A recent story in Gulf News, a UAE newspaper and online site, asked the question why UAE and Dubai school fees were so high?
It then proceeded to quote numerous parents across the emirates who struggled to understand the price variation between schools ranked equally by the education regulator.
From the report:
"Al Diyafah High School, which received a ‘good’ ranking in the inspections, charges Dh9,595 for Kindergarten 1 (KG1) and Dh17,180 for grade 12. Its bus fees range from Dh4,500 to Dh6,750 and the registration fee is Dh500. One the other hand, Raffles World Academy, which received the same ranking, charges Dh26,125 for kindergarten and Dh73,150 for grade 12.
“I don’t understand — are my children going to school to learn maths, English and science or are they going to learn rocket science! I don’t see it as justifiable to ask parents to pay large sums of money to get a good quality of education. Education should be open for everyone and not only the rich,” said Hamad Kazouh, a father of two.
The Gulf News report was good in highlighting the general feeling of angst regarding school fees, but did little to help explain the situation. As a result, it left the feeling that some schools 'rip off' parents, and that some families are being excluded from certain schools simply because schools in the UAE are greedy and will charge whatever they can get away with.
To provide some balance to the debate, here is an explanation of various reasons for price differentials across schools.
1. The age of the school. Newer schools are more expensive than older schools. This is a statistical fact. There are some good points that parents should like - new buildings and classrooms, newer facilities, new technology in the classrooms, state of the art sports and classroom equipment - the not unsubstantial detail that everything will just work.
New schools will have high levels of start up and capital repayment costs which will take a good 10 to 15 years to pay back. If a school cannot repay these fees, it will forever be in debt. If a business cannot at some point reach profitability, there would be no reason to invest in and build schools in the first place.
Parents may not like the fact that they are paying off school loans, but they should appreciate that the school exists. And it wouldn't if it could not pay back the capital costs it took on to build it in the first place.
That said, all schools should be budgeting to continually reinvest in their premises and upgrade their facilities and resources just like any business, whether it is a for profit or a not-for-profit entity.
2. When you do your research look at the ratio between the number of teachers to the number of students. There is wide variation in the UAE - from 1:10 to 1:20 or more. Like any business the more resources you employ, the more it will cost each month to pay those salaries. The number of teachers will, or at least should, determine the level of individual attention your child gets. No matter the quality of the teacher, if they teach a classroom of 30, each individual child will get considerably less attention than one with 15-20.
The teacher to student ratio will also affect activities outside of the classroom, in the level of pastoral care teachers can provide to students. Can your child get extra support? How many school activities does the school offer that are not core curriculum? How many clubs? Is there help, for example, with university applications? The more staff resources a school has, the more all of this will be possible - and the more expensive the school will be.
3. Student choices. Two schools may offer a British education on paper, but be quite different in the details of what that means. Not every school will offer the same number of I/GCSEs and A Levels for example. The more choice a school offers, the more expensive it will be for a school to staff that choice.
Simple questions to ask: How many I/GCSE subjects does your school offer? How many A Level subject does the school offer? What subjects…?
4. Where are teachers recruited from, what levels of relevant experience and qualification do they have, how long have they been at the school, what are the ages of teachers at the school?
The biggest cost of most schools will be staffing which, in a not-for-profit school can consume some 70 to 80% of its income. Schools will therefore be adept at refining the balance between younger (less expensive) and more senior staff.
Some schools will be highly active in retention and keeping staff for longer. They will have both higher staffing and higher training costs than those that allow more churn in staff, and have more junior teachers.
All of this of course impacts on the experience of your child. While younger members of staff are important, bringing in new ideas, and often adding energy to a school, there is a balance and there is also no doubt constant changes in class and subject teachers will have a negative impact on your child. More senior teachers, like more senior managers in any profession, are also in general better trained and offer more skills developed over their years.
Equally some countries are more expensive to recruit from than others. As a parent it is up to you to determine whether you think that the nationality, and where the qualification and experience of teachers was gained matters.
The point is, that this cannot be ignored as this will impact costs, and therefore the fees of a school.
5. What is the curriculum of the school and the style of teaching and learning that it employs? This has an impact because different curricula will require different approaches to learning and resources to implement. The IB is well known to be teacher intensive, largely because classroom sizes tend to be smaller, and at IB Diploma level teaching is more timetable intensive than, for example A Level.
To compare A Level and IB is not comparing like for like in terms of the cost of delivery.
6. The range of clubs, activities, drama productions, school trips, sport competitions, etc. These will very significantly between schools and reflect how the school sees its role in terms of the child's development - purely academic, or building a human being.
The cheaper a school, the more it is likely to benefit from lower staffing costs and/or offer the core education and very little more. The larger schools will also benefit from economies of scale. Conversely the more you pay, the more you should expect the school to be involved in the holistic development of your son or daughter.
Education in the UAE is expensive, and it is unsurprising it is a source of discontent and worry for parents. However, it is a mistake to assume that all schools are the same with the same ethos and staffing just because they offer the same curricula or get the same ranking by an education regulator which tends to focus on a specific range of questions in its evidence based inspections.
Schools will vary significantly in their ethos, school culture, and in their approach. Some will be very hands on, and take an holistic approach, seeing education as significantly more than academic. Others will be very hands off, focus students on examinations, and leave parents with everything else to worry about.
It is important to remember that, in the UAE, schools are part of a private system and not a subsidised state one. It is therefore worth asking: how does this compare to the costs of private education in your home country or target destination/ often this is a very favourable comparison.
The key point, therefore, is about value. As a parent, you have to determine what you can afford, what type of school you want to send your children to, and then ensure that the school you choose is, within the bounds of what you pay, providing good value and service.
You should not however expect every school to be the same, just as not every business, hotel, or even car is the same. There will always be variety and difference. It is up to you to understand the choice on offer, and to then make your choices wisely.
2017/18 Update: While 2016/17 was the year of the premium schools in terms of school openings, 2017/18 looks like being quality schools in terms of teaching and curricula, but value in terms of pricing and facilities. The model is GEMS Founders school which of all the schools launched last year, has been on of the most, if not the most successful in terms of student recruitment. Click on the hyperlink for schools opening in 2017/18.
Beyond just more choice, more schools will mean current schools will be more constrained in terms of putting up their prices - otherwise they will begin to lose competitiveness (and therefore students) no matter how Outstanding they are.
Market forces, as well as just a sensitivity and respect for the state of customers/parents, can have a profound effect on pricing. We believe a number of big name schools will freeze fee increases for next year, despite the freedom from the KHDA to be able to raise them.
Editor's note: We would love to hear your views - please do comment below...