Serene crawled into my bed and placed her head on my shoulder. I could feel the dampness on her cheek. She was crying.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, as she placed her arms tighter around my neck. “I don’t want to go to school,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to do the Arabic exam.” I reached over to get my phone to check the time. It was 6am. My daughter had woken up stressed and anxious.
It had been an extremely stressful week in our house; Serene and Janah, my eldest, had spent most of their afternoon studying intensely for their end-of-term exams.
From the beginning of the 2014–2015 school year, there was a sudden shift in the way they were being taught. Within the first two weeks of returning to school, the students, from K-12 sat standardisation tests for their core subjects. Parents were not notified. Everyday my three girls came home recounting how they’d missed another lesson due to the testing.
Parents were puzzled. What had brought on this sudden change and why weren’t parents informed?
Did it have something to do with the school’s poor ranking from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dubai’s governing body for private education? The school scored ‘Acceptable’.
But was increasing homework and class quizzes the answer? As a parent I became very concerned. My children were forced to give up afterschool extracurricular activities just to keep up with the demand.
Before you think I’m another whinging mother, I’m not! My daughters are not 16 and 17 years old, studying for their final year of school. They’re 6, 7 and 9 years old.
These are their foundation years, a critical period in which they either begin to love school and learning or hate it.
I am trying desperately to avoid the latter.
When I first moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in 2008, my husband and I had a goal for our children. We wanted our daughters to learn Arabic and the best way to do it was to send them to a school where they could mix with native Arabic-speaking children. We were living in Arabia and we had a unique opportunity to teach them about Middle Eastern culture and learn the language. While my husband is fluent in Arabic, I speak the language but can’t read and write. We didn’t want a generation in our family growing up not knowing the language of their ancestors. While the girls have progressed with the support of the school and an Arabic tutor, we’re beginning to see that our children are missing out in other parts of their schooling.
Did we make the right decision in enrolling our children in a school where teachers taught the way my mother and father were taught as children in the Middle East? Students are spoon-fed information, expected to memorise it and then examined on the content. They have not been on a school outing in many years. Teachers are overworked and underpaid; class sizes are too large while the classrooms are too small. My daughter’s Year 3 class room is so small that she can barely wheel her school bag out from the back of the room.
I consulted many parents at the school hoping to find some comfort. They too had similar concerns about their child’s education. Many revealed they were home schooling as their child was not receiving the necessary attention in class.
As I child I recall having one teacher and then specialist teachers for music, arts, and sport. I know this is still the case in many international schools throughout the UAE; many even have a teacher’s aide. At the school my daughters attend, they see eight different teachers for 45 minutes per subject. With this in mind I took the next step to speak with the teachers who I felt would be honest about the school’s attitude to education.
The majority of teachers at the school are from Lebanon and Syria with a few Western and European teachers thrown into the mix. They’ve expressed their desire to see the teaching system changed, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears.
A Year 2 maths teacher told me that she would never send her child to a school where there were 30 students in each class. “I teach 150 students a day,” she said. “By the end of the day I am exhausted.”
The Arabic teacher echoed the maths teacher’s concern,
“You can’t blame the teachers when the school doesn’t know what direction it wants to go in,” she said.
Serene’s tears confirmed our decision to move the girls in the new school year. The pressure they were under at such a young age is unfair and unnecessary.
I enlisted the help of James Mullan, co-founder of WhichSchoolAdvisory.com, an independent education website ranking schools across the UAE. Since its establishment in 2013, the website has had over two million hits.
His advice is simple, “different parents will have different requirements of the school. Talk to parents to find out what is actually happening. What are the children getting from that education?”
What should I be looking for when researching a new school?
Mullan says parents should follow these simple criteria.
1. Fees: Is it affordable?
2. Reputation: Does it have a good reputation?
3. Academic results: Ask the school to provide you with their academic results. Be demanding.
4. Added value: Some schools will say, for instance, it’s not about academic results but the value they add. Not every child is academic but may show strengths in other areas such as music, sports and the arts.
