Choosing a school in the Middle East

Fierce competition for places at Middle Eastern international schools means that expatriate families preparing for a move need to act well in advance of relocation if they are to secure a place at the school of their choice. We examine the current state of provision in the region, and offer tips for parents seeking a school place for their child.

Middle East
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Although the rate of growth of the Middle East’s international schools is impressive, expatriates are facing increased competition from local families who are choosing to send their children to English-speaking international schools.According to ISC Research, provider of data and market intelligence on international schools, there are over 1,500 English-medium international schools in the Middle East, but they vary significantly in size and facilities, fees charged, curricula, examinations and learning approach.The region’s leading countries for international schooling are the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, which is planning to open another 700 schools by 2030 under the Kingdom’s new vision.According to Colliers International MENA, the education sector in Saudia Arabia is the largest single education market in the combined Arabian Gulf Region with 85 per cent of schools and 68 per cent of students out of a total of 39,600 schools and 9.1 million K-12 students in the region – and that is before adding the country's expansive population profile.

Quatar (which is currently under a regional trade blockade), Abu Dhabi and Dubai are facing challenges with a surplus of school places, although student numbers are growing. Kuwait is also said to be planning to open more schools although this is a less appealing destination for western expatriates.Of the international schools in the region, 46 per cent follow (wholly or in part) a UK curriculum with the most popular examination choices being the IGCSE and A Level.

UAE leading the way

The UAE currently leads the region with 627 English-medium international schools and over 605,000 students, with 17 new schools open in the 2018/19 academic year.The majority of international schools in the UAE are located in the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai, which has the highest proportion of expatriates, also has the greatest concentration of international schools at 194, with some 70 schools opening in the last three years. Among these schools there are 17 different curricula on offer, the vast majority of schools teaching the UK curriculum, but the American and Indian curricula are offered in 34 schools each and the IB in 12 schools.Nearly 58 per cent of UAE nationals send their children to private schools and there is therefore strong demand for school places, especially within international schools that have a reputation for quality.According to ISC Research there are several reasons why there is such demand for international schools in the UAE. The wealth of the country, high numbers of expatriates, and demand for quality English-medium education from both expatriates and wealthy local families are all major factors, as is the decision by the governments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi to allow unlimited enrolment of local children at international schools.Kent College Dubai is a relatively new school – opened in August 2016 – but its sister school, Kent College Canterbury is 134 years old and is an example of another successful export of a British independent school brand. It caters for children from the ages of three to 18 and follows the British curriculum.“We currently offer A-levels in the Sixth form, but we intend to offer the IB Diploma as an alternative Sixth form programme,” explains principal, Patrick Lee-Browne. “British independent schools are renowned for their success in developing young people’s confidence and life skills, and we do the same through an impressive variety of clubs, activities and sports, as well as the traditional house system to encourage a strong sense of loyalty and teamwork.”

Assessing schools

Evaluating the quality of schools is often not an easy task for families moving to a new region. For those relocating to Dubai, strict regulations set by the KHDA can help.In 2015 a common framework for inspection was agreed for private schools across the UAE in efforts to raise standards as part of UAE Vision 2021, which is focussed on developing a world-class education system. According to the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which is responsible for the growth and quality of private education in Dubai, the quality of education has significantly improved in the last decade.The KHDA’s Schools Fees Framework, which was introduced in 2012, restricts schools to fee increases based on their inspection standards, in conjunction with the Education Cost Index.All Dubai private-school inspection reports are published on the KHDA website (www.khda.gov.ae).British-curriculum schools in Dubai are also eligible for British Schools Overseas (BSO) inspections. These are based on standards equivalent to those for UK independent schools, and are available at www.cfbt.com.

Qatar – a growing market

Despite the current surplus of school places Qatar has a forward-looking Education Ministry and is predicted to see major growth in international schools over the next decade. The country currently has 166 English-medium international schools, between them teaching more than 134,000 students.The majority of these schools are located in Doha, where more are urgently needed due to the growing preference of Qatari families for international education: Qataris make up almost 40 per cent of students in Qatar’s international schools. Large-scale infrastructure projects are also attracting more expatriates to the region, increasing the demand for international-school places.Lusail, the new city that is being built 15 kilometres north of the centre of Doha, is attracting much attention. Alongside a number of Qatari national schools being built in Lusail, there will be a range of international schools, several of which are due to open in the next few years.Qatar’s Supreme Education Council’s (SEC) Outstanding Schools Programme selects the best schools from around the world – which teach the most reputable national and international curricula – and supports them in establishing a school in Qatar. As part of this programme, Qatar’s Outstanding Schools include Arabic, Islamic studies and Qatari social studies in their curriculum. The scheme has seen many well-known international school groups set up schools there, such as SEK International School Qatar.The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is offered by 14 schools in Qatar. ACS Doha, part of the ACS International Schools Group, is an IB World School and also offers the US High School Diploma – accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).“Accreditation is an important quality mark for an international school,” explains Mark London, head of marketing at ACS International Schools. “It recognises and demonstrates that the educational offering reaches the highest levels of teaching and learning.”Founded in 2008, The International School of London Qatar builds on over 40 years’ experience of its UK sister school. It is also an IB World School, authorised to offer the IB Primary Years, Middle Years and Diploma Programmes. 

Advice on school selection

When choosing an international school, Amin Makarem, managing director of the ISL Group, suggests parents check out the local government requirements, such as children having identifications before they can be enrolled, and admissions deadlines, which are often also dictated to the schools.He adds, “It’s also important for parents to check out the student population and the proportions of the different student nationalities, find out which countries teachers are recruited from, research the school’s external examination results (or the results of standardised tests, if applicable), and review school accreditations.”

Beyond Qatar and the UAE

Saudi Arabia made the headlines with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s state visit to the UK in March 2018. During the visit, the former prime minister Teresa May and the Crown Prince launched the UK-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council, where they committed to a long-term partnership supporting the Crown Prince’s reform programme ‘Vision 2030’.Commenting after the visit former foreign secretary and now prime minister, Boris Johnson said, “This landmark visit has been an opportunity to strengthen and broaden our relationship into new areas. Education, healthcare, clean energy, culture, sports and tech are all sectors where we have world-leading expertise and which are fundamental to the successful realisation of Saudi plans.” Saudi Arabia is expected to see rapid growth in the number of international schools once the law prohibiting full foreign ownership of schools is relaxed. It is not yet confirmed when this will come into effect but it will pave the way for investment in the country’s education provision and its current 257 international schools are likely to sky rocket in numbers. 
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