Indian teenager pleads: 'Please find me a school'

Thousands on waiting lists on eve of new Indian academic year, meaning some fear having to move alone to India to complete their education.

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ABU DHABI // A 15-year-old girl spoke yesterday of her fear at the prospect of moving alone to India to complete her education because there is no school place for her in Abu Dhabi. Soujanya Bhat said: "It will be hard to live away from my family. I will be scared. I have never lived alone." The soft-spoken girl with thick black hair and wire-rimmed glasses has spent all her free time since February in her parents' one-bedroom flat poring over textbooks to prepare for her CBSE board exams, a critical test for Indian students.

Meanwhile her parents face the same problem as thousand of Indian families: desperately trying to find her a place in one of the Indian schools in Abu Dhabi that go up to the 12th standard. So far they have been unsuccessful, even though Soujanya is at the top of her class. If they cannot find a place, Soujanya will go to Bangalore next month to continue her studies. She has family in the area, but they live far from the city.

Soujanya's mother, Jayalakshmi, said: "I don't know how she'll manage. We are feeling very sad. Whenever parents meet, we discuss this and no other subject." Soujanya's father, Suresh Bhat, said: "This is a major problem we're facing, and the Government should do something about it. They should open additional schools or sections in existing schools." The new Indian school year begins in less than a month, with thousands of children estimated to be without school places.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) has given at least two schools permission to increase enrolment, which will create about 500 additional spaces. The council declined to say which schools, but a few have disclosed that they have increased capacity. The Abu Dhabi Indian School was allowed on Tuesday to increase the size of each class by three children, which will increase its overall capacity by about 300.

Vijay Mathu, the school principal, said the school will contact parents to offer them the new places, with priority given to children whose siblings already attend the school. The Musaffah branch of the Model School has been granted permission to enrol another 150 students - but those places have already been filled. Abdul Kader, the school principal, said his waiting list still has nearly 1,000 names.

School operators say much more capacity is needed. One administrator said he believes there are more than 2,000 children without places. "It's a very difficult situation for the Indian students," he said. "Up to February there were 3,000 waiting and we weren't able to take any." He said another 500 school places would not solve the problem. "That's still 2,500 without schools." He said the problem could be solved if all 17 Indian schools in the capital and Musaffah were allowed to increase capacity. "If all schools are allowed to increase classes by three, then the problem would be solved to a large extent," he said.

But that is unlikely. ADEC says 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. Twelve others are housed in converted villas and are due to be closed by the education council in 2012. Adec says recent inspections of villa schools found most pose serious health and safety risks to children.

The council says it is working to address the shortage and to develop long-term strategies to increase the number of Indian schools in the capital. Its officials and the Indian Embassy met this week to discuss possible solutions. In the meantime, parents say, the education council must do more, and soon, to address the shortage. The waiting lists at Indian schools across the capital are enormous: Our Own English High School-Abu Dhabi has a waiting list of more than 3,500. At the Abu Dhabi Indian School, more than 2,300 students applied for only 150 available seats, which were awarded by lottery.

Even the smaller villa schools have massive waiting lists; the Little Flowers School, with only 650 students, has a waiting list of more than 600. For students, the anxiety is considerable. Murali Aravindakshan, an insurance manager who has lived in the UAE for 16 years, was shocked that he was unable to find his daughter Divya a place for next year, although she is in the top of her class in standard 10.

"Even last year, the toppers from her school used to get admissions easily in other schools," he said. If he can't find a place, he says, he will be forced to send his wife and two children back to India. "It will be very difficult, very difficult," he said. "We've got everything, we've got a good house, but just because of this education thing, we'll have to lead a separated life."