A new model of affordable private schools being rolled out in Abu Dhabi will encourage expatriate families to stay in the country and educate their children in the UAE, say parents and experts.
The schools, which will involve a collaboration between the public and private sectors, will offer annual fees ranging between Dh20,000 and Dh30,000, considerably lower than those currently charged in the emirate.
The plans have been agreed under the orders of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and are based on a proposal made by Dr Ali Al Nuaimi, head of the Department of Education and Knowledge.
The launch of the new school model is planned for the beginning of the upcoming academic year in September.
Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, believes there is a "real need" to lower private school fees.
She said: "Our research on private education found that Asian expatriates could be paying up to 50 to 60 per cent of their take-home salaries on school fees whereas western expatriates were only paying about 10 per cent towards school.
"There is a greater burden on lower income earners in UAE and their companies often do not provide any subsidies for school whereas for western expatriates schooling is often part of the package."
She said people in the lower income bracket are doubly disadvantaged by their employment status and a lack of schools available at lower fee levels. This move will help increase access to quality schools for expatriates and also Emiratis who want to attend, according to Ms Ridge.
"It would encourage people to keep their families here and lead to less people sending their wives and families home. Most expatriates can't enter the public school system so the more competition the better,” she said.
School fees in the capital can vary greatly. Bright Riders School charges a tuition fee of Dh11,900 per year while, at the other end of the scale, parents of students at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi pay Dh65,000 for the same class year.
The initiative has been welcomed by parents - but they say reduced fees should not lead to lower standards of education.
“I pay a substantial amount of income on my children's education because there are no alternatives for expatriates,” said RD, an Argentinian mother living in Abu Dhabi, who pays a tuition fee of Dh50,000 per year for her child studying in FS1.
“The new schools will provide an affordable option, but only if the schools are academically competitive,” said RD.
Naeema Iqtiran, a Pakistani mother in Abu Dhabi had to withdraw her child from a school as the fees were proving too expensive.
She transferred him to a school where the fees were more reasonable but said: "To be honest, the level of education there was not as we expected. Teachers were not trained properly and the reason might have been that it is a new school and they need more time."
The seven-year-old has recently been admitted into a third school.
The parent said she would consider the newer affordable schools if they efficiently combine reasonable fees with a top-quality education.
MA, a Pakistani expatriate, believes the emirate needs good schools that will charge under Dh20,000 a year.
"Our criteria for selecting a school is ADEK ranking of the school and our budget. There are already schools within the range of Dh20,000 to Dh30,000. It would be a good initiative if the project was to open schools in less then Dh20,000 range. Cheaper schools would help in saving for higher education of the kids,” she said. In Abu Dhabi, 93 schools have put in requests to ADEK for an increase in fees this year, though all of these are being reviewed at present.
More expensive schools in the emirate, however, will now have to re-think their policies, said one expert.
Judith Finnemore of Focal Point Management Consultancy said: “The new cheaper schools will provide parents with more reasonably priced options provided they offer an education of exactly the same quality as the more expensive ones. If this is the case, the latter may have to offer something truly different, such as full-service, extended hours or a subject specialism. Or they may have to lower their fees to fill their places."