ABU DHABI // A plan to close villa schools in the emirate in June will leave another 4,800 students in search of new classrooms, and no one is yet sure which schools will be closed.
The announcement of June closures has schools operators on edge: many believed they had until 2013 to take corrective action, but authorities said they will intervene and shut some schools this year and next as part of their phased initiative.
"There is some confusion that 2013 is the deadline," said Pierre Scottorn, section manager of the private school improvement department at Adec. "The reality is, because of the scale of the problem, it is almost unfeasible for it to happen in one given year, which is why we are trying to phase it out."
• 4,000 Dubai students attend 'unsatisfactory' schools
• Parents want better schools
• Thousands of pupils not receiving satisfactory education
Currently, there are 50 villa schools in the emirate and six were closed last year. Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) has said it will announce a master plan with the names of the schools they plan to close in phases between now and 2013. It will target schools that have not made an effort to begin a transition to suitable premises.
This year, 13 villa school operators are expected to move, either through government intervention or of their own accord, Adec officials said.
The decisions to close down villa schools comes after inspections by the municipality and Adec found them unfit for operation.
Aweidha al Qubaisi, executive director of services at Abu Dhabi Municipality said basic health and safety measures were missing in the villa schools.
"There are many infringements of safety and security regulations like a lack of evacuation procedures in case of emergency or fire in these villas," he said.
Narrow corridors and staircases, lack of fire resistant doors, no fire alarms or smoke detectors, small windows and nonexistent educational resources for practical work including labs, sports and art areas were glaring shortcomings.
"Let's put it into perspective: we have a building with more than 250 people and if there was a fire, and it blocked the a staircase, how would the people from the upper floors get out? The windows are too small for an emergency ladder to be extended," said Mr Scottorn.
During a panic situation, trying to navigate through the small classrooms with tables and chairs crammed into them would be a catastrophe, he said.
Schools that will be closed have not been informed yet, but Mr Scottorn said operators were given ample time - since 1999 - to relocate to new facilities.
"The government had to take immediate steps in the case of some operators because they have not been proactive despite been given the time," he said.
"If we wait, some people will never come forward and make the move. Which means we have to step in."
A principal of a villa school that follows the Indian curriculum said they had been told they had until 2013.
She said the government wants certain standards but maintaining them while being affordable for the community they serve was not possible.
"They say we are overcrowded and do not have fire safety in the school," said the principal of the school that educates 500 students, who requested anonymity. "They want us to hire a security man from a professional organisation.
"This costs money and more than 50 per cent of our parents will not be able to pay if we have to relocate and raise the fees."
Adec will offer alternatives for schools it shuts down on a request through proposal basis that will allow affected educators to relocate into empty government school buildings in the coming months.
"We have put in an application for a new premises but with last year's closures as well the priority was given to Arabic schools," said the villa school principal.
"But what about the Indian schools, which take in the most number of students?"
One education provider has extended one of their purpose-built school to accommodate students from their villa school.
A spokesman from Gems education said they are planning to replace their villa school in the capital with a more suitable option at a competitive price by April 2012. "Adec have helped us with proposals to move one of our schools."