ABU DHABI // Anyone with the money and vision to invest in building a new Indian school will be encouraged by the offer of free land from the education authority. For parents, however, the news does not bring any relief from the immediate problem of finding a school place for their child.
They are battling with too many families for too few places, with the new academic year for Indian schools in this country due to begin next month. Along with the free land offer, Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) announced yesterday that it would allow one school to increase capacity, but it did not name the school nor say by how much. It is considering other requests to increase enrolment from schools that meet "acceptable quality standards".
But there may not be many such schools; only five Indian schools in Abu Dhabi occupy purpose-built school facilities, while the 12 Indian schools housed in converted villas are already slated for closure by Adec in 2012. The council says that it is in "advanced discussions" with one Indian businessman to open a new school which would create 11,000 new places. It did not disclose his name. It is also in discussion with others to operate schools under a not-for-profit model.
Other measures intended to grow the number of school places in the long term include opening a new Indian school in an unused government-school building in Al Gharbia with room for 800 pupils. "Adec is extremely concerned about the current lack of capacity of Indian-curriculum schools and would like to assure the community that it is actively looking into both long- and short-term solutions for this issue," the council said.
"We need to work in partnership with the community to make this a reality." But parents without a place to send their children say long-term solutions will not provide school places next month. They called for the education council to take more drastic action before the school year starts. More than 3,500 children are on the waiting list at one school alone, Our Own English High School, Abu Dhabi.
Dr Vibha Misri-Ganjoo has been searching for a place for her five-year old daughter, Vanskika, for the past five months, after learning that Vanskika did not have a place at the Abu Dhabi Indian School as expected. "The long-term solutions proposed by the council are important, because numbers of students are always increasing, so more schools and spots are needed. But where are the immediate, short-term solutions?" said Dr Misri-Ganjoo.
"The problem is time. The new semester starts in a few weeks so the solutions by the education council of building new schools and such are not feasible. "We need a practical solution. It is a universal problem everybody is facing right now and no immediate solution is available." Dr Misri-Ganjoo, who lives in Manasir, said her daughter was on the waiting list at three schools but all were full. "We don't know what to do," said Dr Misri-Ganjoo. "We think we should start looking for admission in schools in Mussafah, but that is really too far to send a little girl and would be a big problem and last resort for us.
"If there are no other options, parents will be forced to look outside the Indian community and consider other schools, as we cannot just keep our children at home. Something is better than nothing and we do not want this situation to drive us away from the UAE, which has become our home. Our children were born here." Adec said it had recently met the Indian ambassador to discuss the issue after officials at the Indian Embassy called on the Government to intervene.
It said it had "extended the offer to provide free land for investors who present business plans to build schools that provide low-cost education" that comply with its standards and guidelines. Adec said it was "engaging" with companies experienced in operating not-for-profit education models in other countries to establish schools in the emirate. Indian school owners and administrators have protested that the council's new building standards make it difficult for investors to open more schools.
However, Dr Misri-Ganjoo said that it was important to demand higher standards at Indian curriculum institutions. "The key is to have both good schools and good solutions," she said. "It is important for children to have good schools so, of course, villa schools have to be done with. But solutions also have to be found for the students in these schools. Kids have to go to school. "The problem is how to tackle this problem right now. Younger students have time to wait for good schools to be built for them, but older students need to be in school immediately."
Nirmalan Damodaran, a long-time Abu Dhabi resident who works in construction, said the council must act quickly. "Next week is the closing of the schools," he said. "They have to increase the number of seats." Mr Damodaran agreed that there was a need for more quality schools. "They have to create more facilities, like swimming and more outside activities," he said. "I think they need to do much more," said Noble Jose, an Abu Dhabi-based businessman. Mr Jose is moving his family to Dubai because he could not find a school place for his son, Aarnav, who is going into the first grade this year.
"One announcement is not enough, still there is going to be a serious shortage," said Mr Jose. "It's a first step - much more could be done." Mr Jose said he would stay in Abu Dhabi if he could find a school place for Aarnav. "If I get something immediately I will take it," he said. "It's going to be very difficult for me to move," he said, explaining that his business was in the capital. "It will be difficult but still we can manage. It's more important to send your children to a good school. Of course, it would be better if we were still here but we are forced to move because of the circumstances."
Mr Jose said Abu Dhabi needed more quality Indian schools. "Some parents have admitted their kids to schools, but they are not happy with the quality," he said. "Parents have been forced to send their children to these schools because they don't have any other option." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org