Dubai schools offering 'freebies' in bid to increase low pupil numbers

Free lunches, uniforms and transport are being offered to help fill classrooms

Students take part in a science class at Dubai International Academy Al Barsha. Reem Mohammed/The National
Powered by automated translation

Schools in Dubai are offering free lunches, uniforms and transport in an effort to boost low pupil numbers amid growing competition in the emirate.

Many schools which opened their doors in the last year are operating well below capacity, according to figures from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's private education regulator, prompting them to come up with new ways to fill up classrooms.

Last week, The National reported schools across the UAE are offering huge discounts on fees to boost enrolment.

Riverston School Dubai, which follows the British curriculum, had only 13 pupils in the 2018-19 school year, though it had a capacity for 270, KHDA figures revealed.

Bright Riders School in Dubai, with room for 1,350 pupils, welcomed only 51 learners during the same period, a number which has risen to 170 in the new school year.

Wayne Howsen, principal at The Aquila School, said the school had 67 pupils last year but has now increased this number to 350, with hopes of raising this figure to 550 in the next 12 months.

The school offered 15 per cent discount on fees to all families who enrolled in 2018 and 2019, along with a variety of incentives.

"We offered free school lunches for a year, free bus service for a year and free uniforms," said Mr Howsen.

"Parents have said they saved thousands of dirhams as they did not have to pay for uniforms or transport."

Last year, 13 new schools opened in Dubai while only five launched in 2019 and three are set to open in 2020, bringing the total number of private schools in the emirate to 211.

Heads of new schools said reduced education subsidies from employers posed the biggest challenge to enrolling pupils.

Roughly 64 per cent of parents in Dubai received no contribution towards schools fees from their employers this year, compared to 50 percent receiving fee assistance from employers in 2014, according to data from The Education Intelligence Group, an education consultancy in Dubai.

Schools opening in the UAE typically set pupil targets for each year, with the aim of gradually reaching full capacity.

GEMS Founders School Al Mizhar, an affordable British school with fees ranging from Dh23,000 to Dh30,000, was the only school to open last year with more than 1,000 pupils, boasting 1,325 children on its register.

Transportation fees at the school range from Dh5,200 to Dh7,250 per year, depending on the location of pupils.

David Hicks, principal at Dubai International Academy Al Barsha, said the school had increased pupil numbers from 412 to 756 in the past 12 months.

The reputation, facilities and focus on children's wellbeing have helped attract pupils, said the principal.

“The biggest challenge (in enrolling pupils) was the economy in Dubai as there was some insecurity and the expense was a concern for some," said Mr Hicks.

Bill Delbrugge, headmaster at Dunecrest American School in Dubai, said the school is offering a seven to 15 per cent discount on KHDA approved tuition fees to bolster pupil recruitment. Chris Whiteoak / The National  

"Also, it takes trust from parents to put their children in a school that is not yet established.

"We have recognised that fact and put scholarships in place and increased the capacity for sibling discounts."

The school will be broadening their range of scholarships this year to entice more pupils.

Graeme Scott, director at Fairgreen International School, said the school struggled to enrol pupils initially as their building was not ready on time and the school had to operate out of a partner school's building until December of last year.

The school had 220 pupils in 2018 out of a capacity of 1,150, a number which has swelled to 380.

"We are happy with the number of pupils we have. For the first part of the year, we did not even have a building so to end the year with 220 pupils was very good." said Mr Scott.

"We set our fees at a competitive level and these are tied to teacher’s salaries. We wanted to recruit the best teachers and for that we needed to pay a decent salary.

"Now, many residents are not getting an education allowance. They get a lump sum and they can allocate what they want to housing and education.

"The fees have been discounted and that is our movement towards being more affordable."

The school is offering a 13 to 30 per cent discount on school fees to help families.

Bill Delbrugge, headmaster at Dunecrest American School in Dubai, said the school is offering a seven to 15 per cent discount on KHDA approved tuition fees and has so far managed to recruit 280 pupils.

"We also have to pay the bills," said Mr Delbrugge.

"We did not want a huge number. We wanted a steady growth while focusing on pupils."

He said the school aims to have 500 pupils at the end of the 2020 academic year.