Dubai's private school population is edging back to pre-pandemic levels after growing by 10,000 pupils in 12 months.
Official statistics show 289,019 pupils were enrolled in the emirate's 215 schools at the start of the new academic year, up from 279,191 for the 2020-21 term.
In the 2019-20 school year, 295,148 children were studying at 208 schools.
The figures were collected by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's private education regulator.
A report released by a global consulting firm last week partly credited the rise in enrolment to the renewed confidence of parents of early years children — typically aged under 5 — in the return to in-person lessons.
Dubai ended distance learning at its private schools on October 3.
The study by LEK Consulting, a global strategy consulting firm, found the primary reason for the drop-off in enrolment during the pandemic was that parents were reluctant to send their children to school, did not believe online learning would be effective in early years and were willing to have them skip a year.
“When Covid-19 hit, most parents said they did not want to send their children to school in early years because school was online,” said Ashwin Assomull, head of LEK Consulting’s Global Education Practice.
He said that when classes moved to in-person lessons, some parents still felt unsafe, especially those with multi-generational families living close together.
“Also, younger kids are much less easy to control in terms of mask-wearing,” he said.
“What happened in that year was that people thought they could pass and not send kids to school in the early years because they did not believe online delivery was effective,” said Mr Assomull.
“But what we have seen in September this year is that the market has bounced back significantly. We are expecting to see a bit more of enrolments in January 2022 because everything's much more open now.”
Mother in favour of homeschooling
Sana Akhir, a mother of a 3-and-a-half-year-old in Sharjah, said she had chosen not to send her child to school because the majority of classes had remained online during the pandemic.
“This did not make sense to me because my child would sit in one place in front of a screen for hours for classes as she is just 3 and a half years old,” said Ms Akhir.
“I have been homeschooling her since she was 2-years-old and thought I could do a better job at home as I am a hands-on mum.”
She said fear of catching coronavirus did not hold her back as the number of Covid-19 cases in the UAE were under control.
School enjoys surge in enrolments
Wayne Howsen, principal at the Aquila School in Dubai, said the pandemic prompted some families of younger children to step back from learning temporarily.
“In April and May 2020, we lost approximately 25 families in the early years,” he said.
“These were the youngest children in the school and 25 families said, with respect, learning at home for the very youngest was not really worth the money. But then most of them came back over the summer.
“When we said we could offer full-time learning in school, our numbers massively increased and since then have been stable.
“Over the period of the summer holiday, we had to open six new classes because our numbers skyrocketed.”
The school had about 530 pupils before the summer break and 623 in the fall of 2020. Now, they have 839 pupils.
Fees at the school range from Dh36,000 in foundation stage one to Dh52,800 in year nine after a 20 per cent discount for which all families are eligible.
“We have lost a handful of families at the end of last academic year because they could no longer afford our school,” he said.
He said the reasons their enrolment grew was because they offered a full-time return to in-person classes, were transparent with families and gave them a weekly update on the Covid-19 situation at the school.
Parents trusted school safety strategy
Not all schools in the Emirates faced a dip in numbers.
Monique Flickinger, superintendent at American Community School in Abu Dhabi, said the vast majority parents at the school kept their children in classrooms throughout the pandemic.
“We had a community who were interested in sending their children to school so we had exceptionally high attendance. We never dipped below 97 per cent,” said Ms Flickinger.
“We installed a rigorous cleaning school process and parents had a high level of trust in us.”