In an effort to make some sense of Dubai’s school system, Time Out talks to four of the city’s top educational experts
Where do we stand with waiting lists and competition for places in Dubai schools? Clive: There’s been a large turnover of students in Dubai – people have left, but there’s been an influx of new people – our numbers (at Taaleem schools) are up 12 per cent on last year. But waiting lists, especially at the younger end, are still very long. It does get easier later on, but if you are looking for a place for your child and they are aged two, then you need to get their names down on some waiting lists as soon as you can.
Francesca: It depends on the school. There are certain schools here that have good reputations and they have long waiting lists. Also, parents get involved in ‘you should join this or that school’ conversations and have little else to base their choice upon, so there are a few schools with huge waiting lists, but it’s not that there are millions of kids in Dubai, it’s often because the same kids are on all those lists.
Tricia: I have friends currently looking for places for their kids, and where they have siblings of different age groups, getting them into the same school can be a total nightmare. But you’re right, Francesca – key schools will have lists as long as your arm, and that’s because parents ask around about reputations.
I think newer schools should be doing more to get themselves out there and advertise what they offer. All schools say, ‘We’re fab, we’re great, we’re amazing’ – but how do you really judge that? All you can do is go on parental advice from people who are already here. There needs to be a way through the maze.
Where do parents start? Clive: Families can go through placement agencies, which have their fingers on the pulse in terms of which schools offer what and where waiting lists are. Lots of multi-nationals will offer that.
Tricia: But if you don’t work for a multi-national and you’re here on your own, there is very little guidance available.
Francesca: Every child is different, and every family is different. Lots of parents walk into a school, and they see a grand piano in the reception, or an Olympic-sized pool – and they think, ‘Oh, this must be a good school.’ What they should be doing is asking certain pertinent questions, like, ‘How many students go to university from this school? What are the SAT results?’
Tricia: The KHDA inspections started in October 2008 and the assessments are available on the website (www.khda.gov.ae). Obviously it needs development, but as an initial marker, it’s definitely helpful.
Eli: They have reports on every school they have inspected, but unfortunately they’re not in layman’s terms. A lot of parents may find it difficult to understand the standards… the snippet on the website certainly doesn’t give you the whole picture.
Francesca: There are some very good schools out there that were graded ‘acceptable’ and some other schools that are not so great that got ‘good’ or ‘exceptional’ grades.
Eli: Schools may be exceptional in several areas, but be downgraded on a certain subject, so it’s difficult to get a clear picture.
Tricia: That’s true. I’m not interested if a school has a state-of-the-art climbing wall. Who cares? I’m only really interested in the standards of teaching. The most important element in any school is the head teacher. He or she sets the culture for the whole school.
What’s the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit schools? Tricia: My experience is that the not-for-profit schools concentrate on the calibre of teachers and facilities. There’s got to be a different agenda if you’re going to take a profit. Non-profit schools do pay their staff more.
Clive: All schools have to make their books balance, and whether you call it a profit or a surplus, it depends where that profit goes. Good schools starting up will have a very deep ‘j’ curve and won’t have a surplus for many years. Education – if you’re doing it right – is not profitable in the short term or even in the medium term. What we have to get across to investors is that a school is part of a community, a loss-leader that will benefit the whole area. Developers know that if they haven’t got a school, they haven’t got a community. People will move to an area to be near to a school if it’s a good school.
Francesca: If you look at the not-for-profit schools in Dubai, they are all ‘good’ or better by KHDA standards. Teachers don’t go into teaching to be millionaires. They go into it because they value education and the not-for-profit schools back that up. Most teachers in Dubai would like to teach in not-for-profit schools. Not just because the salaries are higher, but because the whole ethos of the school is angled in a slightly different way. That’s not to say there aren’t good for-profit schools out there, because there are.
Why are schools here so expensive? Clive: Bringing teachers in is very expensive. In our schools, it costs us Dhs350,000 to bring in a new faculty member. That’s an average teacher – not a senior one. There’s also the important question of teacher development.
Tricia: Good teachers are what it’s all about. Professional development is very important.
Francesca: Rent is another big thing. A lot of the not-for-profit schools have gifted land whereas for-profit schools have to budget that in. I know a school that saw its rent leap from Dhs80,000 to Dhs600,000. How are they going to make that difference? The only way is by upping the fees. It’s not just about people making money. A lot of it is about schools just trying to cover their costs.
Tricia: As a parent – a single parent – who pays fees, there is nothing else that gives me better value for money than a happy and healthy child, that’s priceless. Blimey, the cost of a term of education is the same as a smart sofa – it’s nothing to complain about really.
• Vice-chair of Jess Parent Group at Arabian Ranches Tricia Evans is mum to Siân, aged 12. A Jumeirah resident, she’s lived in Dubai for 16 years and is a business coach and writer. • Eli Ghazel is a teacher trainer and educational consultant at Eton Institute. A regular commuter to Dubai since 2004, the father-of-two has lived in Al Barsha for a year. • Francesca McGeary has lived in the UAE for five years, first as a teacher in Abu Dhabi and now as an independent educational consultant. An Al Barsha resident, she helps families find the right school for their child. • Father-of-five Clive Pierrpont is director of communications and marketing for Taaleem Schools. He has lived in Arabian Ranches for two years and his youngest son, Giordan, 12, goes to Greenfield Community School.