Squeeze on jobs and pay forces parents to find more affordable schools

With many companies laying off staff and slashing benefits, parents are shopping around for more affordable options for next term or taking their children out of school altogether.

ABU DHABI // Parents struggling to pay tuition fees are pulling their children out of private schools and sending them to cheaper ones or back home.

With many companies laying off staff and slashing benefits, parents are shopping around for more affordable options for next term, or taking their children out of school altogether.

Staff at one school say requests to transfer pupils rose five-fold at the end of the last academic year.

“We have received over 250 transfers by the end of last year and the applications are still coming in,” an employee at Abu Dhabi Indian School said. “Usually in a year it is less than 50.

“Almost all parents have stated job losses while withdrawing their children. Many haven’t been able to pay the fees, which has affected the school a lot.”

The problem has been exacerbated by an oversupply of schools, many of which are struggling to fill seats.

This month Gems Education said it would merge Dubai American Academy with the newer Gems Nations Academy. The Dubai American Academy Nations will open in September.

Dolly Goriawala, head teacher at Star International School in Al Twar, said job losses and salary cuts had hit parents hard.

“Some students are leaving because their parents lost their jobs, but in a lot of cases their job has been downsized so they are no longer getting money for tuition,” Ms Goriawala said.

“This means they will stay but put the children in schools that charge lower fees.”

The Philippine School in Dubai has 50 fewer pupils compared to last year.

“We have about 50 students not coming back,” a teacher said. “Their parents are leaving for good because they have been removed from their company.”

Dubai’s private education sector is worth more than Dh6 billion a year. Fifteen new schools opened last year, increasing the pressure on the 173 already looking for pupils.

“Of late there has been a lot of pressure on private schools to work harder in attracting children,” said James Mullan, managing partner at the consultancy Education Intelligence Group.

“Schools have to realise it is a very competitive market in Dubai. Older schools now have to up their game to get new pupils or keep current pupils.”

This oversupply means parents are in a position of strength when it comes to choosing the right school for their children, said Mr Mullan.

“The scenario has completely changed. Before schools would determine who they would admit but now parents are in the driving seat with the abundance of places available.”

Sibling discounts, competitive payment structures and discounts are some of the tools schools are using to attract parents.

“The Gems Founders school has managed to enrol 2,000 students since it opened last year and the reason is its annual fee is under Dh30,000,” Mr Mullen said.

“This is very attractive to parents, especially if you have more than one child and can pay up to Dh50,000 for each,” Mr Mullan said.

“New schools are offering more discounts and that is a huge positive for them.”

He said that the problem was not as acute in Abu Dhabi, which had fewer schools than Dubai.

Schools are spending up on marketing, with budgets doubling to almost Dh54 million last year, the consultancy.

Older schools, such as Star International School in Al Twar, said they risked losing pupils and teachers to newcomers, said Ms Goriawala.

“With 15 new openings this year, the pressure was building on older schools to raise salaries to retain staff,” she said. “There will be some teachers jumping jobs because the new schools are willing to pay high salaries.

“Opening up new schools does put pressure on us and sometimes it is difficult to cope, because they have brand new buildings and they offer discounts.”