‘Take what you can get’: parents warn of struggle to secure school places in UAE


Parents say many schools are fully occupied months before the start of term.

[Zarina Dalati has found it difficult to find a school place for her four-year-old daughter in Dubai. Antonie Robertson/The National]

Many parents are facing a summer scramble for school places – weeks before the start of the new academic year.

An education expert has advised expatriate parents to choose their child’s school up to a year in advance, but this is a luxury not available to many expatriates moving to the UAE, often on short notice.

With 194 schools in Dubai following 16 curriculums and 185 schools in Abu Dhabi to choose from, the abundance of options can often confuse parents, said consultant Fiona McKenzie, director of Gabbitas Middle East in Dubai.

Zarina Dalati, 34, a Filipina living in Dubai, struggled while seeking admission for her daughter, 4, who will be joining school next month.

Finding admissions late in the day is tough, with many schools fully occupied months in advance, Ms Dalati said.

“Most schools say they are at full capacity in March. Parents will have to cross their fingers and wait for other parents to cancel if they are moving out of the country or transferring their children to another school. That’s the only time a seat becomes available,” Ms Dalati said.

“Parents must check schools months before the beginning of the school year. Schools give preference to siblings of current pupils. Schools also ask for registration fees for applicants to be put on a waiting list,” she said.

Ms Dalati said emails and phone calls work but that it is better to visit the school and meet the admissions officer in person.

“We had a hard time finding a school. We had to work to a budget because my child will also need after-school activities. I sent emails to four schools, three of which responded saying they were at full capacity. One asked us to bring our child for assessment in March. She was placed on a waiting list and we were told to check other schools.

“We checked another school in Al Barsha and secured admission there,” she said.

Ms Dalati started looking for schools last summer.

Most schools have rolling admissions, but some conduct tests nearly 10 months before the beginning of term.

Alice, a Canadian resident moving to Dubai with her daughters, who are nine and 11, at the end of this month, did not know that they would be relocating until the beginning of July.

“We applied to nearly 20 schools. Most of them replied in two to three days saying they had no space but were happy to add my daughters to the waiting list,” she said.

The family visited Dubai at the end of July to seek admissions. Once they landed in the emirate, the family found most schools were closed for the holidays.

“I would say the best time to select a school would be the last week of the school year to make sure you get in. If you visit in the middle of August, it will be difficult to find a place in your selected school,” she said.

“Come early to avoid any stress. If you come late, you can try your luck,” Alice said.

During their week-long stay in Dubai, the girls took an evaluation test at a school. The parents selected a British curriculum school and will see how things go after the first term.

“School options are huge in Dubai. Everyone is scared that they won’t find a seat. Take whatever you get; you can switch later when a seat becomes available,” Alice said.

She said children who are academically weak may struggle to find a place.

“Most established schools like to have good or top pupils. I’m sure if school fees are not a problem, every child will find a place.”

The parent warned others in the same position that applying for school admissions can be long, and arduous, expensive and heavy on paperwork with an extensive application process and lots of paper work.

“This can be stressful when are you already overwhelmed with a move,” she said.

Ms McKenzie advised parents to look for schools a year in advance because that gives them time to visit schools, review choices, explore different curriculums, take assessments and secure a place.

“One of the problems with parents coming in last minute is that there are so many schools now that they have to pick where to begin,” Ms McKenzie said.

“With some of the extremely selective schools, the more time you have, the better.”

But because of the nature of life in Dubai, she said parents should not give up hope of vacancies becoming available.

“The population is so transient that even at the last minute you can get into a school. In September, many families don’t come back and schools that are full also may have vacant spots,” she said.

Parents may have to pick between a new school that may have vacant spots or a more established school that has a track record.

“Finding a spot in a senior class may be easier than a junior grade because the early years tend to fill up very quickly,” Ms McKenzie said.

Schools would be reluctant to offer a place to children who are midway through the GCSE programme, A level or IB diploma because it would be tough for them to match what they had already learnt, she said.

Source: The National