Beyond School Fees – the Real Cost of an Education in the UAE. A Guide for Parents.
Beyond School Fees – the Real Cost of an Education in the UAE. A Guide for Parents.
A SchoolsCompared.com Special Report, January 2020, by Jane Anne Talbot.
The UAE is a country of constant reinvention, evolution and innovation.
It is a country of grand opportunities, with enormous international appeal, resulting in a truly global and diverse expat community.
And a major factor that draws newcomers (aside from the year round sunshine and beautiful sandy beaches) are the potential financial benefits of being a resident in one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. In a country where all that glitters is usually gold, the possibilities to earn a substantial wage, in a (mostly) tax free oasis means the potential for living a lavish lifestyle, while saving significant amounts.
But, there is always a ‘but’.
The cost of living in the UAE is high.
At first glance a remuneration package can seem sizeable. However, there are substantial expenses that must be considered to ensure that what is going out does not exceed what is coming in.
And the biggest drain on a salary is rent, followed, very closely, by school fees.
School Fees and the Financial Challenges of Being a Parent in the UAE – Why Something had to Give
For over a decade, until 2017-18, school fees in the Emirates steadily increased. The pain for parents doubled, however, because this aligned with the number of companies that included school fees in the remuneration packages for employees declining. The reality of life for parents in Dubai today is that assistance with school fees has become a rare privilege reserved for senior management – and only then within select industries.
The UAE government has responded. Clearly, the impact of both of these on family income of those living in the UAE has been, in many cases, severe. Although no research has been published to date, it is likley to that this has also had an impact on the demographic of those coming to the UAE to live, work or establish a business. No one wants a situation in which the UAE becomes simply unaffordable for families.
Looking to forge a more sustainable future, the Dubai Executive Council has taken steps to diversify the UAE economy away from oil dependency toward alternative commerce, with education defined as a core industry. This has resulted, particularly in the last five years, in a plethora of new schools popping up all over the Emirates. This has, without question, resulted in help for parents. This comes in the shape of two developments:
- Parents now have real choice – and from a range of very high quality schools across a range of fees.
- Competition has now driven down the cost of an education in the UAE – an increasing number of schools have reduced fees, year-on-year, in order to both retain and attract students.
For the first time, parents are now choosing to move their children to alternative schools to save on fees. Choice, the high quality of schools and competition has probably been the most powerful lever of help for parents battling declining disposable income of all.
The Dubai Executive Council too directly correlates school fee increases or decreases with KHDA inspection results in another clear move to support parents and stop schools cutting costs or the quality of education provided to children.
The number of schools, in an effort to encourage enrolments, now offering reductions for newly registering families and sibling discounts is rising. Our own survey in January 2020 found that many schools are for the first time actively considering reducing fees for the first time.
Schools have also responded to help parents.
- Many schools now offer flexible payment plans to relieve some of the financial pressures that come with having to pay an annual fee in a single, bank-balance bashing instalment.
- A number of finance providers have also launched credit card products, some including a percentage of fee reduction and additional benefits.
- Increasing numbers of schools are offering scholarships – although this is not as widespread as we believe it should be.
What we have not seen from schools are advertised bursaries to help struggling families. We do know, however, from our off-the-record conversations with schools that many schools in practice do help families, and particularly when children are at their schools and parents have faced a change in circumstances. They just do not wish this to be publicised. Our advice is always to speak with your school if you are struggling.
So where does this leave us as parents?
Even today, private school fees, whilst varying according to the curriculum, grade, offer and reputation of schools, still fall between AED 40,000 for Foundation stage per year, per child and up to and beyond AED 100,000 per child, per year for secondary education.
The annual school fee average in Dubai is currently AED 64,000 per child. With no assistance from employers this remains a struggle for the majority of families – and particularly so if they have more than one child.
A comprehensive list of Dubai school fees for 2019/2020 can be found here.
School fees – the hidden costs
But school fees aren’t the only expense that a parent must factor in when weighing up the financial reality of the cost of education on the UAE.
There are other, hidden extras. Some are compulsory requirements and some are social expectations, but both significantly increase the financial load.
