A scene from a pre-COVID-19 past... But the pandemic has enforced deep rooted changes into how education is imparted. And that comes with mounting costs for the school operator. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The lockdown experience highlighted the important role schools play in students’ emotional wellbeing.

Especially in the context of childcare in the UAE, where a majority of the expat population do not have access to the support network provided by an extended family. Private schools help narrow this gap, providing education along with pastoral care.

The UAE’s private schools provide education in 17 different kinds of curriculum , as necessitated by the demands of a multicultural population. The achievements of UAE students in various international exams such as the IB, ICSE, A levels and GCSEs - where they consistently outperform international averages - testify to the high standards of a majority of private schools here.

Central to attracting talent

Quality education is a significant factor attracting talent to the UAE and motivating people to stay long-term. For years now, the private education sector has played a vital role in supporting its non-oil economy. A strong - and sustainable - education sector is vital to continue attracting talent to the country.

It must be kept in mind that unlike other countries subsidised public-school education is not accessible to those who are not UAE citizens. Thus, Dubai is also one of the most privatised education systems in the world, with more than 87 per cent of the entire school student population enrolled in private schools.

While private school education in the UAE is not subsidised by and large, there are various options available to suit learning needs and budgets. However, as COVID-19 wreaks havoc with communities, schools have not been exempted from its impact.

Most of the UAE’s schools are currently reeling from severe financial stress; there have been a few closures and more could be possible. Schools are currently battling massive cashflow challenges that threaten their very survival as families have returned home and enrolments for September are unclear.

Need for help

Though parents have received discounts on fees in many cases, school operators have not received significant relief measures. There have been hardly any adjustments on long-term rental agreements between landlords and operators.

Inelastic contractual fixed costs and variable revenue have had a drastic knock-on effect on schools. For schools, continuing to manage under the current circumstances, without any relief packages or more flexible long-term rentals, would be hard to sustain.

Compounding the challenges, we are still assessing the impact of months of social isolation on children’s physical and mental wellness. When schools reopen in September, a high priority will be ensuring that children’s educational, physical, and mental health needs are met.

Spare a thought

Teachers, school leaders and support staff have been the unsung heroes of this pandemic, working selflessly under extraordinary circumstances to help students weather the current crisis, and minimizing its effects on children. As a sector, we need to ensure we continue to attract and retain bright people in the profession.

With a worldwide scarcity of teachers, exacerbated by COVID-19, UAE schools will have to compete globally to attract talent, offering compensation packages that are benchmarked against international norms to attract the best teaching talent and maintain standards of excellence.

To ensure children are able to return to school as they knew it in September, it’s time we stopped bashing schools and looked for sustainable solutions.

As we begin the long recovery process, a combination of relief and fiscal incentives with public and private stakeholders working together will ensure children are not denied quality education, a basic human right.

- Poonam Bhojani is CEO, Innoventures Education. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Innoventures Education.