With a burgeoning school-age population and parents increasingly prepared to invest in education, the private school sector in Abu Dhabi is set for a period of growth and expansion. A total of 11 newly approved schools opened in the 2015/16 academic year, with a further nine expected to open during the 2016/17 school year, providing an additional 21,800 seats. The Abu Dhabi Education Council’s Private School and Quality Assurance (PSQA) sector 2015/16 annual report shows that by 2020, 283,798 pupils will be paying school fees across Abu Dhabi. Although this presents an opportunity for international and local investors, the market also contains its own unique challenges.
However, it is the private sector that appears to be meeting most of the rising demand for education. Data from the PSQA 2015/16 report shows that as private school pupil numbers grew from 185,623 in 2011 to 236,111 in 2015/16, the compound annual growth rate in the numbers of nationals attending these schools was 6%, compared to 5% among expatriate children. The 57,474 Emirati children enrolled in private schools in the emirate accounted for 24% of the independent school population in 2015/16, the third-highest group after non-Gulf Arabs (37%) and Asians (29%). According to SCAD, 59.8% of children in Abu Dhabi were studying at private schools in 2011/12, but this had grown by 65.3% in 2016/17, when the 375,147 schoolchildren included 245,000 attending private schools. The PSQA has developed strategies to attract investment in private education to Abu Dhabi, which has resulted in private schools offering 14 different curricula to meet the needs of diverse communities in the emirate. Concurrently, the PSQA assesses and enhances the performance of schools through the Irtiqa’a Inspection Framework.
The government has also responded to the popularity of the private school model and the UAE’s fast-growing population by establishing institutions such as the Emirates National School (ENS), set up in 2002 in Mohammed Bin Zayed City as a private school that is run on a non-profit model. Owned and funded by the Ministry for Presidential Affairs, the school’s focus is on providing the quality of a private education while trying to keep tuition low. During the 2015/16 academic year ENS had a total of 9500 K-12 students enrolled across its five campuses, three of which are in the Abu Dhabi emirate, one in Sharjah and one in Ras Al Khaimah. The school’s programme uses UAE Ministry of Education requirements for Arabic, Islamic and UAE studies, and the Common Core standards for the rest of its US-based curriculum.
In Abu Dhabi kindergarten education is voluntary, but a framework has been devised for its provision, which promotes bi-lingual teaching in Arabic and English for the two years of kindergarten known as KG1 and KG2. Children in KG1 are typically four years old, while KG2 is predominantly aimed at five-year-olds. In 2015/16, 42,530 children, 18% of all private school pupils, attended kindergarten, according to the PSQA. There are standalone kindergarten providers in Abu Dhabi, but the pre-school option is also attractive for existing education providers.
“We are certainly focusing on opening nurseries or kindergartens in the future,” Nilay Ozral, CEO of Aldar Academies, told OBG. “We also see possibilities in opening new schools with mid-tier fees.” Aldar Academies operates schools in both Al Ain and Abu Dhabi City, most offering either an American or British curriculum adapted to include elements reflecting Abu Dhabi culture, including Arabic and Islamic studies. In 2016 its first all-girls secondary school, Al Mamoura Academy, opened, which also has a co-educational primary school, as did West Yas Academy, Aldar’s first American school. The West Yas Academy operates a Massachusetts state-based curriculum, which enables children to prepare for entry to universities in the US and Canada. In addition, a May 2017 agreement saw Aldar Academies take over management of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s four schools in the emirate, as part of the reorganisation of the state oil firm’s educational portfolio. Aldar Academies’ primary schools charge from Dh39,600 ($10,800) a year to Dh41,850 ($11,400), while fees in the final years of its secondary schools rise to between Dh60,000 ($16,400) and Dh70,000 ($19,100).
The PSQA classifies private school students according to annual fees as follows: very low, charging less than Dh10,000 ($2730); low (Dh10, 000-19,999, $2730-5450); medium (Dh20,000-29,000, $5530-7910); high (Dh30,000-49,000, $8180-13,400); and premium (Dh50,000, $13,600, and above). On that basis, in the 2015/16 school year 82% of schools were medium, low or very low, while 12% charged high fees and 6% were premium, according to the PSQA.
