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Education Business Group, a network of private school operators, has sought immediate support from the government to overcome the operational challenges faced by private schools in the UAE and to direct the opening of schools for the new term in September.

At a virtual press briefing hosted by Education Business Group, which represents over 100 private school operators in Dubai, members underlined the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their operations, but also reiterated their commitment to providing quality education to all children in a safe and healthy environment. They said it was important to welcome students back to schools in September for their all-round well-being and development.

Attendees at the event included: Alan Williamson, CEO, Taaleem; David Cook, Headmaster, Repton School; Sir Christopher Stone, Global Chief Education Officer, GEMS Education; Poonam Bhojani, CEO, Innoventures Education; Ajay Mankani, Co-founder Fortes Education; Amol Vaidya, Director of Operations, Global Indian School; Amit Kothari, Executive Director, Interstar Advisory Services and Tony Elzoghbi, Board Member, Kent College.

Kalthoom Ali Salem, Committee Member, Education Business Group, who moderated the session, said: “The foremost commitment of the Group is to support students, parents and the community by providing quality education. We responded swiftly to the closing of schools following the COVID-19 lockdown by introducing remote learning provision. The Group members also supported families impacted by the crisis through fee discounts and other measures. But non-payment of fees by students, the provision of discounts, and uncertainties regarding new enrolments and variable operational costs are putting tremendous pressure on schools that can affect operational continuity.”

The group members have communicated formally to the Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Education, Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry and different regulatory authorities across the United Arab Emirates, sharing their feedback on the current situation and offering suggestions on the support required to ensure sustainable operations.

The members said declining revenues could affect the ability of private school operators to meet their responsibilities including staff payments, which if impacted adversely, can lead to learning loss. The private education sector has revenues over AED 8.5 billion in Dubai and has also played a key role in positioning the city as a global hub of the knowledge economy, attracting talent, and adding to the emirate’s reputation as a business and lifestyle destination. The Private K-12 education sector in Dubai employs 20,000 teachers who provide quality education to over 2,90,000 students. The consistent excellence of the private K-12 (FS1 – Y13) education sector has made Dubai, and the UAE, one of the most attractive destinations for global talent, and has been the foundations of a robust and diversified economy.

The members reiterated that private schools are ready to welcome students and staff back to the school learning environment in September, with robust safety precautions to be followed. They said that while private schools have been delivering a truly world-class remote learning programme, e-learning has its limitations in facilitating the holistic development of children. For the well-rounded development of students, it is important to build social skills, which calls for peer-to-peer interaction. The members also cited the flexibility provided to educational providers in other global markets, such as blended learning, that have enabled private schools to ensure the smooth returns to schools for students.

Allan Williamson, CEO, Taaleem, said: “It is imperative that schools open not only from an academic perspective but also from a social perceptive. The education sector has proved its ability to make rapid decisions; we saw that when we transformed in a week to an eLearning environment; we are ready again to transform for the new norm. No matter how fantastic our efforts were in remote learning, our students are missing their science labs, sports fields, art studios… and if the UAE has to meet the goals of its national agenda, we need to open the schools to ensure that students do not miss out on their all-round development.”

Ajay Mankani, Cofounder Fortes Holding and Fortes Education, said: “The education sector is one of the key drivers of sustained economic growth in the UAE and a fundamental pillar of the social infrastructure. We, directly and indirectly, support SMEs, including transport companies, facility managers, sports sector etc. The sector has also played a key role in positioning the UAE as a destination for attracting global talents. We believe that by opening schools in September, the country can set a benchmark that other emerging markets can emulate to deliver high-quality private education.”

Sir Christopher Stone, Global Chief Education Officer, GEMS Education, added: “It is our primary responsibility that our children are safe and happy. Typically, schools report a non-attendance of 5% per annum; as schools open across the world, we see slightly higher levels of non-attendance, as parents choose to keep their children at home for various reasons. What we assure is a safe school environment, and ultimately, it is parents who will make the decision. While what we have achieved through remote learning is amazing, it is important for children to return to schools as different children learn in different ways; some have special education needs, some learn by doing things through practical work, some prefer teamwork, and we must take these into consideration.”

Other steps that the Group recommends to help address current challenges are the creation of an education sector liquidity fund to provide non-collateral interest-free loans or grants to cover the expected loss of fee revenue collection, as well as rental breaks from March to August 2020, and the option to place unutilised staff on unpaid leave until the reopening of schools.