Private alternatives: Supply and demand both rise as investment flows in

While Abu Dhabi’s government schools are currently undergoing improvements such as a holistic approach to curriculum reform known as the New School Model, private education in Abu Dhabi is also rapidly changing. Private school enrolment has grown steadily over the past decade, and older private schools are being closed while investors and government regulators are planning the construction of a number of new schools.

FACTS & FIGURES: According to data from the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi (SCAD), a total of 181 private schools were in operation in the emirate during the 2010/11 school year, six more than were operational in 2000/01. The vast majority, 113 in total, were located in the Abu Dhabi region of the emirate. The remaining 68 schools were mostly in Al Ain, with only nine in the less populous region of Al Gharbia.

While over 95% of Abu Dhabi’s private schools were multi-stage institutions during 2010/11, curricula used in these schools varied widely. At roughly 25%, the Ministry of Education’s curriculum was the most commonly taught, though British and American curricula were also popular, with 19% and 18% respectively of private schools using these syllabi. The Indian curriculum was the fourth most widely used according to SCAD figures.

Around 180,000 students were enrolled in private schools during the 2010/11 academic year. This represents a dramatic increase of almost 50% in private school enrolment over the past five years. SCAD data reports that around 120,000 pupils were registered at private school in 2005/06. The total percentage of preschool-grade 12 (P-12) students enrolled in private schools also rose over the same period, from around 50% to nearly 60%, according to SCAD.

VILLA SCHOOLS: Private school education in the emirate is regulated by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), which was set up in 2005 and has devoted significant attention to developing a 10-year, P-12 education strategy that was launched in mid-2009. While this plan largely focuses on curriculum reform in public schools, the strategy also outlines the expansion of affordable and high-quality private education as a priority for the immediate future.

In reaching this second objective ADEC is closing private schools operated out of non-purpose-built facilities while also working with investors to build new facilities. The authority has started this process by working to close all of the emirate’s villa schools by the 2013/14 academic year. These schools are typically operated out of villa housing and are often attended by expatriates. ADEC aims to assist villa school owners with the construction of better facilities.

The government authority began to implement this strategy three years ago during the 2009/10 school year. Starting with 72 villa schools, 31 had been closed by July 2010, according to ADEC figures. Six villa schools serving almost 4700 students were closed between March and July 2012, and two more are scheduled to close by the end of the 2012/13 school year.

ADEC has stated that it is prioritising villa school pupils and is taking measures to assist and support their transition to improved facilities. There are purportedly 32 new projects to construct new schools, one of which is a merger between two schools.

DESIGN STANDARDS: All new private schools are required to comply with design standards set by ADEC, including the number of students per teacher and the number of students per room. Some villa schools have been able to avoid constructing new facilities by relocating to buildings previously used by government schools. ADEC has given these schools three years to develop new facilities and relocate elsewhere.

The construction of new buildings will, however, result in increased tuition fees for some students. Villa school owners with new buildings have agreed with ADEC to cap tuition fees at a 25% increase over previous rates for all students who studied at the school before new facilities were built. This reduced fee agreement does not apply for incoming students from a different school, however. ADEC also regulates tuition fees at new private schools entering the market. Rather than setting mandatory tuition rates across the sector, ADEC requests investors to prepare a financial study, which must include a suggested tuition rate. ADEC then either approves or disapproves of the suggested fee.

INVESTORS: “The regulation of private school tuition rates is a carefully managed process,” said Hamad Ali Al Dhaheri, the executive director of ADEC’s Private Schools and Quality Assurance Sector. He also noted, “We want to increase access to Abu Dhabi’s private schools by ensuring that private education is both affordable and of high quality. At the same time, however, we want the private school sector to be profitable and friendly to new investors.”

Not only is the quality of education at villa schools being improved, new investors are also entering the market in an attempt to meet the rising demand for private education in the emirate. As of this summer, 30 investors had bid on four plots of land for the purpose of constructing new private schools, according to ADEC. These vacant plots are located in the Bani Yas, Al Shahama, Al Falah and Khalifa City B areas.

Although ADEC works with a number of other government bodies to identify land availability, the process is relatively flexible and, as of mid-2012, the total number of plots to be allocated for future private schools had not been specified. Notably, ADEC works to make sure that land rent is affordable to help investors construct purpose-built, high-quality schools accessible to low-income families. According to ADEC, a 30-year land lease costs just over Dh0.01 ($0.003) per sq metre, with plot sizes varying from approximately 16,000 sq metres to 27,000 sq metres.

In June, ADEC organised a workshop for potential investors. The event outlined leasing and construction procedures, including financial and technical stipulations and document submission policy. The organisation also explained that plots will be allocated largely depending on the curriculum taught by each school; it aims to ensure that new private school construction matches market demand for different curricula among the various national groups resident in the emirate.

LOCAL CULTURE: While ADEC encourages private schools to teach a number of different curricula, the authority also hopes to strengthen local cultural awareness in schools that cater mostly to expatriates. Programmes are being developed to increase students’ understanding of UAE traditions and culture.

“Many private school students in Abu Dhabi are not from the UAE,” said Al Dhaheri. “We welcome foreign methods of teaching and encourage the continuation of curricula that have already proven successful elsewhere. However, we do not want expatriate students to grow up in isolation from UAE culture and tradition. By living in our country, these students need to understand our history, in addition to that of their own. Everyone in Abu Dhabi, locals and expatriates alike, benefits from this approach to education.”

One forthcoming private school in the emirate is expected to provide students with a wide variety of different curricula. The Amity Education Group (AEG), a private, non-profit group of schools and universities, recently announced plans to open an Amity International School in Abu Dhabi. AEG’s first campuses were built in India; however, the organisation has since expanded internationally and now caters to 95,000 students across 15 campuses, according to AEG data.

The organisation’s planned Abu Dhabi school will provide a range of curricula to students, including an Indian secondary school curriculum (known as CBSE), international baccalaureate studies and the UAE curriculum. The school will meet the educational requirements of almost 70 nationalities living in the emirate, according to a mid-2012 report in the Hindustan Times.

FUTURE GROWTH: New investors make up an important component of Abu Dhabi’s developing P-12 education sector. ADEC has reported strong interest from foreign investors in building private schools, a positive sign for an emirate with a large expat population interested in private schooling. “The demand for private education in Abu Dhabi is tremendous,” said Al Dhaheri. “Investment opportunities for local and international entrepreneurs should not be underestimated.”

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

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