When selecting a school for our children, it is natural to choose the best possible option that the available budget can stretch to.
But not factoring in the following added costs can mean stretching the finances too thin.
From the top of the head with scrunches and hats, to the soles of the feet with logo embossed socks: school uniforms are a compulsory extra expense. Swimming gear and P.E kits, lunch bags, book bags and pencil cases all add up. The rate at which young children lose their belongings and/or outgrow them means that purchasing replacements is a year-round expense. We estimate that parents must allow for at least AED 1500 per child, per year.
Many schools have uniform swap shops run and managed by parents to help to keep costs down, so if the garments survive art class and the sand pit then they make for good hand-me-downs.
The vast majority of schools in the UAE charge an admissions fee that must be paid along with the application documents (there is also usually an assessment of the applicant too) that is non refundable even if the child does not get offered a place.
We estimate that parents must allow for at least AED500 for each school application. For some schools this can treble. Worse, most parents apply to more than one school.
Schools in the UAE do not operate a catchment system so parents are free to choose any school from any part of the UAE. Practically, however, with traffic congestion and the pressures of life, we would always recommend trying to choose a school within a 20-minute commute. The pressures on parents multiply with children at different schools…..
Most schools do offer a bus transport system, often but not always managed by a third party company, at an extra cost. The fee varies from school to school.
We estimate that parents must allow at least AED 4000 per child, per term to meet the cost.
Alternatively, many families in the UAE have live in maids to help around the house and with childcare.
To cover the costs of annual flight(s), sponsorship and wages for a maid, we estimate that parents must allow AED 32,000 per annum. Maids can then manage the school drop offs and pick-ups. Sourcing a maid that can drive is, however, sometimes difficult.
Finally, some parents use taxi/Uber rides or hire a driver. The cost of taxis, twice a day, five times a week, very quickly adds up.
We estimate that parents will need to allow for at least AED 4,000 per month to hire a driver – and demand for these during school drop-off and collection hours often outstrips supply.
In every case, published school fees simply do not reflect the real costs of an education in the UAE.
Rolling drop-off and pick up times vary for different grades within schools to spread out traffic congestion. This is a useful idea but it can cause issues for families with a number of children across different grades. Often, working parents need childcare for the few hours between school finishing and clocking off from work.
Schools do accommodate convenient drop-off and pick up times with breakfast clubs, sibling clubs and after school care clubs – but at a cost.
Again, the amount varies depending on the facility, but parents can expect to pay a minimum of AED 1000 per term, per child.
Every child looks forward to the excitement of school trips and the destinations on offer from schools in the UAE can be pretty spectacular.
Skiing holidays in the French Alps, camping adventures in Mauritius and cultural excursions to Moscow all hit the purse hard. The pressure to keep up with the Joneses can be intense.
Most schools offer a local day trip each term as well. Examples include visits to the Burj Khalifa or the Butterfly Park. Although significantly cheaper, these still present parents with an average bill of AED 150 per trip.
The quality of the school photos in the UAE is very high – but so is the cost.
Two professional school pictures will set a family back by around AED 300 per child.
Kirsten has lived in the UAE for 18 years and is one of many parents who find the price of school photos excessive:
“My son is 9 years old and in the last 5 years of schooling I have not purchased his school photos. It is a real shame because I would love to have professional pictures as mementoes of his elementary school years, but with other financial priorities, they are just not affordable.”
School Charity Drives
Giving generously to charitable causes is an important part of the UAE culture and broader whole child development.
All schools endeavour to run charity drives.
There aren’t many families that would begrudge giving a few fils to a charitable cause and the life lesson of generosity toward those less fortunate is an important one.
But it is another expense to factor into the budget. Whilst the amount is an entirely personal choice – in premium fee schools the pressure can mount to make contributions sizeable.
After School Activities
As parents we want to provide our children with opportunities and experiences that open doors to a prosperous future – and we know that a well-rounded education is about more than schooling alone.
There are endless and eclectic after school activities on offer to the UAE’s lucky students, from surfing to ice-skating, horse riding and snow boarding.
