ABU DHABI // Plans for several thousand government employees to move to Abu Dhabi from other emirates will place additional strain on already overloaded private schools, education authorities have cautioned.
About 185,000 children – 60 per cent of all pupils in the emirate, about a quarter of them Emirati – attend private schools in Abu Dhabi. There are 183 private schools, about 70 per cent of them oversubscribed. In the next seven years, the emirate will need up to 100 new schools to serve an additional 146,000 pupils.
"We are seeing steady growth in the number of pupils attending private schools," said Hamad Al Dhaheri, executive director of the private schools and quality assurance sector at Adec, Abu Dhabi's education regulator.
"So, yes, we expect the Executive Council's decision to create a strain."
The Executive Council announced last September that all government employees should live in Abu Dhabi. Staff who live in other emirates were given a year to move, or lose their housing allowance.
Estimates of the number of staff affected range from 5,000 to 10,000, and it is not known how many have school-age children.
Mr Al Dhaheri said capacity issues could be addressed by attracting quality investors to the capital.
"The main city has reached saturation point so operators will have to look to newer communities and outer areas such as Khalifa City, Shahama and Shamkha to build.
"We will need between 85 and 100 more private schools to meet the space challenge," and the new schools would require an investment of between Dh3 billion and Dh4 billion.
Adec is working with the Executive Council to iron out any issues related to the new government housing requirements and identify the needs that would arise in each education and income segment.
Some education providers already have plans to expand in the capital. Dr B R Shetty, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Indian School, said they were planning to open a new school in Mohammed Bin Zayed City this year that will accommodate 4,000 pupils.
Two other schools, the Rabeeh Primary and Royal Academy, will be able to educate 3,600 pupils when ready, although exact completion dates are not known. School operators at Adec's first Private Education Investment Forum yesterday said there were several obstacles to investing in the sector and this was slowing down growth.
Peter Abraam, executive director of strategic planning at the Royal Group, which is involved in establishing the Cranleigh Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, said there must be more transparency for investors to make better decisions.
"New entrants in the field of education should be provided with a better understanding of the sector in the emirate," said Mr Abraam.
"What has failed and what has worked for schools that do exist?"
He said the authority must also rethink the one-size-fits-all regulations that bog down many experienced providers who are trying to expand.
"A tailored regulatory system is required which is adapted according to the education providers' experience and capability," he said.
"Certain procedures need to be streamlined. As an established investor, I do not want to be handling the same paperwork as a newcomer."
Chadi Moujaes, vice president of the management consultancy Booz and Company, said there needed to be more data sharing by the authority.
"Authorities should do more to improve predictability," he said.
At the same time, he said, decisions in the education sector cannot be left to market forces. "The market is still underdeveloped. What we do need is more professionally managed schools."
Mr Al Dhaheri said there will be streamlining of licensing procedures to encourage investors. "In three months' time we will launch online licensing for them," he said. "We are also working closely with the Department of Economic Development so that investors have to deal with only one entity when applying."
The authority will also launch a guidebook for providers with information including student numbers and fee scales of other operators.