UAE a magical place for UK schools

By a busy motorway in Dubai, a glitzier version of Harry Potter-esque turrets rise from the sands.

They belong to a British boarding school that dates back more than 450 years in its home country but just a few in Dubai.

Spread over 130,200 square metres, the first intakes at Repton Dubai included 340 students. Today it has more than 2,000.

Repton opened its Abu Dhabi branch in 2013 and plans to expand to a bigger campus next year. It has 290 students this year but will have 400 for the 2015-2016 year.

“It’s more common nowadays for the workforce to be moving around along with their families and children, and with Middle East being a dynamic region, it is a hot market, including for education,” said Robert Relton, the headmaster of Repton School Abu Dhabi.

When it opened in 2007, Repton Dubai was among the first international school brands to start up in this country, and the trend has only accelerated since then – along with an increase in school fees. More international brands are on the way as the economy goes steady, more expats with families relocate here, and there is more disposable income, say analysts and school headmasters.

Enrolments at private institutions in the UAE accounted for 69 per cent of the total enrolments in 2012, up from 39 per cent in 2000, according to the investment bank Alpen Capital. And the figure in the Arabian Gulf region as a whole is expected to rise 5.7 per cent between 2003 and 2020 compared with the 1.7 per cent growth rate of gross enrolment in public schools during the same period.

In Dubai alone, the student population is expected to touch 360,000 by 2020, up from about 270,000 this year.

“A desire for better quality education, growing numbers of expatriates in the UAE as well as rising income levels have prompted the growth of this trend,” says Mahboob Murshed, the managing director at Alpen Capital Middle East.

Most of the branded schools that have entered this country are British after the model proved successful in the Far East. Harrow School showed the way, opening in Bangkok back in 1997.

Shrewsbury School also set up in Bangkok in 2003, while Dulwich College set up campuses in China in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, and in Seoul, South Korea. It entered Singapore last year.

Brighton College entered Abu Dhabi in 2011, and Cranleigh in Abu Dhabi last year.

Kent College is expected to open its £27 million (Dh147.5m), 400,000 square feet campus in Meydan , Dubai, next year.

Durham School, which has delayed its opening from September, and Millfield also have plans for UAE campuses. Some others had a tougher time.

Raffles in Dubai cut ties with its Singapore schools company Raffles Campus after Emaar Education, the owner of Raffles schools in Dubai, sold back the Singapore company to its original owners in 2010. Another Singapore-based company, Global Schools Foundation, parted ways with its local partner Score Plus Education in 2012, saying it was “extremely pained by the experience”, The National reported at the time.

The preparatory school spin-off of Repton is Foremarke, which opened in 2013 with year one and year two. Last year it added year three and year four, and will start year five from September. Located in Dubai’s DuBiotech free zone, the school follows the Early Years Foundation Stage and National Curriculum for England and Wales. It currently has 214 students with an expected 400 in the new academic session.

“The market has been under-supplied with schools and the UAE Government has been very keen to attract high-quality international schools to the region to meet demand,” according to Mark Atkins, the headmaster of Foremarke.

Branded schools, despite higher than average fees, attract parents drawn by the promise of top-quality education and a range of extra-curricular activities, such as golf, sailing and even street dance.

Repton Abu Dhabi has fees starting at Dh55,000 a year and that rises to Dh61,000 for the year two. Cranleigh Abu Dhabi had fees starting at Dh65,000 and went up to Dh80,000 a year for year nine for the past academic period. A non-branded school in Abu Dhabi, for instance, can typically have fees starting at Dh14,000 that go up to Dh22,000 a year.

Repton Dubai has a boarding school component where fees range between Dh120,979 a year to Dh161,199 a year.

Anna Martella, a mother of two daughters aged five and seven who attend Repton Abu Dhabi, is among the handful of parents whose employer covers the school fees.

“We are in a lucky situation, and we chose the school because we liked it, the teachers, the location is convenient as we live on Reem Island, and it has a wide range of extra-curricular activities,” says Ms Martella, who is from Italy. “And it’s a small school – sometimes big ones can be intimidating to small children.”

While Mr Atkins says the quality of schools is what matters rather than the brand name, the latter does help in a competitive market. “Experience of a quality UK brand does have value in attracting teachers, teacher exchange and training and quality assurance,” he says.

It also helps if a school can secure a good location. Repton Abu Dhabi’s campuses are located on Reem Island, with the latest one occupying 7,000 square metres. Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is spread across seven hectares on Saadiyat Island.

Moreover, the entry of branded schools increases competition to provide quality education. And competition means schools will have to offer value for money, according to Mr Atkins.

While it is hard to replicate the campus experience of an international school in its home setting in a foreign location such as Dubai or Shanghai, brand names help.

“British education is considered a standard and that’s some comfort for a range of parents,” Mr Relton says.

His school has students of 51 nationalities, with British expats and Emiratis at 17 per cent each.

All this also fits into the overall UAE 2030 vision to diversify its economy away from a reliance on hydrocarbons.

“With the Government opening up the sector for private players, the UAE is already witnessing increased private participation and higher enrolment rates at private educational institutions,” Mr Murshed says.

Overseas schools also contribute to boosting skill sets, says Mr Atkins. “Good schools encourage expat talent and offer Emiratis a greater choice – the result, rising standards and a more skilled workforce in terms of foreign workers and highly educated locals.”

Still, challenges remain such as the turnover of good teachers and rising salaries.

“Recruiting quality teachers from the international market is a high-cost component for private operators and on an average, teachers in the [Arabian] Gulf serve a tenure of three years,” Mr Murshed says.

Repton Abu Dhabi replaced 10 per cent of its teachers last year, whereas in the overall market the average is between 30 and 40 per cent, Mr Relton says.

Teacher housing is another area that can throw up challenges. Rising rents in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have a direct impact on a school’s operational costs.

“Staff salaries in the UAE are not rising with inflation and sadly more competitive salaries can be found in Asia,” Mr Atkins says. “A shortage of quality teachers for the UAE schools is imminent.”

One of the ways the schools are trying to retain teachers is by giving access to further training.

“We do a lot of digital training, and there is a thrust towards [classroom tools] such as iPad Mini and MacBook,” Mr Relton says, noting that it brings teachers up to date.

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