Field-based research on the international schools market in the Middle East is led by Sheena Maerevoet who is based in Dubai. Sheena shares an update here:
The demand for international school places remains steady although a few schools are reporting lower than average admission enquiries for the coming academic year.
Well-established international schools with an excellent reputation are maintaining their enrolment numbers and are in high demand. This includes mid-fee international schools that cater for local Qataris and Arab expatriates by providing segregation from Grade 4 along with international curriculum and examinations that offer a gateway to Western universities.
Qatar has a voucher scheme for its local families which can be used towards international school fees if the school has been accredited by SEC (Qatar’s Supreme Education Council). This was established to enable Qatari parents to enhance their child’s education by sending them to private schools with government financial aid. As a result, many international schools report that demand from local families is high.
The demand by expatriate families is changing as their benefits packages are adapting. Gone are the days when companies would pay 100% of fees at whatever school a family wished to send their child to. Most companies now offer a lump sum that can be used towards housing and schooling which allows families their own choice of school. Some schools are adapting their fees to meet the needs of this wider market.
There is much competition amongst international schools in Qatar, and the potential for growth is very much determined by opening the right school in the right place that meets a specific niche within the market. Despite this, new schools are opening and others are in development.
The impact of the oil crisis has meant a decline in expatriates and, as a result, some schools have experienced a difficult few years. However, with the industry beginning to strengthen and thus the economy improving, applications at most international schools have stabilised and some are experiencing an increase in demand. As in the rest of the Middle East, benefits packages for expatriates have been severely trimmed and so most demand is at mid-market international schools.
Omanis are now increasingly selecting international schools for their children. However, in a country where average salaries are relatively low, this means demand remains focused at the very affordable schools.
Kuwaiti families consider private school for their child a sign of success and international schools even more so; offering the prospect of Western higher education and international careers. Outstanding students can be rewarded by generous government scholarships to university, and international schools offer increased likelihood of such success.
Government objectives to boost the national birth rate by offering per-child benefits should result in a population rise. More schools are opening, but some feel the market for premium international schools is close to saturation, especially as several thousand jobs have been promised exclusively to Kuwaitis which is freezing out many expatriates.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE continues to take a battering from the oil industry decline. Many expatriates are leaving. Some people are reporting that as two families enter Dubai, ten are departing. The outgoing expats are mostly Westerners, many with families. Those incoming tend to be skilled Arab and Indian expatriates who want international schools with affordable fees.
Some premium international schools, those with the best reputations, remain at full capacity with waiting lists. Most of the newer schools, however, are struggling and using a range of offerings to attract new admissions, such as free school uniforms. Even with the recent annual inspection results now published, which allow fee increases based on performance standards, several international schools have frozen their fees for the coming academic year.
An increasing number of local families, many who are in a position to afford the fees, are seeking out the international school places that are becoming available as expatriates depart. However, there are strict requirements on tracking individual assessment and learning progress of local Emirati children which adds significant pressure to teachers. For some schools, this means that local admissions may be discouraged as a result.
Still, international schools continue to open but are responding to the demand in the lower fee range. GEMS Founders School Al Mizhar is one such school, opening in the heart of Dubai this September (2018)
More intelligence, data, trends and advice about developing, operating, or working with international schools in the Middle East are available from ISC Research