UAE school heads are finding their work increasingly monitored by government bodies. But for parents, the many recent changes these regulators have implemented are welcomed as an effort to boost standards and exert pressure on schools to put children before profit.

The UAE has the largest number of international schools in the world, with 439 schools generating US $2.5 bn (AED 9.2bn) a year in fees, according to a new report by the International School Consultancy Group.

The number of schools is expected to rise further as demand increases, especially in Dubai, which has the highest concentration of international schools.

All these schools come under the watchful eye of the regulatory bodies in their respective emirates:

  • The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai deals with the emirate’s 141 private schools, as well as universities and some nurseries. The Ministry of Education oversees its public schools.
  • In the capital, Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) keeps the heads of its 185 private schools and 296 public schools under scrutiny, in the three regions that make up the emirate: Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia.
  • In Sharjah, the Sharjah Educational Zone (SEZ) oversees its 96 private schools and 85 public schools.

All come under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education, whose authority takes precedence. For example, the 2014 – 2015 term time calendar released by ADEC was superseded by the term dates released by the Ministry of Education, which were then applied to all schools in the UAE.

The National Agenda was announced earlier this year, which states the government’s target that, by 2021, the UAE will be among the 15 highest performing countries in the world in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), and the 20 highest performing countries in PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The regulatory arms of the government are all now busy working towards implementing these targets.

In all three emirates, private schools must seek approval from their regulatory bodies each year in order to raise tuition fees.

Abu Dhabi’s ADEC

In Abu Dhabi, more stress is being put on private schools to improve the quality and quantity of their Arabic teaching, which is a key issue for the capital’s private schools. In the most recent ADEC parent satisfaction survey, the lowest satisfaction level was recorded with Arabic (57.4 percent).

No school in the emirate has ever attained an A1 or ‘excellent’ level in their inspections, which is due, in part, to them failing to meet the required standards of Arabic provision. ADEC rates in three bands – high performing (A band, grades 1-3), satisfactory/ improving (B band, grades 4-5), and in need of significant improvement (C band, grades 6-8) – on’s Abu Dhabi schools comparison, you can search for ‘good authority rating’ only, which will return only high performing grades, i.e. A1-A3 .

Newly opened private schools in the emirate, such as Cranleigh and Repton College, will be keen to impress ADEC inspectors this year, to achieve the prized status of being Abu Dhabi’s first ever ‘outstanding’ school.

ADEC will soon have 18 more schools, which are currently being designed or are under construction, under its remit. But ADEC has been shutting down schools as well as sanctioning new ones; four villa schools have recently been closed down as part of a plan to relocate students into purpose-built school buildings. ADEC is working to a deadline of shutting down all Abu Dhabi’s 18 remaining villa schools by summer 2015.

Dubai’s KHDA

KHDA in Dubai awarded ‘outstanding’ status to 12 percent of Dubai’s schools in 2013 – 2014. King’s School has been granted ‘outstanding’ status every year since inspections began six years ago. The KHDA uses four ratings: outstanding, good, acceptable and unsatisfactory – you can compare schools in Dubai that only fall into the top two brackets using the ‘good authority rating’ filter.

King’s School’s press spokesperson said: “The main purpose of KHDA is annual inspection and reports, to make the educational system transparent for parents. The criteria set for tuition fee increases in Dubai depend on whether the school is profit-making, non-profit-making or an embassy school.”

As well as relying on inspection reports to make the call, education chiefs in Dubai look at the ‘education cost index’ that the Dubai Statistics Center releases every January, which assesses how expensive it is to run a school. The fees went up this year, in line with a sharp jump in rental prices in Dubai, although they had stayed the same for the previous two years.

KHDA is also spearheading new initiatives, in this case to improve parent-school relations. School heads and parents sign a legally binding ‘parent-school contract’ – in other words, that the school and parents should follow set guidelines. In the 2014-15 academic year, 24 schools will take part in the program, involving a total of 38,624 students.

Amal Bel Hasa, Chief of Compliance and Resolution Commission at KHDA, said: “The introduction of the Parent-School Contract program has been very successful.

“The main challenge has been getting all parents to sign the contract on time. The contract is an essential tool for developing constructive and co-operative relationships between schools and parents. It fully outlines the expectations and responsibilities of both parties, protects their rights, and serves as a reference guide for solving any misunderstandings that may arise. KHDA will always refer to the contract for its decision-making.”

Sharjah’s SEZ

In Sharjah, the SEZ also has its own set of criteria that schools must adhere to in order to increase their fees. There are two committees that base their assessments on staff qualifications and salaries, the quality of education, community services and the condition of the buildings.

Mohammed Esmail Al Zarouni, the head of schools and institutes licensing at the SEZ, said there has to be one toilet for every 30 students, separate buildings for boys and girls, a well-equipped laboratory, a library with sufficient books and a school clinic with either a resident or visiting doctor.

Hessah Al Khaja, the Zone’s Head of Private Education, added: “A school should score at least 70 percent on all of these to be eligible to increase fees.”

This year, 60 out of 96 private schools in Sharjah were granted tuition fee hikes of up to five percent.

As well as regularly inspecting schools, the SEZ renews licenses, ensures compulsory Arabic for all students and deals with funding issues.

The Ruler of Sharjah, HH Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, takes a personal interest in education and holds doctorates in philosophy from two UK universities. In 2012, he ordered Sharjah schools to emulate the emirate’s model schools. As part of this policy, a mentoring program between Emirati public school teachers and their peers from the Victoria International School of Sharjah (which is deemed to be a model school) was launched last year.

Some 70 Emirati teachers and 50 principals from government primary schools were mentored by VISS staff, and the program was extended this year to include about 30 teachers and 20 principals from government secondary schools.