What would it be like to study at an 'affordable' private school in Dubai?
Graduation day at GEMS World Academy Dubai - one of the few private schools schools offering the International Baccalaureate. Source: Facebook/@GWADubai

This is the question in the Dubai private education sector today, as the rich Middle Eastern city finds itself with an oversupply of private schools, leading to aggressive marketing and a reduction in the cost of tuition.

Spoilt for choice, parents here are now able to take their pick from the 207 private schools available here, carefully selecting the institution that will promises the best value for money.

But what constitutes an ‘affordable’ private school in the first place?

A new Knight Frank report attempts to find out the traits that would deem one as such. Surveying education service providers representing 58 large, small, branded and local private schools in Dubai, this is what it found:

  • Year 1: 80 percent mentioned tuition fees should be less than AED33,000, and 56 percent indicated that tuition fee should be in the range of AED18,000-28,000.
  • Year 7: 77 percent mentioned tuition fees should be less than AED41,000, and 44 percent indicated that tuition fees should be in the range of AED33,000-46,000
  • Year 13: 70 percent of participants believed tuition fees should be equal to or less than AED60,000

(AED1 is approximately US$0.27 at the time of writing)

In terms of the school’s characteristics, the ‘affordable’ private school should have around 2,000-3,000 students in a plot around 30,000 sq m. Class sizes would range between 25 to 30 students. It’s essential they contain a cafeteria, multi-purpose hall and outdoor swimming pool, but auditoriums, tennis courts and indoor swimming pools aren’t necessary.

As affordability is relative, Knight Frank measured affordability beyond monetary value, examining the schools within the context of distance, or time ie. 5 km or 15 minutes travel. Among the three distance brackets provided – a) 0 to 5km b) 5 to 10km and c) more than 10km – the report found that participants placed 34 percent of students as residing less than 5 km away from school. This figure increased to 46 percent when the pool of schools studied included international branded schools, or schools with a unique offering.

The takeaway from this is, with more schools and choices available, the report expects parents to prioritise school distance and catchment area. “It will be what makes the school most attractive, with the exception of schools that offer certain USPs (unique selling points), which can still command a wider radius because they are serving a particular target market,” the report said.

The report’s findings follow in the wake of a recent fee freeze announced this June. In a bid to boost the economy, the Dubai Executive Council had ruled that private schools in Dubai will not be allowed to raise their fees for the academic year 2018/2019. Private schools are heavily regulated in the emirate, and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) determines whether a school is permitted to increase their fees based on how well they perform during the authority’s inspection.

Truly international curriculum

With a market share that has multiplied several times since 2009/10, the International Baccalaureate (IB) is the fastest-growing curriculum here. Three factors make it appealing to parents: standardised, internationally-recognised exam system, reputation for instilling independent learning and the provision of credits to IB graduates by certain US colleges.

British curricula schools continue to have the most number of pupils, with 93,771, followed by Indian curriculum schools, which have 79,579 pupils in Dubai.

“IB curriculum and British curriculum are truly international and are transferable, thus they are popular,” said Natasha Ridge, executive director at Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, as reported by The National.

“You can take the certificate anywhere in the world.

“For most of the UAE population, who are from other countries, they want to know they can use their degree to get into any university anywhere. If they leave the UAE, they can easily transfer to a school somewhere else.”

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