Evening schools are cheap, but take a toll

Cash-strapped parents in the UAE are increasingly sending their children to night classes at charity schools.

Pupils board their school buses after class ends at 8.30pm.
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DUBAI // It has been dark for hours by the time the fleet of yellow buses starts to pull away from the National Charity School in Dubai. The school building is a battered, sprawling structure that stretches the length of a city block. It is obscured by a wall topped with barbed wire.

The evening shift has just ended, and children dressed in baby-blue pants and white shirts scramble between the buses, shouting and rushing in all directions. When Hamad, a 14-year-old Palestinian with thick black hair and soft round features, boards the bus that will take him to Sharjah, it is 8.45pm. If there's no traffic, he should be home by 9.30. Last year, Hamad was a student at Al Ahliya private school in Sharjah. But when his father left his job at the furniture store where he had worked for 13 years after his monthly salary was cut from Dh9,000 (US$2,500) to Dh3,000 the family could no longer afford the tuition payments.

Hamad left his school and joined the 10,000 children enrolled at the National Charity Schools (NCS), a network of academies that cater to the children of low-income Arab expatriates. The Dubai branch, in Garhoud, runs on two shifts to maximise space. Hamad's school day now begins at 4pm and ends at 8.30. "The name of the school is enough to feel not happy," said Hamad's father, HK, who, like other parents interviewed by The National who send their children to the schools, asked to be identified only by their initials. "Charity school," he said, after a pause.

It was 10pm, and Hamad, who had just returned home, sat on the edge of a chair in the small living room of his parents' two-bedroom flat. "Our whole life has changed," HK said. "It has been a very difficult year." When he attended his old school, Hamad would have been in bed by 9pm. Now, the family has to work around his school hours. Dinner is at 11. Six months ago, HK was earning enough to support his family and pay school fees about Dh30,000, total, for three of his children with enough left over to put a little away each month. When his pay was slashed, in May, he left his job in search of higher wages. He is still looking.

For those like HK, there is no social safety net in the Emirates no unemployment insurance, for example and there are no free schools for his children to attend. He has exhausted his savings and the unpaid bills are mounting. Hamad's tuition at the charity school among the cheapest in the country is overdue. "It's very difficult with four children and my wife," HK said. "If I don't find a good job then I will return to my home country."

In the meantime, Hamad will stay at the charity school: the evening session that he attends is the least expensive Arabic-language option available in Dubai and the northern emirates, and demand continues to rise, mostly from families in financial distress. By March, NCS had a waiting list of 1,300 children waiting to get into its three schools; when admissions closed in June, that number had risen to 1,850.

NCS took on more than 800 new pupils this autumn; more than 1,000 are still on the waiting list. Changing schools has not been easy for Hamad, nor has the shift in the timetable. "The morning is better," Hamad said. "It is more organised. Now, life is not that well-organised." Evening schools have traditionally catered to less well-off Arab, Indian and Pakistani expatriates, with lower fees and fewer frills than each school's daytime offerings.

Even if the Arabic-speaking children could obtain admission to public schools which remains unlikely, given the restrictions tuition for expatriate pupils at state schools is double what NCS charges for evening classes. At present, around 27,000 children in Dubai attend afternoon or evening schools. Like Hamad, Mohammed is new to NCS this year, and his father is struggling to pay the fees. "I failed in business, I lost, so I put my kids in this school," said MM, a Palestinian father of seven who fell on hard times more than a year ago. "There is no business nowadays, especially in the real estate business."

Mohammed does not like the evening shift, but he says he is glad to be in school; he and his siblings did not attend school at all last year. For MM, who came to the UAE 25 years ago, home is in Gaza, but returning there is not as simple as buying tickets. "My kids are not authorised to go back," he said. Because his children were born in Dubai, he cannot gain Gaza residency papers for them. "If I could find the means to go back to Gaza, I would go back," he said. "You would find an easier life than here. At least we would have a house. We have free schools, free health care."

Until recently, evening schools operated in the capital as well. In September, the Abu Dhabi Education Council shuttered them, moving approximately 8,000 students into state schools. Unlike the charity schools, Abu Dhabi's evening schools were run by the state and staffed by public school teachers moonlighting to supplement low wages. Sara Ali, a 14-year-old Iraqi, had never known anything but the evening shift. Now, for the first time in her life, she is waking up early and going to school in the morning. "I want to be a doctor," Sara said, standing in the auditorium of her new school in Abu Dhabi.

Back in the old school, the day was shorter, there were no activities or clubs and there was no access to computer labs, she said. "There are kids who don't even know how to use a computer." "I could not pay for the private school, it was too expensive," said Sara's father, a civil engineer in Abu Dhabi. At the time, he was making Dh3,500 a month, and living in a one-room flat with Sara and his wife that his company paid for.

Now, the family is faced with a new problem: Sara's younger sister was starting school as Abu Dhabi was shutting down evening schools, but because of the quota system she could not get into a public school. In Abu Dhabi, the search for inexpensive schooling goes on. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which oversees Dubai schools, is grappling with the problem. "We are concerned about the pupils affected by this situation," said Mohammed Darwish, chief of the regulations and compliance commission at the agency. "We will be looking into the matter and want to assure parents that no action will be taken until alternatives are found."

Mr Darwish said the agency discourages schools from operating evening shifts. "But we understand that there are valid reasons for schools operating afternoon shifts. KHDA will look into the situation thoroughly," he said. klewis@thenational.ae