The heads of some of Abu Dhabi’s highest rated schools have said their 'outstanding' ranking has proved they do not have to charge a fortune to offer top quality education.
This week, Abu Dhabi’s department of education and knowledge (Adek) released the biennial Irtiqa’a Inspection Report that ranked four schools - Al Muna Academy, Raha International School, Merryland International School and Brighton College in Al Ain - in the top 'outstanding' rating.
School fees vary greatly across the emirate. Bright Riders School in Mohamed bin Zayed City charges a tuition fee of Dh17,200 per year for Grade 9 but parents of pupils at Repton School on Reem Island pay Dh70,000 – four times as much - for the same year.
Merryland International School in Mussaffah earned the top rank for the first time this year and charges tuition fees starting at Dh23,500 in kindergarten and Dh41,100 for Grade 12.
Aaron Grandon, the school’s chairman, said Merryland’s jump from a very good rating to outstanding was the result of a collective effort guided by the school's founder, Susheela George.
"She is a passionate educator and that passion has been driven into the teachers' minds. Her passion is such that she goes to different parts of the world to collect world-class resources for the school," he said.
The school has a 3-D laboratory, a robotics lab and weather station and Mr Grandon said staff had been working hard throughout the year – not just during inspections – to offer their pupils a quality experience.
"School fees should be affordable for everyone,” he said. “There are many schools that are charging hundreds of thousands of dirhams but our highest fee is Dh41,000.”
He said, when choosing a school for their children, parents should “look at the dedication of the school and committed service that the school offers” rather than assume expensive tuition fees equate to the best education.
Raha International School in Khalifa City also earned an ‘outstanding’ rank and charges fees between Dh37,800 for early years and Dh59,500 for Grade 12.
Al Muna Academy, an Aldar Academy school in Al Danah, was the third affordable school to be rated ‘outstanding’, charging Dh43,000 in annual fees.
Bill Houldsworth, director of education at Aldar Academies, and a Briton, said the cost of education in his home country bears no relation to the quality of education.
"If I think back to conditions in the UK, some of the outstanding schools are in the most deprived areas of the country," he said.
"There, the focus is on the progress that children make from the starting point. So, what makes it difficult for the expensive schools is that the starting point is a lot higher and to continue to make the progress is very difficult," he said.
"In the UAE, we have an interesting situation whereby the progress children make in schools depends on the quality of teaching no matter what you pay.
"That’s the difference between high and low fees schools. The environment people pay for - the quality of teaching doesn’t necessarily match that.”
A school charging higher fees may have more facilities but parents should also look to enrol their children in a school with the best teachers, Mr Houldsworth said.
Schools are judged in several categories, including pupils’ achievement, personal and social development, innovation skills, teaching and assessment and leadership and management of the school, with inspections lasting between three and five days. While a very good school is one which is exceeding expectations, an outstanding school substantially exceeds expectations.
Jeff Evans, an education consultant at Learning Key Education Consultancy, said improvement in ratings showed positive school leadership, high quality learning and sustained progress impacted pupil achievement but that the cost of school fees did not always guarantee the best education.
"Many schools operating on affordable fees cannot provide sustainable financial support for development and operational costs; the numbers simply do not balance. Competition for schools with affordable fees and good or better ratings is intense because they offer attractive value for money,” he said.
Some schools can charge affordable fees because they are part of groups – such as Gems, Aldar and Taalem - who can subsidise fees and benefit from economies of scale.
Of the four outstanding schools, only Brighton College Al Ain charges more expensive fees between Dh49,907 and Dh79,000.
Dr Kenneth Greig, head master of the school, said it earned its first outstanding result in 2016. Two years on, there have been a few changes.
"We knew we would have to improve even more to get a second outstanding, and it was a team effort. In the inspection report we got ‘outstanding' in all six performance standards," said Dr Greig.
"What we feel contributes to our overall rating is that there is a strong sense of what the school stands for. It brings everyone together and makes people like feel like it’s a community based on kindness."
Half of the pupils at the school are Emirati.
The school has instituted a system of parent representatives and are working to include parents in meaningful ways.
The principal views it as "partnership between parents and the school."
"We are still trying to improve and that’s half the battle," he said.