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Many parents who lost jobs, suffered salary cuts or were placed on unpaid leave because of the pandemic, claimed they cannot afford school fees at the moment. Picture for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai, Abu Dhabi: Several parents in the UAE, who have stopped sending their children to school due to financial reasons, have urged that homeschooling be temporarily recognised as a special consideration in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Many parents who lost jobs, suffered salary cuts or were placed on unpaid leave because of the pandemic, claimed they cannot afford school fees at the moment and that their children’s schools have not re-enrolled them because they could not pay the fees.

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The parents said they are considering homeschooling, which is cheaper, as a temporary alternative but fear their children will have to repeat the school year once they re-enrol, as homeschooling is generally not recognised.

Though there are a few exceptions, students normally have to complete the school year in a regular school in order to move to the next grade.

Recently, after the new school year started on August 30, some children have not returned to class — online or in-person — because their parents cannot afford the school fees.

‘No alternative’

Families that have taken a financial hit said their children face an uncertain future as they see no practical alternative to regular school.

Rabab, a mother in Dubai who only gave her first name, said she has not been able to re-enrol her three children, who completed grades one, three and five at a British school. Her husband was laid off in the aftermath of the pandemic, she noted.

“How can we pay the school fees when we have no income? We are already taking loans,” she said. “My children are now doing grade-level courses at an academy in Dubai but I fear they will have to repeat the school year once they go back to school.”

‘What’s the point?’

Another Dubai parent, who only gave her initials, SR, said her two children, in grades seven and eight, have also not been re-enrolled in school. Her husband was made redundant in February while she also lost her part-time job.

“I don’t know what to tell my children. We feel rejected by the school, where my children went for 15 years. We never missed a single payment before. I’m thinking about homeschooling but if it’s not accredited, then what’s the point?” SR said.

“I can’t afford to send my kids to school right now. If I opt for cheaper homeschooling, we won’t get TCs, and the kids will have to repeat the year. It’s a vicious circle, there is no escape. So what options do we have, where do we go?”

SR said she told the school to allow the children to attend class for one month and if their fees weren’t paid by then, she herself would pull them out of school. “I tried so many things, but there was refusal at every level. Authorities should look into this situation. It hurts me terribly to see my two boys sitting at home while other children are going to school,” she added.

Zero income

An expat from an Asian country, who identified herself by her initials, SAA, said her son is not in school because “we’re getting zero income” after the family business collapsed in the pandemic.

“The school said pay before August 30 or we won’t let him attend class — we had opted for distance learning. I had sent half a dozen mails explaining our situation. I told them I will pay soon as I’m in the process of borrowing some money; at least consider some discount. But there was no reply,” SAA added.

“On September 1, my son got ready to join his new virtual class on the laptop. His account was blocked, I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting this from the school. “My son got so disheartened,” she added.

SAA said she is considering homeschooling to prepare him to take his IGCSE exams externally. She wants to enrol him in an online school based in South Africa that charges around Dh6,000 annually, compared to his former school fees of Dh14,000 per year.

The parents said there is only one recognised fully-online school in Dubai, but added that its starting fees are still out of their reach at the moment.

‘Formally uneducated’

A Filipino father in Abu Dhabi, who did not wish to be named, lost his job in June. He said he is unable to enrol his five-year-old son in school. “I have medical bills to pay because of a rare condition, and cannot afford my son’s school fees. If homeschooling was recognised, I would enrol him with a provider, because I believe fees would be more affordable. My son remains formally ‘uneducated’. My wife and sister help him learn the alphabet and numbers and other simple concepts, but this is all they can manage on their own,” he added.

Is homeschooling recognised?

In Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) “does not currently recognise homeschooling programmes”, it says on its website. There are “alternative forms of education” available through the KHDA-recognised ‘Rahhal’ programme. Rahhal, which means traveller in Arabic, is an approved schools’ programme that allows students to be absent from regular classes for an extended time to pursue academic or extra-curricular goals at recognised establishments. However, “to qualify, students must be enrolled full-time in a Dubai private school”. And this means paying school fees.

Abu Dhabi’s Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) recently cautioned parents in its parents’ guide to schools reopening that “If you choose not to enrol your child in a school, and instead homeschool him/her, you take the risk that your child will need to repeat the grade once he/she is back in the system.”

Also, the Ministry of Education (MoE) had warned in June: “Parents should not be lured by low tuition offers to enrol their children for online study at schools outside the UAE, as certificates issued by such schools will not be recognised by MoE.”

The advisory followed reports that some UAE-based parents were considering the move after being approached on social media by such schools offering annual fees of less than Dh5,000.

Are there any exceptions?

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There is a recognised system of homeschooling in the UAE under the MoE. However, it applies to students whose age exceeds the maximum age limit for admission in public schools only, as per the age timetable issued by the ministry at the beginning of each academic year. This homeschooling system only accepts pupils from grades seven to 12. The ministry stays in touch with these homeschoolers, providing them books, courses, and exam dates.

Also noteworthy is that certificates for students from outside the country — such as certificate of equivalency for certificates issued outside the UAE — must be attested by the foreign affairs ministry in the country of origin as well as the MoE in the UAE.