasise how much the pupils cared about the school.

“A school is about its education and not about the money it earns, right?” she asked.

Several pupils wrote letters to the principal and many plan to continue pushing the management to reverse the decision.

There are slightly fewer than 5,000 pupils at the school. Families affected by the closure will be given priority at some other schools in the group that follow the British curriculum.

One father with two children, age seven and four, said those options were expensive.

“Any new school I look at will be a bigger burden on my pocket,” he said. “We were told this school is closing because they cannot afford to run it anymore. Is that the case or are they looking for a bigger profit margin now?”

Gems said today that new fee regulations restricted their progress because they were unable “to invest the resources required to produce the improvement needed, both educationally and in infrastructure”.

The regulations link increases to a school’s performance in inspections and the inflation rate in the sector. Westminster has been rated “acceptable” since 2008 and was permitted to increase fees by 3 per cent this year.

“A 3 per cent increase for an acceptable inspection rating for a low fee-paying school equates to just Dh167 per year ... which is clearly unsustainable,” said a Gems spokesman. The decision comes in the same year the group announced plans to expand its network in the UAE and several other countries. The provider said it plans to invest between US$550 million and $650 million in developed and developing markets of Asian and South Africa.

Ten schools with a capacity for 33,000 pupils will be opened in the UAE within the next two years.

Gems said the expansion was funded through bank loans. “This is not ‘our’ money that we have sitting in the bank”.

“To invest we will borrow from financial institutions. We are required to submit business plans that provide evidence that a new school will be sustainable and commercially viable,” the spokesman said, adding they could not raise that investment for Westminster because it was deemed no longer viable.

Other schools offering a British curriculum within the same fee bracket include the “acceptable” Arab Unity School and Apple International School, which was rated “unsatisfactory”. Annual fees range from Dh2,600 to Dh8,000.

Several Indian schools, including those owned by Gems, have an average annual fee of Dh8,000.

Gems said operating costs at British curriculum schools were higher than at Indian schools, which made it difficult to keep Westminster afloat under the current fee structure.

Jamal, a father of two, said affordable, quality schools were diminishing in the emirate for middle-income families.

“Good schools raise their fees to stay abreast with the market competition and they are granted the increase,” he said. “Schools that provide affordable education but cannot live up to the government’s expectation prefer to close and start afresh with higher fees to be at the same level as other schools.

“We either have to settle for poor quality schools or pay exorbitant prices to get our children educated.”

aahmed@thenational.ae