DUBAI It was not too long ago when, even before the sun rose, many parents would line up in front of private schools in Dubai, hoping to get a seat for their child.

Schools, more or less, especially the affordable ones or the reputable ones, were full. Parents were not spoilt for choice; many would send their children wherever there was still room, and paid what the schools asked.

Today, no one talks about “the waiting list”. Today, parents are spoilt for choice.

Power play

The “power” has shifted into the hands of parents, a top official told Gulf News. Parents choose what school is right for their children; the one closer to home, is it where most learning is in digital form, or the multilingual one?

This is the impact of a greater number, and variety, of private schools opening in Dubai, said Dr Abdullah Al Karam, director-general of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which regulates Dubai’s private education sector, and has been instrumental in attracting more schools to the emirate.

Rise and rise of Dubai schools

There are 211 private schools in Dubai, where an overwhelming majority of students – 296,000 pupils – attend private schools instead of public schools. And almost 20 per cent, or one in five, of the schools are new, having opened in the last three years.

In 2018, a dozen new private schools had opened in Dubai, creating over 25,000 new seats. Five opened this year and three more are expected to open in 2020. These eight schools will add a total of 13,000 seats.

Quality control

Another impact, Dr Al Karam said, has been on quality.

“Before, things were different. You had high capacity utilisation, parents didn’t have choices, so why would the schools change?” he added.

The capacity utilisation rate, or the percentage of available seats that are occupied, is “a very healthy” 80 per cent, overall, in Dubai private schools today.

“With more schools coming, quality is really increasing. It’s about demand and supply, when there is a nice equilibrium, quality reaches very high and the consumer has the most power. So in this case, the parents have the power; and the quality, you’re only going to see that going up.

“Those schools who don’t focus on quality, I think they will be left out of the arena.”

Good or better

Of course, quality is also checked by the KHDA in annual school inspections. Ten years back, when inspections began, only 30 per cent of students received ‘good’ or better quality education and today this figure has more than doubled to 70 per cent.

Schools that have the highest quality ratings, or under the latest rule, those whose ratings have climbed the most, have another incentive to improve – they can raise fees commensurately.

The fee factor

After a gap of one academic year, private schools in Dubai were allowed to raise fees by up to 4.14 per cent for this academic cycle, depending how far their ratings had risen.

But many schools chose to freeze their fees, or even reduce them, something that was unheard of a decade ago, to stay attractive to parents amidst tight competition.

Are we in oversupply?

But is the competition too fierce; is Dubai in oversupply when it comes to private schools?

The answer is no, Dr Al Karam said.

While conceding that the capacity utilisation rate for “different segments [of schools] might have a different percentage”, the overall situation remains favourable for both parents and schools, he added.

Standing out

Schools aren’t simply using their price points or ratings to attract students (he argues they can no longer solely rely on these factors), but differentiating themselves with “unique offerings”, such as a speciality in arts, sports or afterschool science labs.

“All the new schools that are coming in, are trying to create a unique offering to attract more the students, and at the same time, that affects all the old schools – now they also have to change. It is about how the power has shifted – it used to be with the school, now it is with the parents. When that shifts, we see all these changes.”

Going forward

Dubai will continue to add schools, it seems, despite concerns about oversupply from some operators.

“We’re very happy to see the current situation and we will continue our efforts to attract more schools, different schools, because with them, we can also ensure the quality much faster.”