More importantly, after narrowing down the school list, Mullan adds, “go and visit the school, but not on an Open Day. Visit it on a working day with the child and allow your child to decide. As long as the school has ticked all the boxes, let your child meet the teachers, see the children, sports and wait to see his or her reaction.”
The UAE has evolved rapidly over the last decade with the development of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, Palm Jumeriah and gated communities. Mullan says while you can magic infrastructure, you can’t magic education.
“Education needs nurturing, it takes care and time and that’s one of the things that everyone needs to be aware of including the people building schools, investing in schools, teachers, and parents. We are still living in an evolving experiment each day and you’re signing up for that in every sphere of your life.”
What about choosing the right curriculum?
According the Mullan, there are 17 curriculums on offer in the UAE, with the British curriculum favoured by one-third of private school.
“You’ve got to think about where you’ll be with your children in the coming years,” he says. “It’s not so much an issue in the early years in primary schools, but it is when you get to secondary schools. You’ve got to be thinking seriously about what you want to do. It’s a case-by-case situation.”
The cost of education in the UAE is astronomical and remains one of the most talked about issues in the country.
Unlike a decade ago when expats were presented with lavish salaries, which included additional education funding, today it’s part of the overall package. Expats on low incomes have no choice but to send their children to private schools; public schooling in the UAE is only available to UAE nationals.
Tuition for the 2014–2015 school year at Gems World Academy (GWA) for a six-year-old is AED71,092 (USD19,477) and over AED98,000 (USD26,800) for a Year 12 student, says the school’s website.
If a parent were to send their child to GWA, starting from KG2 through to Year 12,
tuition would cost a whopping AED1,060,160 (USD290,454) over the course of their schooling.
According to WhichSchoolAdvisory.com, in 2013–2014 school year, Gems World Academy, established in 2008, attained a ‘Good’ rating from the KHDA, the Dubai Government regulator entrusted with overseeing the growth and development of private education in the emirate.
Compare this to one of the best-known independent schools in New South Wales, Australia. Established in 1831, The King’s School Parramatta, has seen Crown Princes, leaders of political parties, authors, actors, leaders in law, medicine and in a wide range of other professionals educated at the boys’ school.
The tuition cost to educate a six-year-old boy at The Kings School is AED 48,482 (USD13,282). From K-12, it would cost his parents AED 88,624 (USD241,540).
GWA is situated on 42,715 sq. metres of land and boasts state-of-the-art facilities, Planetarium, 400m athletic track, 6-lane 50m pool, tennis courts, gymnasium, fitness centre, climbing wall, 620-seater auditorium, symphony centre, and peace garden.
This brings me to my next question: are parents paying for education or facilities at a UAE school?
“You should be paying for both education and facilities,” says Mullan. “Certain schools have fantastic facilities, but you often wonder how often they’re used.”
He adds: “One of the challenges that the UAE is going to face is that there is going to be a massive crunch on teaching talent over the next ten years. There is a huge development in the number of international schools around the world, so what that means is that top teachers will be able to choose where they want to go. In other words, schools here have to make it attractive for them to come here in terms of salary, conditions, but also in terms of Continued Professional Development (CPD), which is an area, when you speak to teachers here, that is missing. What you tend to get in schools here is what we call the backpacker teachers, young teachers who are out of college, stay for two years and then move on. Then you get mums who have been teachers, on their husband’s visa, who are then employed on a local contract. They receive a chunk of money and no additional benefits, and that saves the school a considerable amount of money, but going forward, is that going to be good enough?”
What about waiting lists?
Before we wrap up, Mullan has some promising news for parents. More than 20,000 places became available in September this year, as new schools opened across Dubai. Believe it or not, we could even see a drop in school fees.
So where does this leave me and my children?
I’ve taken James Mullan’s advice and spoken to parents from many different schools. I’ve lodged some applications and now it’s time to sit and wait. I’m just hoping we make the right decision.
Follow me on Twitter: @my_arabia
Do you have a similar experience? Leave your comments below.