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Mixed emotions as ‘back to school’ fever sets in

For the expat community in the UAE the education system is a business – and business is good

A school bus in traffic on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road Imago/Frank Sorge via Reuters
A school bus in traffic on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road

All along the main drag of Sheikh Zayed Road, and in the malls and apartment block communal areas, the message has been the same this week: Back to school! Yippee!

Billboards showing smiling children in shiny new uniforms and backpacks still with price tags wave goodbye to parents who, with just the hint of a tearful eye, realise they will not have their little darlings around for 24 hours a day as they have for the past two months.

Deliriously happy teachers, sick to death of the tedium of six weeks in the South of France, welcome their young charges with toothy smiles and open arms, stoked with anticipation of another 10 months of pedagogy, PE and parent-teacher evenings.

The reality, at least in the Kane household, is rather different.

Dragging a truculent teenager from bed by force at 6am after just a couple of hours sleep because “I’m still on holiday time”.

Witnessing our neighbour frothing with road-rage at the wheel of a Landcruiser as she attempts to beat the dreaded 7.30am late bell.

Getting stuck behind a line of yellow school buses all discharging their precious cargoes at the same time while the lollipop man stares sternly at me through the windscreen mouthing “make my day” as I contemplate overtaking.

And, on top of all that, experiencing what the bankers call a “liquidity event” as several tens of thousands of dirhams exit my account to pay the year’s school fees.

I suffered a double whammy in that regard this year. My daughter “underachieved” in maths last year – not by much, and by no means irrevocably, but enough to persuade me to shell out a few more thousand dirhams for a one-to-one tutor to get her up to speed before the term started. So I was 1-0 down before kick-off.  

On a number of levels, “back to school” is one of the least enjoyable and most stressful times of the year.

None of this, of course, is to impugn the value or quality of the UAE’s private education sector. Show me a teenager who likes getting out of bed before midday, or a teacher who views the re-start of the school year with anything but foreboding.

It is in the natural way of things to regret the passing of the summer halcyon and the beginning of the season of mists.

I suppose the big education companies that run the sector in the UAE have some cause for real joy, however. In August and September their cash flow is the chunkiest it is all year, destined to support their capital and current account spending for the next 12 months – and leave some over for profit, of course.

Because this is the reality of the education system in the UAE, and most of the Middle East. It is a business, at least as far as the expatriate community is concerned. While citizens’ education is provided by the state, foreigners pay. This is part of the trade-off expats make when deciding to live in a low-tax economy.

And for the most part, the education this system produces is very good.

My daughter’s school, for example, was assessed as “outstanding” in the recent ranking by the education authorities, which is a great testimony to all the hard work by teachers, administrators and owners over the years.

But in a perfect example of incentive capitalism that ranking also allowed the school to increase fees this year by 6 percent – admittedly for the first time in three Covid-impacted years.

In fact, UAE education is by no means the most expensive in the world. Dubai ranked 35th and Abu Dhabi 44th out of a list of 76 cities providing “international education” in 2022, according to the International Schools Database. (New York most expensive, Ipoh Malaysia cheapest.) 

I don’t begrudge paying for education at all. In fact, I’ve got some sympathy with Sunny Varkey, the Gems Education founder and one of the pioneers of the private sector school system in the UAE and many other emerging markets, who famously told a journalist some years back: “If you put your children in a school that you can’t afford then you can’t grumble.”

He was right. You can’t grumble.

But please don’t ask me to shout “yippee!”

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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