Schools face catch-22 for fees

The quality gap between schools catering to the rich and those catering to the poor is widening because of restrictions on fee increases.

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DUBAI // The gap in quality between schools catering to the rich and those catering to the poor is widening because of restrictions on fee increases, say educators.

In 2009, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) aligned fee increases with inspection results, so that the top performing schools were allotted a 12 to 15 per cent increase, while those faring less well were limited to a seven to 10 per cent increase.

Critics of the policy say this means facilities performing less well are caught in a catch-22 situation, whereby to boost performance they need more funds, but to secure more funds, they must first boost performance.

Last year, the Dubai authority barred all schools from upping their fees, saying it was unjustifiable in the tough economic climate.

However, that decision was over-ruled by the Ministry of Education in the case of the two largest education groups, Gems and Taaleem.

According to a three-year agreement with the ministry in 2010, Gems would be allowed to increase fees by 10 per cent for three years until 2012 in five of its Asian schools, where fees are currently around Dh15,000. Annual fees at Gems schools vary widely, but can be as high as Dh72,000 for a Grade 12 student at a school rated outstanding by the KHDA.

Explaining why two schools under the Taaleem umbrella had also applied for a fee increase this year, Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications, said: "This is to cover inflation through higher costs of utilities and facilities maintenance, staff salary increments for the current and coming year and annual rent escalations on long term land and building leases."

The KHDA is still considering how to allot fee increases this year, but school operators say these should be decided on a case by case basis.

Meanwhile, schools with lower ratings and lower budgets are struggling to make basic changes to improve the standard of education they offer.

SSU Tabrez, the principal of the Emirates English Speaking School, said his school was operating on "a shoe-string budget" and could not make necessary educational changes without increasing fees. The school was allowed a 10 per cent increase in 2009 but chose not to take it because of the effect of the economic downturn on parents. This year, the principal said the school had to apply because it was suffering losses.

"Linking the fee increases with inspection results defeats the purpose of trying to improve schools with few resources at their disposal," he said.

The school's annual fees range from Dh3,000 to Dh5,000. Mr Tabrez said raising them would burden several parents who were already struggling to meet the current cost.

"But what other option do we have?" he asked. "Essential areas and facilities have suffered because of our inability to fund changes. This reflects on our performance in the inspections too."

The principal said if the school's request for a fee increase were approved, the funds would go towards refurbishing the science and computer labs and giving pay increases to staff.

"Our teachers have not seen a pay raise in years. It is getting hard to recruit good teachers on such low salary packages."

Another principal, Vatsala Mathai of the Elite English School, said high rents had forced an increase in fees.

"Rent is a massive cost to us and if the authority starts regulating that, then providers would not seek regular fee increases either," she said. The school charges between Dh4,000 and Dh6,500 annually.

Mike Hynes, a managing partner at Kershaw Leonard, a consultancy that draws up the annual Cost of Living in the UAEreport, believes each school should be required to submit their financial report to the KHDA for assessment on a case-by-case basis..

For schools unlikely to be granted any increase, and struggling because of a lack of resources, Mr Hynes suggested a grant scheme.

"It is a common practice by governments in other countries like the UK, where some low-performing schools are offered grants to improve."

Mr Tabrez agreed, and said financial support from the Government would make quality education accessible to low-income families: "This can be a requirement-based aid, where we are funded for a lab upgrade or teacher training."