No place in school for your child until 2013-14

Many parents trying to find the right school for their child find out too late that the school of their like is fully booked for the next academic year. Or the year after.

“I thought I was well on time, when I started investigating the possibilities of my three-year-old son going to school next year,” says Kinana Humsi-Mardini (26) from Syria. “But I faced waiting list after waiting list. I was shocked.”

Kinana is one of the many mothers coming from abroad trying to find the best education for their child. Once in the UAE, they are bound to find out that this is not an easy job, as many schools are booked for the next school year, and sometimes even for the years after.

“I was not aware of this at all,” explains Kinana. “I did not even know that most curriculums start KG1 the age of three! I was very disappointed to find out that finding the best possible education for my son was not in my own hands.”

Like many other parents, Kinana prefers the British curriculum. They offer discipline and qualitative education, she heard from other mothers in her neighbourhood. But, many of these schools are hard to get in to.

"At Dubai British School, applications are possible 20 months in advance of the next academic year," explains Kim Ward, admissions officer at DBS. "But for KG1 we already have more than 130 applications, hence we closed the list."

Mark Nam Nguyen (39) from Canada did not worry when he moved with his Vietnamese wife to the UAE last year July. He was told by his new company that there was a deal signed between the company and Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS). “We were said to deserve preference as employees, but even though we became number 26 on the waiting list,” he says. “At that time, we had only two months left to find another option.”

The date at which schools open their application is different from school to school, and availability is often not mentioned on the websites. This makes it difficult for newcomers to make the right decision at the right time.

“Parents actually want to pay the very high prices that these schools are asking,” Sonia Mehra (32) from India says. “They simply want the best for their child. It is very frustrating that they do not have the chance to get this best,” she says adding that she tried to apply for Dubai International Academy and Willington before she ended up at Regent International School. “I was number 250 on the first waiting list, and for Willington I would have to wait at least two years.”

KHDA rating

Since the school year of 2008-2009, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) has kept track of the development of most of the schools operating in Dubai. Annually, it publishes inspection reports and rates the schools, offering a rating system with the categories ‘unsatisfactory’, ‘acceptable’, ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’.

It seems that especially the schools that have been rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ over the last three years are not meeting the admission demands. “Repton is a popular school and competition for places, particularly in all our younger year groups, is particularly intense,” says the Headmaster of Repton, a British-curriculum school where nursery and reception classes are fully booked until the school year of 2014-2015.

The problem is by far not confined to the British schools only. Schools that have been rated as ‘good’ over the past three years contain various curriculums, but are facing similar problems.

“We are fully booked for all grades for the next three years,” says the headmaster of the Indian-curriculum Millenium School Dubai. “We face the same problem every year. Only siblings of older students make a chance to get in, based on the preference for siblings, but even for them there is a waiting list.”

Moreover, schools with a specific curriculum may give preference to students who obtain a passport from that particular country. “I do not even try at schools with an American curriculum,” says Kinana. “Americans will have preference there.” The American School of Dubai, which has limited available places each year, confirms to apply this policy.

For others, options are simply too limited. For Hanan (33), who is originally Maroccan but was born and raised in France, there was only one possibility. “I needed a French-curriculum school,” she says. “My children do not speak English, and there are not any schools with a solely Arabic curriculum.”

However, there are only two French-curriculum schools offering the full range of classes, and both of them were full when Hanan came from France to the UAE earlier this year. 

“We are open for admission from January every year, but always have to say no to a lot of people,” Headmaster of Lycee Georges Pompidou Ecole Primaire Dubai says. “The problem is getting bigger every year.”

Increasing school capacity

The number of students in Dubai is increasing. In the school year 2010-2011 the KHDA counted 215.000 students, a 3-6 per cent increase compared to the school year of 2008-2009.  “The population of Dubai is increasing, but students also migrate from one school to another quite often,” says Mohammad Darwish, Chief of Regulations and Compliance Commission (RCC) of the KHDA to explain the overabundance of student applications.

“To resolve the capacity issue of schools, an increase in the number of seats offered is needed. It does not matter whether this is sustained by the expansion of a current school or the construction of new schools.”

Over the last two years, 26 schools were added to the number of established schools in Dubai, and some schools are planning for expansion to be able to receive more students.

“In September 2013, we will have doubled our capacity,” says the head master of Lycee Georges Pompidou Ecole Primaire Dubai, as a new building is already in the making. Also the Taaleem Group of Schools, an umbrella organisation with Dubai British School as one of its schools, is undertaking construction work for a new building in Mirdif.

However, not all schools agree to expand, as their curriculum is often confined to small-seized classrooms. “We endeavour at all times to live up to our motto ‘the best for every child’.  This means that we limit class sizes and the overall number of children in the school,” explains the head master of Repton International School.

School quality

“KHDA works in two ways to improve the proportion of students in high performing schools,” explains Mohammad Darwish. “Firstly, we are encouraging investors to build new schools that are offering quality education. And secondly, we are working with schools to improve the quality of existing schools.”

From the 215 schools, only 94 fell within one of the two upper categories in the rating list of KHDA over the school year of 2010-2011, while 121 schools were rated as ‘acceptable’ or ‘unsatisfactory’.  Moreover, there were more schools named in the category ‘unsatisfactory’ than in the category ‘outstanding’.

In the academic year 2010-2011, 10.000 students were receiving unsatisfactory education, and many parents are unable to ascribe with the school of their first choice.

“Established schools that offer good quality education tend to fill quickly and have long waiting lists,” says Mohammad Darwish.

“However, there were 17,664 students attending a school rated as ‘good’ that was rated as ‘acceptable’ the year before.  This improves the opportunity for parents to send their child to a high-performing school,” he adds.

The choice for the right school is not an easy one for parents. As examples show, parents from abroad are often not familiar with the admission procedures of schools in the UAE, and hence are not aware of the need to apply at an early stage.

"When you consider that most schools provide education for all grades under one curriculum, the choice for the right school is a very important one, says Kinana. “I do not want to put my son through the trouble of switching schools, or worse, curriculum.

"If I had known all this before, I would have started applying much earlier,” she adds, hoping that her son will be one of the lucky few that get selected from one of the many waiting list.