Operators of private schools speak out

Educators in Dubai tell Government and regional officials of their frustration with ever-changing rules and absence of dialogue.

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DUBAI // After years of frustration, private-school operators got a chance to sound off at the Ministry of Education yesterday. Hundreds of private-school officials turned up at a meeting to offer their opinions to senior figures at the ministry and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the regulatory body for schools in Dubai.

The ministry called the meeting to defuse tension between regulators and the school operators. Ali al Suwaidi, the ministry's director general, promised more meetings. He also suggested the ministry would consider a special committee to represent the views of private-school operators. The introduction of school inspections last year by the KHDA, which has imposed stricter regulations on the private sector, brought complaints from private-school operators, who are frustrated by what they see as a lack of communication with the Government.

Many private-school owners were particularly upset by new rules governing fee increases, which are now tied to inspections. Last month a group of private-school companies announced plans for a council within the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with the hope of facilitating a line of communication with education authorities. Representatives from the Ministry of Education, the KHDA, and a handful of private schools spoke at the meeting.

The private schools called for greater dialogue with the Government and hailed the meeting as an important first step. Ibrahim Baraka, the principal of Al Shoala Private School in Sharjah, called for a "higher council" to improve collaboration between school operators and education officials. He suggested the ministry impose uniform policies across all seven emirates. "There is no clear vision for the role of private schools in the UAE," Mr Baraka said.

Mr Baraka said the relationship between private schools and the ministry was based on doubt and scepticism. "There should be confidence and trust between the ministry and the private schools," he said. "There should be a two-way dialogue." Richard Forbes, the director of marketing and communications at Global Education Management Systems, the country's largest private-school operator, praised the minister for opening a dialogue.

"My colleagues in private schools across the UAE have told me they cannot think of a previous occasion where we were given the opportunity to speak directly about our commitment to education in this great country or to offer our views, on equal terms, about the challenges ahead," he said. Mr Forbes called for greater clarity, consistency and care from regulators. "It has to be understood that in a system dependent on private providers, the business outlook is immensely important," he said.

"If I am a businessman and I want to continue to invest as a provider, and if I want to raise my investment, in a business environment, I need to go to banks for loans. "If the system I am working in is volatile - if the rules change regularly ... it is high risk, so we have to pay the bankers more; fees then need to be higher." Over the day, myriad complaints were heard from school principals on issues ranging from inspections to fee caps and rules governing the hiring of teachers. "We are like sailors without a compass", said Saif al Atr, the owner of Baraem al Eman Private School in Fujairah. Refaat Ayyad, deputy principal of Emirates Private School in Abu Dhabi, said: "We are more than half of the education sector. The ministry should co-operate with us.

"On the ground, opinions are always the right ones. There must be co-operation, not orders coming down from the top." Representatives of the Abu Dhabi Education Council were at the meeting but did not take part in any of the panels.
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