Within the premium bracket, three renowned British independent schools have opened in Abu Dhabi: Brighton College in 2011, Repton in 2013 and Cranleigh in 2014. Brighton College is a joint venture between the school and Bloom Holding, the property development arm of the private firm National Holding in Abu Dhabi. Repton is owned by Evolvence Knowledge Investments, a wholly owned subsidiary of Evolvence Capital, a leading GCC alternative investment firm, which partnered with the UK’s Repton School in 2006. Cranleigh is a partnership between the school and Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company, the asset management and development arm of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
In 2016/17 Brighton College was charging fees of Dh48,500 ($13,200) for kindergarten, which rose to Dh57,400 ($15,700) in Year 1 and Dh74,000 ($20,200) in Year 10. In the same year, Repton was accepting admissions from kindergarten to Year 4 and was charging Dh55,000-67,000 ($15,000-18,300), while Cranleigh’s fees were Dh65,000 ($17,700) for kindergarten, Dh75,000 ($20,400) for Year 2 and Dh96,333 ($26,300) for Year 10. Although schools can set their own fees in their application to open a school, these must be explained in the business plan submitted to ADEC.
A May 2016 GCC education report from Alpen Capital cited estimates by the real estate company Colliers on the expense of building a new school in the UAE. It said the total capital outlay for a private school with a capacity of 500-2000 students in the UAE ranged from Dh185m ($50.4m) to Dh275m ($75m), with land acquisition fees and construction each costing up to Dh120m ($32.7m). When a school is open, staffing accounts for 70% of expenditure, and recruitment and retention of suitably qualified and experienced staff can be a significant challenge in an expanding market.
In November 2016, 400 teachers randomly selected from 17 schools across Abu Dhabi took mock exams as part of a pilot scheme under the new Teacher and Education Leadership Standards (TELS) and Licensing project, which is to be rolled out across the UAE over five years by the National Qualifications Authority.
The exams, which took place after 29 introductory workshops and alongside 43 professional development workshops in the schools, were devised by ADEC with the Emirates College for Advanced Education (ECAE) in Abu Dhabi to introduce professional development and testing for working teachers. The plan is to license teachers and to monitor their career progress through performance assessment and professional development requirements. In 2017 the ECAE will be phasing out Cycle 1 training for teachers and instead be focusing on graduate programmes and professional development for existing teachers, which may contribute to a temporary shortage of Emirati teachers.
Some schools have been able to reduce teacher turnover by improving recruitment processes. Kenneth Vedra, director-general of ENS, told OBG, “We find retention is going up. Traditionally, an international school will see staff turnover of 35%. ENS has achieved 16-18% turnover through internal metrics, like surveying our base of recruitment candidates, which gives an indication of the people who will stay longer term.”
Although there are a number of investment opportunities in private education in Abu Dhabi, the return on capital investment may require more patience than in other economic sectors. A quick return might be achieved in six or seven years, but developers with more patience and deeper pockets may find the real yields come after a longer period than that, by which time a successful school may be oversubscribed from kindergarten to Year 13. “Many leading independent schools from the UK run very successfully on around 10% operating surpluses; private international schools willing to accept a similar internal rate of returns over the longer term – say 20 years – rather than aiming for short-term profits, will prove to be the most successful,” Brendan Law, headmaster of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, told OBG.
“The key requirement is to have harmony between the educational values of the school and the investors’ vision or expectations.”
Beyond investments in infrastructure and concerns over costs, improving standards in the sector is a key issue, one which institutions such as the ECAE are addressing. The college, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees with concentrations, including special needs education, IT education and applied behaviour analysis, is home to a dedicated teacher preparation programme and school professional development centre. It also offers professional development for in-service educators.
While the institution is government affiliated, it is likely to have an impact on quality in the private sector as well, particularly as private schools look to employ more Emirati nationals as instructors and teachers. Robert Milne, vice-chancellor of the ECAE, told OBG, “One of the main focuses is to have a more recognisable career track for teachers, with different certification levels corresponding to different salary levels, which is especially important in attracting more Emiratis into the profession.” To that end, in early 2017 ADEC launched the Eedad 2017 initiative, which is intended to help train young Emiratis for jobs in the education industry. The ECAE runs the programme in cooperation with the emirate’s Human Resources Authority, and is currently training 26 candidates in teaching basics such as lesson preparation and classroom management.
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