The future of education lies in private schooling, according to the director general of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
At an education forum yesterday, Dr Abdulla Al Karam said private schools were more efficient, provided better customer service and distributed the cost of reform across the system rather than centralising it with government.
"The sheer scale of investment required to make reform in public education work makes it a very big challenge," he said. "Additionally, recruiting teachers and training them is a strain."
There was a 22 per cent growth in the enrolment of pupils at private schools between 2008 and 2011, according to education adviser Parthenon Group, which presented a paper at the forum. State schools recorded a 2 per cent drop.
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which oversees private schools in Dubai, says 58 per cent of Emirati pupils pay to attend private schools rather than attend free state schools.
"Private schools are more customer-focused than the Government sector," said Dr Al Karam, adding that the trend of moving towards private schooling would not change "unless something extraordinary happens".
The trend towards private schools imitates a similar movement in other emerging countries. Unesco figures from a 2008 report that has tracked schooling trends for 13 years showed a 58 per cent increase in private school enrolments around the world, and only a 10 per cent growth in public schools.
The private sector growth was most prominent in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
Global consulting firm Booz & Co said it expects a 54 per cent increase in private school enrolment in Dubai and Abu Dhabi by 2020, and projects the market value of private education will triple in size to reach between US$2.84billion (Dh10.2bn) and $3.87bn by that time.
Dr Karam believes this proves private education is working. "There are so many good things going on in the private sector," he said. "Although good education is also dependent on the role the parents take and innovation in teaching and learning."
The Achille's heel of Government schools, Dr Al Karam said, is their centralised nature. "For example, distributing 6 million books to all the government schools and ensuring they receive them before the start of the year is a challenge," he said.
The path to a working school model, according to Dr Al Karam, is a focus on creating transparency and making schools accountable. "We incentivise school and focus on being good regulators," he said.
While state schools in the capital have seen a reversal of private school migration trend since the roll-out of their New School Model, they operate on a separate and more generous budget to the rest of the nation.
In 2011, the education ministry had a budget of Dh4.6bn with which to reform all state schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates. It was a cut of 36 per cent from Dh7.2bn in the previous year.
The 2012 budget, which is pending approval, will see an increase in education spending to Dh8.2bn, but a large portion has been allotted to higher education.
Sonia Ben Jaafar, director of EduEval Educational Services, agreed that private schools were the way forward but said authorities needed to ensure they were regulated well. "Education here, unlike in other parts of the world, is for-profit and that is a very different model," she said.
Parthenon's report described the premium international schools market in the UAE as one of the largest in the world with one of the highest price points. The highest-priced school in the UAE is Repton, a branch of a 450-year-old UK school with annual fees between Dh42,500 and Dh80,000.
Amit Garga, the senior principal at Parthenon, said this was because many expatriates were not price sensitive. "The price points at schools in the UAE being higher than any other emerging market because children's school allowance is part of the company pay packages," he said.
But in an emirate where 3,800 expatriate children require schooling each year, the promise of financial return must be handled responsibly, says Ziad Assam, chief executive of education group Taaleem. "We cannot work as profiteers to create future opportunities," he said. "You have to build schools that are connected to the community."