All of the leading schools in the UAE have been recording sharply higher student intakes for 2023-24. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Does the UAE need more schools?

One look at the new intake for the 2023-24 academic year would suggest that UAE needs not just more schools, but will need them at the earliest.

The reason? The sheer explosion in new residents relocating themselves to the UAE, opening up the need for more capacity to be added to the school network.

"This academic year, we received applications from over 1,500 students and enrolled nearly 600 new students,” said Ruth Burke, Principal at Dubai-based Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai. “Our boarding school has also doubled in size."

"Our growth has also come from French and German families looking for ways for their children to continue with their mother tongue languages and ensure a bilingual education."

Her words offer a glimpse into the changing demographics at work when it comes to the UAE’s resident base. More European families make up part of the relocation wave that Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been benefiting from.

Boarding in Dubai is also becoming even more attractive for families, particularly after the pandemic. Dubai is being seen as an exciting and progressive place for education.

- Ruth Burke

According to the head of a recruitment consultancy, “Hiring activity in the UAE continues, and we are still some way off from reaching a saturation point. The tech, financial services (including crypto) and legal sectors continue to be active, with hubs such as DIFC and ADGM attracting a lot of new entrants.”

All of which is feeding into the school system.

Innoventures Education, which manages several schools including Dubai International Academy Emirates Hills and Raffles International School, had a 16 per cent increase in student registrations compared to the previous year.

In some specific class groups, the increase ranges 20-40 per cent, said Poonam Bhojani, CEO of Innoventures Education.

In addition, the group has also introduced an Early Childhood Centre at DIA Al Barsha catering to children up to three years old. "Innoventures Education serves nearly 9,000 students from over 120 countries, supported by a team of 1,500 teachers and staff," said Poonam.

There is a need for diversity in curriculums, with parents having the choice of 17 different curriculums, including British, Indian (CBSE), American, and International Baccalaureate programs.

- Saria Hayek

Some schools have seen demand double compared to initial forecasts made before reopening after the summer break. According to Zafar Raja, Group Chief Operating Officer of GEMS Education, factors such as the population growth, favourable business conditions, and the UAE’s reputation for safety are attracting families with school-age children.

Population growth, market conditions, a buoyant economy, and the enduring attractiveness of the UAE as an enterprise-enabling environment, are certainly key factors for soaring enrollments.

- Zafar Raja

"New enrollment across our network will likely continue until the end of September,” said Raja. “We are already seeing the highest number of students in GEMS Education history." The new intake exceeds total enrolments from last year and 2019 and aligns with the number of new teachers the UAE's largest private school operator welcomed the previous month.

Enrollments skyrocket

The rise in placements also encouraged groups like Nord Anglia Education to open a second school in Abu Dhabi. They will not be the only one.

In Dubai, these are the figures for student enrolment at private schools in the recent past (based on KHDA stats):

  1. 2020-21 Spring enrollments: 280,735
  2. 2020-21 Summer enrollments: 284,156
  3. 2021-22 Autumn enrollments: 287,966
  4. 2021-22 Spring enrollments: 301,694
  5. 2022-23 enrollments: 326,001

New schools are need of the moment

"The Dubai Economic Agenda D33 alone demands major growth in the private education sector – a more than doubling of current capacity,” said Raja. “Given the projected rise in demand for K-12 education in the Emirates, we expect investment in new infrastructure to increase, especially in the near term."

Market ripe for new schools

A recent report by Alpen Capital forecasts the number of schools in the UAE to increase from around 1,258 in 2022 to 1,308 by 2027.

Although the higher enrollments are a big positive, it remains crucial for schools to provide top-notch education delivered by proficient teachers to ensure student retention. "Dubai already has many new schools in the planning stage,” said Ruth. “The challenge is always for schools to differentiate themselves and stand out in a competitive and busy marketplace."

Over the last two years, we have continued to see an increased number of families that choose schools in the UAE thanks to easy access to high quality education.

- Dawn Rennie

This becomes even more vital, particularly for new students from abroad. Dawn Rennie, Regional Head of Admissions at International Schools Partnerships, Middle East, said the group works with families over months to ensure a seamless transition from other countries. "This continues throughout the academic year, not just at the beginning," said Dawn.

The need for more schools
According to Industry Arc, the MENA education sector is projected to reach $175 billion by 2027, with a remarkable compound annual growth rate of 8.5% from 2022. This growth is evident on the ground, with the number of K-12 students in Dubai's 216 private schools increasing 4.5% since June 2022. In just three years, 22 new schools have opened in Dubai alone.
There is a need for diversity in curriculums, with parents having the choice of 17 different curriculums, including British, Indian (CBSE), American, and International Baccalaureate programs. Around 37% of education startups are focusing on K-12 online education and home schooling, indicating the growth potential.

- Saria Hayek, Regional Admissions Manager at iCademy Middle East.