The UAE has one of the highest concentrations of private schools in the world, yet up to eight percent of children are potentially without a school place  of their choice – or without a place at all.

Private tuition expert Clive Power calculates the number of children in his tutoring centre without a school place, raising his eyes to the ceiling as he mentally counts.

“Of the 200 we have at the moment, 10 to 15 are either not in a school or are struggling to get into the school of their choice,” says the founder of Power Tutoring, an after-school private tuition centre in Dubai’s Knowledge Village that opened in 2006.

“It is a regular occurrence where people arrive in Dubai and the school they want doesn’t have places. Parents end up compromising and taking what is on the table because the best schools are full.”

Make a crude calculation using Mr Power’s example and potentially 8 per cent of Dubai children are either without a school place of their choice or without a place at all.

While this scenario is not unique – Abu Dhabi faces a similar problem – it is certainly unusual globally where education systems generally ensure all children have a place.

The reason for the disparity is simple. The UAE has one of the highest concentrations of private schools in the world because the state system does not cater for expatriate children.

This is why it has ended up with what experts call an “inverse pyramid” of demand as parents strive to secure places at the top schools.

The issue was hotly debated at a discussion – hosted by the price-comparison website, – last week that brought head teachers and school executives together with parents to explore concerns over school admissions.

Souqalmal’s chief executive, Ambareen Musa, was spurred into holding the event after struggling to secure a school place for her 21-month-old daughter, Rania.

Mrs Musa first applied at the end of last year, quickly discovering that waiting lists for a 2014 slot at Dubai’s most sought-after schools were full.

In response, the entrepreneur introduced a guide to UAE schools and nurseries on Souqalmal to help parents find the right establishment.

And in Mrs Musa’s opinion, the guide’s most important asset is detailing when schools open their registration. Because, while private schools follow regulations set out by their relevant education authority, how they govern their internal processes is largely down to themselves.

It means different schools open registration at different times, some up to five years in advance, forcing parents to register several times over to ensure a place. With most schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi charging a registration fee of up to Dh500, that can be an expensive process.

Anil Bhoyrul, a media executive and father of two children aged one and three, has spent Dh4,000 on registration fees for a place this year for his son at eight schools in Dubai.

“I first tried to get a place in 2010 and three years on we haven’t got a place anywhere and no hope of a place. But no one can tell me what they’ve done with my money.

“I’ve since heard that for some of the schools there were maybe 1,600 people above us. I have no problem giving the money but what I don’t like is to find out three years later that you never had a chance.”

While some schools only recently started charging the registration fee because, they admit, they realised they were missing out on a lucrative bit of income, the catch is that if your child does not get a place, you do not get the fee back.

The fee ruling, set out by education authorities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, unintentionally allows some unscrupulous schools to take parents’ money knowing full well there is no space available.

“That situation is immoral,” says Clive Pierrepont, communications director at Taaleem, which operates 10 schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for children aged two to 18. “We will not take any money unless there is a chance.”

According to the education experts at the round table, the Dh500 makes the application live, places the child’s name on a waiting list and covers the cost of the child’s assessment.

What happens after that is up to the school.

Jonathan Price, head teacher at Jebel Ali Primary School in Dubai, recently offered places for the school’s 2014 FS2 year group – with the earliest application submitted in 2010.

“We are a school with a good reputation and have had children registered while in the womb so that gives you an idea of the hype,” says Mr Price.

His school allocates places in chronological order, taking into account gender and cultural background to ensure classes are balanced. Like most schools, siblings get preference.

“We have 96 places available for 2014 and 56 are taken by siblings, so roughly two thirds have gone,” he says.

For those without the sibling advantage, the race for a place continues. With 154 schools in Dubai, and more in the pipeline catering to a population expected to double by 2020, and 183 private schools in Abu Dhabi serving around 185,000 pupils, waiting lists are tight.

“Parents in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are struggling to get into their schools of choice. But we have places in some areas and we will try and expand our facilities to cater to more,” says Mr Pierrepont.

So, with so many schools and places still available, why are parents still so anxious?

“It’s demand and supply. People do their research. They go on Expatwoman and read what parents are saying and certain schools bubble to the top,” says Mr Price.

As well as word of mouth recommendations, the regulatory authorities also inspect and rate schools with Dubai, for example, having 11 schools classed as outstanding, further encouraging parents to get in early for the premier schools.

“I have a nine-week-old daughter and I registered my interest when I was pregnant,” says Helen Black, the deputy head teacher of Horizon in Dubai.

For James Holmes, a father-of-one and the managing director of the PR consultancy Limelight Middle East, this is symptomatic of the problem.

“To me, that is what creates the hype. The system has created a hierarchy whereby a handful of schools are sought after with parents then bitterly disappointed when they cannot secure a place. To me, it doesn’t matter if the admission fee is Dh5,000 because it’s my kid’s education so I’m going to pay but the system is not uniform.”

Mr Holmes, who has so far applied to two schools for his 20-month-old daughter, would like a UAE-wide system allowing all parents to apply for places at the same time, selecting up to three options.

“If I don’t get the best school, then I could have option two or three but I shouldn’t be going down to option four, five or six and that’s the situation we’re in,” he adds.

Mr Price warns that parents face similar issues at secondary level where schools offer places on different days.

At secondary level, parents in Dubai are not only expected to stump up a Dh500 registration fee but also a non-refundable percentage of the first term’s fees once they are offered a place, it can leave them thousands out of pocket.

“Certain high schools offer places in November so I’ll pay Dh4,000 but that’s not my first choice, it’s my safety net,” Mr Price explains. “The next school offers me a place in January, so that’s another Dh4,000 but the school I really want is going to offer me in February. If I get that place, I’ve lost Dh8,000. I’ve spoken to a few heads in high schools and asked why they can’t [all] offer at the same time.”

With no plan to overhaul the system, what is the solution for parents right now?

The experts suggest widening the net of the schools parents apply for. With 11 outstanding schools in Dubai and more than 50 rated good, Mr Price says parents should not just read the label given to a school but get the full authority report.

“Every one of those ‘good’ schools has outstanding in their report. Don’t just go on what they say from a three-day inspection,” he says. When the inspectors come in, they have criteria they are evaluating against and a lot of those areas are not important to every parent so the uniformity is there for you to access.”

Parents applying for big school groups can also ask the managing company what other options they have.

“At Taaleem, our admissions officers work together. If you don’t have a place in one, we can move that application to another and we will recommend schools we know of that are outside our group,” says Mr Pierrepont.

There is also the school transfer window to consider. In a similar concept to the premier league, parents can enrol their child in one school and if a place then becomes available in their favourite establishment before the end of January, they are allowed to switch.

Once that deadline is passed, no more changes can happen – a process that then gives priority to new expats arriving in the UAE.

“If an executive with three kids arrives in April and at the same time another family leave, I can’t touch my waiting list because they are all in other schools so his three kids can walk in tomorrow,” says Mr Price.

For now it seems there is no easy answer to the enrolment lottery.

At Power Tutoring, the team not only educate the newly arrived who cannot secure a school place but also those who have been expelled or cannot pass the entrance test because they do not speak English.

“One girl failed the Repton entrance test three times because her English was not up to scratch. We were her school from 8am to 2pm every day and brought her up three year levels in four months until she finally passed,” says Mr Power. “We have another pupil who has been excluded from school and his parents are struggling to get him into another. There are lots of children like this who fall under the radar and end up with nowhere to go.”

By Alice Haines – The National [email protected]