We estimate, however, that parents should allow a minimum of around AED 1000 per term to pay for these (this not including the equipment which adds to the up front costs).
Carol De Papa has three daughters of elementary age who are all enrolled in one of Dubai’s impressive dance academies.
“My daughters love to dance but between costumes, shows, foot wear and exam fees we are paying around AED 30000 a year for all three children.
We feel that we have no choice but to meet the high costs so that we can supplement our girl’s education with life skills that come from team activities and individual competition.
Our money, among other things, is keeping them physically fit while teaching them how to lose with dignity and how to win with grace. It is teaching them the importance of commitment, perseverance and responsibility.
It is another necessary expense that we have to cover on top of school fees.”
Most schools offer free, teacher led extra curricular activities, such as choir, cooking classes and drama. However, these are in high demand and with limited spaces. Some parents too feel that inevitably, in comparison with the paid activities, the quality of these classes is lower.
Learning Enhancement Technology
Almost all schools have BYOD programmes established to meet the ever-increasing use of technology in our everyday lives and to prepare our children early for their future careers. The pressure to meet the financial obligation of modern technology is real for parents who do not want their children to miss out on vital learning or to stand out as the ‘Have Nots’.
Mariam is a mum of two from Egypt who feels that the hidden extra of personal devices makes the true cost of schooling misleading for parents who have enrolled their children into schools at the top end of their budget.
“Our school recently sent out a memo to parents asking them to buy a Tablet and highlighting all of the great benefits the children gain from using BYODs at school. But with two children my first reaction was one of dread. Dread about finding the money to buy two devises and stress with the knowledge that very young children are pretty good at losing their belongings. As much as we would love to offer our children endless resources, we don’t have endless pockets.
These add-ons need to be included in the schools fees so that parents can accurately apply to schools that fit their budget without surprise hidden costs.”
School plays, book fairs, international fairs, winter holiday celebrations, gifts for the teachers and birthday presents for around 28 classmates are all great community building affairs that support the education of our children. There are too many ad-hoc factors and the element of personal discretion to quantify an exact cost of all of the little extras, but they certainly add up.
The Bottom Line Costs of an Education in the UAE. The SchoolsCompared.com Verdict 2020.
Schools in the UAE are amongst some of the best in the world. This is the real positive here.
The Government’s watchful guidance too, means that healthy competition is trying to protect parents. Quality is remaining high and school fees are, currently, moving downwards not upwards.
As the number of schools in the Emirates increases, competition to attract and retain students has lead some schools to freeze their fee rates and to take further steps to limit the added extras that put parents under financial strain.
Many of the best schools want to help parents.
Graham Beale, the executive principle of Arcadia School Dubai says that they have taken risks to save their parents stress.
“We were able to provide a longer school day and offered an after-school programme. We brought school activities into our school day and started enriching activities, while ensuring parents did not to pay for these. We had to be innovative and do unique things to make parents come to us.”
There are a few ways that parents can try to keep costs down, such as buying second hand uniforms, second hand devices, only registering their children for the day trips, enrolling in the free after school activities, car pooling, making packed lunches and taking their own annual school photos. However, eliminating the added extras entirely is simply not possible.
Conditions are slowly changing in parent’s financial favour. However, factoring in the potential hidden costs into the budget and making informed choices will help to avoid costly surprises that can turn an expat wonderland into a financial quagmire.
There are risks too for our children’s education. Schools have some room to cut costs – but there is a limit. At some point, their ability to meet the needs of children will have to take a hit.
Schools can only do so much.
Ultimately, we need employers to recognise this – and salaries do need to rise.
In the meantime, parents should not, or ever, feel alone in their struggles with budgets and the pressures of school fees.
Our final advice is always speak with your school, without shame, if you are facing difficulties. You are not alone.
And you may well be surprised at the kindness shown by schools to parents facing genuine difficulties. We cannot share our stories for reasons of confidentiality – but we do know that the best schools always place their enrolled children and students first – and that means supporting families when they need it most.
If you have a ground-breaking story in UAE education, please mail the SchoolsCompared.com News Desk 24/7 at [email protected]
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