UAE schools face tougher competition for pupils
Schools across the UAE are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit enough pupils because of the rising number of schools.
This year, 13 private schools opened their doors to pupils in Dubai, while three opened in Abu Dhabi.
Officials said that while waiting lists for kindergarten places were still common, it was now proving much harder to fill spaces at higher grades.
Julian Williams, principal at Springdales School in Dubai, said there were 1,200 pupils enrolled but it had a capacity of 3,000.
“I think it’s becoming more difficult to recruit pupils in Dubai because there’s that much more competition now,” Mr Williams said. “Enrolment is an issue. Even five years ago, there was an understanding of what the market looked like but things have changed quite fundamentally.
“We have to be imaginative about what we offer as it’s a competitive market. Many schools will be looking at a much longer period before they break even or make a surplus.”
Official figures show up to 17,000 new school places are on offer in Dubai this year. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, now has 200 private schools.
Michael Wilson, headmaster at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, said the trend of over-subscription in lower grades was an established pattern, as was the difficulty in recruiting older pupils.
“We find we are heavily over-subscribed from FS1 to Year 8,” Mr Wilson said, pointing out that numbers of pupils often tapered off after this.
He said that pupils, particularly expatriates, then had to make the choice of either staying in the UAE for their GCSEs or returning home to study.
Mr Wilson said there was a similar drop-off at the end of Year 11, after the completion of GCSEs and before the start of A-levels.
“If you look at the FS1 numbers, we fill those places within a day of opening,” he said. “There is a very high demand for those grades. The market is not saturated when it comes to FS1 to year grade. The challenge is Year 8 and above.”
Among the new schools that opened in Dubai this month is Gems Founders School in Al Mizhar.
It opened its doors last week to more than 1,500 new pupils and aims to build the capacity to take in up to 4,800 over the next five years.
“It’s an international school with an international mix of teachers and that’s very attractive to parents,” said Nigel Cropley, principal.
Fairgreen International School in Dubai also opened this week with an enrolment of 200 pupils. In time, the school hopes to have the capacity for more than 1,100.
“We weren’t sure if we would have enough pupils but we are happy with 200 pupils,” said Graeme Scott, principal.
“It’s a big enough number to give a range of subject choices but also retains the family feel. We will know everybody in the school. I think it’s a very good number and we are happy with it.”
Wayne Howsen, principal at the Aquila School in Dubai, said his school had recruited 150 pupils so far and aimed to have about 200 within the first year.
“Recruiting pupils was a challenge when the school was still being built as it was hard to convince families that the school would open on time,” he said.
“Since the school has been ready we’ve had lots of families coming in. We have had five enrolments today.”
Judith Finnemore, a freelance education consultant in Al Ain, said she believed no more new schools were needed in the UAE for the foreseeable future.
“There’s no more room in the market for new schools,” she claimed. “I’m on the governing body of a school in Dubai and they’ve lost 150 pupils just because of people losing jobs and going home.
“One of the schools in Dubai is losing Dh4 million because children are not coming back.
“If you’re going to open a high-end school you have to staff it. Schools would have brought in a lot of staff but they don’t have enough pupils and will be making losses the first or second year they’re open.
"The solution is to have a moratorium on new schools; possibly a five-year ban where no new schools can open.”