Coronavirus: Aldar Education head rules out further school fee reductions

Stephen Sharples says cut-price teaching is not possible as premium private schools need to invest more in technology

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The head of Abu Dhabi’s largest school operator said it is not looking to cut its fees in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stephen Sharples, director of education at Aldar Education, said the best schools in the UAE had worked hard to ensure pupils had access to premium education.

“The fee structure will absolutely not be changed. The best schools in the country have invested in technology,” said Mr Sharples, who spoke at the virtual McGraw Hill Schools Conference on Wednesday.

The fee structure will absolutely not be changed

McGraw Hill is an American education technology and publishing company.

“There is a lot more investment needed and the learning environment has changed,” he said.

“At the moment, we are not looking to make a reduction in fees.

"We invested Dh9.9 million ($2.7m) in technology, learning platforms and support for teachers and pupils."

Aldar Education operates 20 schools in Abu Dhabi.

Many of their pupils were given laptops or tablets to help them study.

“Last year, when schools closed in March, we gave a 20 per cent blanket discount on the third-term fee to all 7,500 pupils at the seven Aldar Academies,” he said.

Stephen Sharples, the director of education, at Aldar Education, Abu Dhabi’s largest school developer, said the best schools in the country had worked hard to ensure pupils had access to leading education technology. Courtesy Aldar Education
Stephen Sharples of Aldar Education says the best schools in the country have worked hard to ensure pupils have access to leading education and technology. Aldar Education

“We also set up a $1.6m hardship fund which parents could apply to.”

The scheme helped parents who lost jobs or income because of the pandemic.

“Our online offering is outstanding and we have schools at different fee points, so I don’t think we will be reducing fees,” Mr Sharples said.

While school fees were likely to remain the same, educationists evaluated the way children were taught.

“Remote learning in its current shape and form is not here to stay,” Mr Sharples said.

“Schools will use virtual classes to enhance learning, but children need to be in school physically.

“It [online learning] was put in place to fix a problem and, hopefully, we will go back to normal times.”

Mr Sharples said teachers needed to teach children at school what they could not learn at home.

There are about 6,500 pupils in Aldar schools plus more than 950 teaching and support staff. Pawan Singh / The National
There are about 6,500 pupils in Aldar schools plus more than 950 teaching and support staff. Pawan Singh / The National

He described online lessons as pre-learning, while coming to school was about challenging and demonstrating knowledge.

Pupils learn in labs, music rooms or performance areas, and engage in activities they cannot pursue at home.

“It won’t be good enough to go back and do what we used to do,” he said.

Schools would also use online lessons to teach niche subjects, for which pupils at several schools would come together for online lessons taught by one teacher.

“When we had a teacher taken ill, then rather than missing a lesson, we had pupils in Al Ain being taught by a teacher in Abu Dhabi or vice versa,” Mr Sharples said.

The McGraw Hill Schools Conference brought together senior representatives from about 100 schools to discuss pressing problems facing teachers.

Education leaders at the conference highlighted that human contact was essential to schooling.

Matthew Wilkens, superintendent at Dar Jana International School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said he did not foresee an end to remote learning until a majority of the country’s population was immunised.

Mr Wilkens said hybrid learning is not known to work effectively.

“Remote learning and blended learning will continue in various forms after the pandemic subsides,” he said.

“I think the new normal will help us determine exactly how we manage our physical and online learning environments.

“Striking a balance between physical and online learning is crucial and should be based on the needs of our pupils.”

Rehab Ali, academic director at Stars of Knowledge School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said: “I see the future as more innovative. We’re going to be a very digital school in the future.”

She said the return to normality would be a gradual one.

Schools delved into damage control at the start of the pandemic, she said.

“We were just getting people to end the year successfully, but we knew it would be mostly online,” Ms Ali said.

“After a couple of months, we realised that some pupils were thriving while others were crumbling.

“Some teachers felt the pressure as they were supposed to handle the whole curriculum online.”

Ms Ali said teachers who were digitally illiterate had picked up technology skills in the past year.

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