Reining in private schools

February 02, 2013 - 2:02:17 am

Talk of having a new law in place for private schools that have mushroomed all over the country with increasing student intake, has been going on for more than two years now, and it is expected that it might eventually see the light of day sooner rather than later.

The State Cabinet, at its weekly meeting last Wednesday, discussed a communication from the Minister of Education and Higher Education who is also ex-officio secretary general of the Supreme Education Council (SEC) regarding the above draft law.

The private schools’ office at the SEC, the education sector regulator formed a decade ago to introduce grassroots-level educational reform in the country, had announced in October 2010 that a law was being drafted by a special committee.

It is time an extensive law for private schools is brought into force since the existing legislation was passed 33 years ago, in 1980, say education sector sources.

The minister of education and higher education had issued a ministerial decision (Number 8) in 2009 empowering the SEC to apply its rules and regulations to private schools until a new law regulating these schools was passed.

So the law of 1980 continues to be in force, but the minister gave the SEC the authority to make ‘adjustments’ in the legislation and apply its terms and conditions of licensing and other rules regarding educational standards, curriculum, buildings and qualifications of the teaching staff.

The new law is likely to focus on every aspect of private schools that, barring the community schools run by the embassies of the countries concerned, many parents claim are notorious for charging high fees.

Some are also known for fining erring students, which many parents swear is an excuse to mobilise funds. 

The government recently barred private schools from forcing students to buy school uniforms from them.

Local Arabic daily Al Sharq conducted an online survey in March 2011 covering a sample of 1,500 people — apparently all parents — and the majority (64 percent) of them said they were dissatisfied with private schools, citing ‘exorbitant fee and lack of quality education’ as major reasons. “They are like government schools except that they are very expensive,” Al Sharq had quoted some respondents as saying about the mushrooming private schools.

A new law is indeed needed to regulate private schools as many of its provisions have lost relevance due to the changes that have taken place in the country over the past 33 years, with the population having considerably multiplied ever since. 

One example of how the law has become redundant is that it doesn’t allow private schools to have co-education beyond nursery and kindergarten (KG) levels except with special permission from the education minister.

Sources swear the rule wasn’t followed particularly by international schools with western curriculum even before the SEC came into being and given the authority to regulate private schools.

A local social networking site speculated last September that there were as many as 26 schools in the country that had co-education. “These schools have co-education from KG to high school,” a comment posted on the site said.

An education sector source told this newspaper yesterday, confirming that SEC rules and regulations were in force with regard to private schools, that the entire law (Number 7 of 1980) was ignored.

“So it is a wise step to have a new one in its place that would incorporate today’s realities and give the SEC more supervisory authority,” said the source.

Another instance of how the existing legislation has lost its relevance is that it says that formal requests to open a private school can only be made in the months of April and May, not before or after. Private school owners must be Arabs or they must have a Qatari sponsor, according to the law.

It is not allowed by the law for private schools to admit Qatari students and no financial support is to be given to a school that doesn’t either have Arabic curriculum or teach the history and geography of Qatar. Currently, Qatari students are enrolled in as many as 32 private schools, many with international curriculum, as is evidenced from the fact that the state ‘voucher system’ applies to them.

The government subsidizes the school fees of these students with a financial assistance of up to QR28,000 per student annually. The sums are paid to the concerned schools directly and this is referred to as the voucher system. 

Private schools were monitored by a separate directorate within the education ministry before the SEC came into being to prioritize educational reform, and the directorate was known for its lenience.

“The SEC is very strict (compared to the now-disbanded private education directorate) and carries out close monitoring of private schools,” another source told this newspaper.

Many parents, though, doubt the SEC’s role as a regulator, especially of private schools, and say it is unable to rein in the school managements “that are notorious for increasing fees at their whims and fancy”.

Some of them believe a new law could rein in the managements while many say they are not optimistic.

Sources in community schools that are run by the embassies of the countries concerned, say they are not permitted by the SEC to review their fee slabs upwards and raise them for more than five percent a year. 

“Overhead costs are going up due to the general inflation. A major contributor to rising costs is revised wages for our staff. We need to increase staff salaries literally now and then,” said a source from a community school. “But we can’t raise our fees more than five percent a year.”

The source said private schools are “privileged” and monitoring by the SEC seems to be lax as far as their decisions regarding fee raises are concerned. A community school said it is fighting with the SEC regarding its decision that students must be allowed larger space per capita in the classroom. “This is restricting our student intake. We must accommodate more students,” the source said.

The SEC could not be immediately contacted for comment on the draft law or on the criticisms leveled by parents about most private schools being “commercial centers’ rather than centers of learning”.

The Peninsula