Years ago, when my younger brother attended a well-known special needs school in Dubai, my parents found themselves in a dilemma. My brother’s condition meant he was severely disabled on almost every front – and, though he enjoyed being at school, his time there was suddenly limited. ‘The waiting list here is very long. Places are in huge demand – and Luke’s just not advancing very much,’ they were told by the then principal.
The crux of the matter was that much more able children, also classified as having special needs but who were not allowed to be integrated into mainstream schools by UAE law, had nowhere to go. The principal faced a problem: should she continue to use her limited resources on a child who wasn’t making much progress? Or should she give up on him because she knew another student would benefit more from the facilities?
The decision was never taken and, thankfully, times are changing. The term ‘special needs’ covers a huge spectrum, from severe physical and mental disability to mild dyslexia to the child who’s streets ahead of his peers. Some schools in the UAE now welcome children who have extra educational requirements, while general public awareness has improved ten-fold. But the waiting lists at dedicated special needs schools are still painfully long. Take Mona for example: a sociable and fashion-conscious 19-year-old, she hasn’t been to school since she was 10 years old. Why? Her wheelchair-bound condition combined with learning difficulties meant no mainstream school would offer her a place. But she never even made it off the waiting lists of any of Dubai’s special schools either. As a result, she’s spent a lonely, frustrated decade at home. ’Her family have tried so hard to get her a place at school – but nothing ever came up,’ explains her carer.
And Mona’s case is not so unusual. Francesca McGeary, an independent UAE-based educational consultant, says that, while parents’ options are now better, educating a special needs child in Dubai is challenging. ‘Three or four years ago you didn’t see many children with special needs around in the community. Now, you can find mainstream schools beginning to accept these students, which then helps to raise awareness in the general population. But until things are noticeably different all over, parents must continue to help themselves.’
Clive Pierrepont, director of communications for educational services company Taleem, believes mainstream schools should provide more places to children who are classified as having special needs. But he says hands are still tied by law. ‘Learning support departments cost a lot – and, according to current regulations, these costs can’t be passed on to parents in the form of additional fees. But schools should be there to serve their community – and you can’t call yourself a community school if there are certain students you can’t include because of financial constraints.’
He adds that if a school is willing to pay more for a top football coach so that its sporty students can have the best opportunities, why can’t more cash be invested in advancing the special needs side of things? ‘Education should support every kid – because every kid has a talent and that deserves to be fostered.’
If you’re struggling to find a school place, here are a few things you can do to improve your chances.
You may dream of your child attending a mainstream school, but if their condition is complex, they could be better off in the care of highly trained staff. Your child might also feel happier in an environment where their disability is not considered unusual. However, places in these schools are limited.
Provide the paperwork
Any psychological reports or assessments relating to your child’s disability should be presented upfront. Neglecting to mention ADHD, dyspraxia or Aspergers, no matter how desperate you are, won’t be helpful in the long run.
Pay for additional help
You can offer to pay for a shadow teacher who will work one-on-one with your child in a mainstream class. This costs Dhs3,000 to Dhs5,000 per month.
Once your child is enrolled, you can ask the teacher to devise an individual programme based on their ability. This can be an option if you find the class they are in is a little advanced.
There are some great support groups in Dubai for the families of special needs children (see box below). Talking to people in the same boat can be a great knowledge resource.
Keep at it
Just because your child seems a long way down the waiting list doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Keep calling the schools to let them know you’re still interested. And even if a full-time place doesn’t come up, you may be able to negotiate a part-time place for your child, with a view to increasing the hours at a later date.
Who’s out there?
British Institute for Learning Development 04 396 5907; www.british-ild.com
Child Early Intervention Centre 04 423 3667; www.childeimc.com
SNF Children Development Centre 04 334 9818; www.snfgroup.com
UAE Downs Syndrome Association, 04 367 1949; www.uaedssg.com