More than just fees to consider when enrolling in UAE nurseries

While it may take a village to raise a child, it takes a small fortune to bring up a kid in the UAE.

Parents here spend more than Dh1 million per child up to the age of 18 and the financial hits start rolling in even before primary school comes into play.

The business of pre-primary schools throughout the GCC is growing as enrolment for children between 3 and 5 years old has increased more than 40 per cent in five years from 2009, according to a GCC education report from Alpen Capital.

The UAE had the highest gross enrolment ratio, or the number of students enrolled in schools at different grade levels, within the region at more than 92 per cent, exceeding that of the United States and UK.

And this age group is mostly funded via private investment. Alpen Capital says pre-primary is the only segment of the kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education system where the share of the private sector exceeds 50 per cent as it’s dominated by expatriate students. In the UAE, there are more than 165,000 children enrolled in pre-primary institutions with above 80 per cent in private centres.

The financial advisory firm said that private schools in the K-12 age category in Dubai alone generated revenue of Dh5.4 billion over the 2014-2015 school year with annual fees ranging between Dh1,725 and Dh98,649.

Nursery tuition fees can cost in excess of Dh60,000 a year depending on many variables ranging from term times to qualified staff.

Child care is a growing business sector in the country with supply beginning to outstrip demand, but the quality does not always match the price. This can be attributed to the lack of standards for centres that cater to children aged up to 5.

While other education outlets have a clearly defined policy, nurseries have so far been left in the dark. Moreover, parents struggle with finding the proper outlet to voice concerns. Previously, these childcare places fell under the remit of the Ministry of Social Affairs but, after this year’s Government shake-up, they now fall under the Ministry of Education.

The ministry is expected to release a more thorough list of guidelines for these centres but, in the meantime, they remain widely unregulated. The Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment.

In Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) monitors early learning centres (ELCs) spanning 3 to 6 years of age, receiving between seven and 10 applications for new facilities to be set up each year.

“KHDA interviews the manager of the ELCs to ensure the suitability of the candidate in line with the pre-determined academic objectives,” says a KHDA spokesman, adding that the regulatory body “ensures that the applying ELC is successful with all the necessary government approvals.”

The entity conducts regular visits during different stages of an ELC’s development up to the opening when it is fully established. Then the KHDA conducts random checks to ensure health and safety protocols are in place.

While the KHDA says that there is no cap on how much a childcare facility in the 3 to 6 years age range can charge, it does say that a proper framework to regulate fees is underway.

The lack of quality of some ELCs led one mother to open her own nursery. Aimee Collett, a 29-year-old Briton, moved to the Dubai seven years ago and immediately began searching for a nursery for her 8-month old son. “I arrived and saw that anyone could do this. I think it was more a lack of knowledge and training that shocked me,” she says.

Ms Collett recalls small and overpopulated classrooms, others without windows and even some with very few toys. “The managers were very good at selling but when I took a closer look there were no resources in the classroom and I couldn’t imagine a child having fun with the bare minimum.”

Some of the managers Ms Collett encountered – although all had leadership skills – lacked experience in the field of education. What is more, some said they followed a particular curriculum, such as the UK standard, but in fact did not. Unlike many parents, Ms Collett had experience in this field and it gave her greater insight on what to look for when placing her child in an ELC. She received a degree in early-childhood studies from Bristol University and continued her education with various courses.

“We were surprised to see how many nurseries were not abiding to or following the Early Years Foundation Stage [EYFS)] British curriculum – in fact, several of the settings we visited did not even know what EYFS stood for,” she says.

It took about 18 months to open her own centre, Paddington Nursery, which was “no easy task” – from finding the right property to getting approvals from various regulatory entities. The total start-up costs for the nursery ran to about Dh2.2 million including Dh450,000 for toys and Dh50,000 on books. And each year the nursery plans to spend another Dh70,000 on resources.

In addition, licensing with entities including the Dubai Health Authority, Civil Defense, Concordia DMCC free zone and KHDA totalled around Dh150,000.

“However, our biggest cost is rent and staff as we pay above the average salaries for our Early Years Childhood-qualified Western staff,” says Ms Collett.

With enrolment fees ranging from Dh6,200 to Dh14,000 for three-month terms, the Paddington Nursery owner says she does not expect a return on investment for another few years. “The nursery industry isn’t one to go into if you’re looking into making a big profit,” Ms Collett says. “[If you don’t have] a 25-room nursery, profit won’t happen in the first couple of years unless you’re not providing toys or snacks.”

She says that if parents went behind the scenes of many nurseries, they would find a lack of resources and irregular upgrades.

“As a new mum, what’s to say you’d know what to look for? All these blogs that have a top-10 question list to ask, these managers know how to cleverly answer,” she says.

One first-time mother in Dubai found out the hard way. The 33-year old has a two-year old son, and, for her family, location was important. “My husband travels often and I don’t drive so I wanted something close to work.

“We didn’t ask too many questions because we assumed all nurseries in Dubai must be fully regulated and up to standards,” she adds asking not to be named.

At the time, her son had not even turned a year old so her questions concerned the fees and information about a nurse on duty. She says the first serious issue was when she returned from a short break with her son only to face a new manager.

“The nursery had no idea who he was and could not find a file on him,” the mother says, adding that the company instead wanted to charge a fee for a day’s enrolment.

The child’s parents never met the owner of the nursery, only the manager at the time of enrolment. “We never asked for specific qualifications, but [the old manager] used to send regular newsletters and term reports which stopped after she left,” the mother says.

“What I have learned from my experience is to always check and then double-check on the nursery before placing your child,” she says adding that checking reviews and asking many questions – particularly about licensing – is imperative.

“Never assume because a nursery is in a nice area that it is meeting all of the requirements.”


Veneet Mohan, the managing director at Oakfield Early Learning Centre in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers, lists what parents should look for when choosing a nursery

1: Staff:

As used in the United Kingdom, the early years foundation stage (EYFS) sets standards for the learning, development and care of your child.

a) What qualifications do the teachers have (in EYFS pre-schools, staff must have the Cache 3 or equivalent)

b) What qualifications do the assistant teachers have (in the EYFS pre-schools, staff must have the Cache 2 or equivalent)

Note: There is no prerequisite for qualifications for a nursery assistant (classroom assistant; nanny)

2: Health, safety and cleanliness:

a) Look for evidence of safe practices and safeguarding of children. Ask questions and see what response you get.

b) Look for reasonable childproofing in all the places the children go.

c) Do you get the impression of cleanliness when you walk around the facility?

d) Unplesant smell is a giveaway of unclean spaces.

3: Resources and learning spaces – check there are adequate facilities:

a) Look for good space utilisation and a variety of learning spaces.

b) Look at children’s resources in the learning spaces – look for quality and variety.

4: Check the curriculum and for evidence of teaching and learning

a) Is children’s work prominently displayed and celebrated?

b) Do the resources enable the curriculum that the centre follows to be implemented?

c) Is there a record of children’s work – for instance, learning journals?

5: Leadership and management:

a) Do the staff look happy, engaged and enthusiastic about their work?

b) Look for evidence of detailed planning.

c) Ask for daily/weekly timetables and check that they are being followed (are the children doing what the timetable says they should be doing?)

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LeAnne Graves

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