DOHA: The fast-growing expatriate population of Qatar has increased demand for private schools, leading to long waiting lists for enrolment and a severe space crunch in many existing schools.
The situation has forced some community schools to stop enrolment even before they started it, while others are exploring the possibility of expansion to meet an expected rush in the next academic year.
School sources say that the closure of several kindergartens in recent years and a ceiling imposed by the Supreme Education Council (SEC) on the number of students allowed in a classroom have boosted demand and, at the same time, reduced the capacity of schools to accommodate more students.
A look at the private schools in the country shows that their growth has not kept pace with the massive increase in the expatriate population. According to data released by the SEC, there are 130 private schools in Qatar and 70 private kindergartens.
These schools have been broadly classified into international schools, mostly following British or American curricula, Arab private schools, and community schools catering to different expatriate communities.
The number of international schools has been put at 66 and the remaining 64 are Arab/Asian private/community schools. International schools have students from many countries, including Qataris, while the community schools give priority to students from their community.
Despite a huge influx of foreign workers from several South Asian countries in recent years, the number of schools catering to this segment of the expatriate population has not crossed 20, which partly explains the crisis they are facing.
The nearly a dozen Indian schools that accommodate the largest number of students are perhaps worst hit by the space crunch. These schools are said to have reached a “saturation point” as far as capacity is concerned, while recently opened schools have very few seats for new students.
At least one Indian school – Birla Public School -- has put up a big notice board in front of its purpose-built premises in Mesaimeer saying, “admission closed for all classes.”
The early announcement has shocked many parents, since Indian schools usually start enrolment in March, ahead of their new academic year, which begins in April. School principal A K Srivastava says the problem has not cropped up all of a sudden.
“Several private kindergartens were closed down in recent years following strict rules imposed by the authorities, which has led to a steady rise in demand for admissions in existing schools, especially in lower classes. The SEC rule restricting the number of students in a class to 30 has also forced schools to limit admissions,” said Srivastava.
He said a lasting solution would be opening of more Indian schools.
“We understand that at least three new schools will be opening in the near future,” he added.
Syed Shoukath Ali, principal of Ideal Indian School, says there is hardly any vacancy in the school, especially in the higher classes.
“We have a few seats in the KG classes but none in the higher grades. Just today a parent told me he would bring his family from India only if I assured seats for his children, but I am totally helpless,” said Ali.
He pointed out that a new software introduced by the SEC has made it impossible to enrol more than 30 students in a class since the school has to register every student through the SEC website.
Asna Nafees, principal of DPS-Modern Indian School, which recently shifted to new premises in Al Wakra, said the school had about 4,500 students and could accommodate another 500 in the forthcoming academic year.
“The SEC should either facilitate opening of new schools or relax rules related to class strength until the schools find alternatives,” said Nafees, adding that “thirty students in a class is an ideal number and we are strictly following it.”
Some parents are, however, critical of these schools for what they call a failure to anticipate the situation and develop their facilities.
“Instead of investing in infrastructure, most schools had been relying on portakabins to accommodate new students until the SEC imposed a blanket ban on such structures. Now they are not finding space to expand further, and building new premises will take time,” said an Indian parent, adding that ultimately families were the losers.
The problem is apparently not so severe for Pakistani schools, apparently due to the relatively low number of Pakistani expatriates in the country.
“We will start admissions only in March, and we have vacancies in most classes. However, the number of new students is growing every year,” said Noor Ahmed, a senior official of Pak Shama School.
Filipino schools are also exceptions. “We have very limited space for new students. There are more than 300 students in the waiting list this year,” said an official of Philippine School Doha, the largest Filipino school in Qatar with more than 2,800 students on its rolls.
The Sri Lankan community has only one school in Qatar functioning under the Sri Lankan embassy and has problems with the curriculum, besides a shortage of seats.
The Stafford Sri Lankan School Doha (SSLSD) offers education from Lower Reception to GCSE Advanced Level and prepares students for the IGSCE and GCE exams under the British National Curriculum.
The school, with about 1,000 students on its rolls, introduced the Sri Lankan curriculum only last year. Students in grade nine can choose to study either the Sri Lankan curriculum or to continue with the British curriculum.
However, parents of students at the senior secondary level say they are facing many challenges because they were forced to educate their children under the British Curriculum.
To enter a university in Sri Lanka, the students have to pass General Certificate of Education advanced-level exams, completing grades 12 and 13 at school.
Only three percent of the students in foreign countries are given a place in a university in Sri Lanka. The only alternative for others is to go to a university abroad, as Sri Lanka does not have private universities.
“When we came here we had no option but to send our children to the Sri Lankan school. Now we are facing a problem as one child is in Grade 12 and we have to send her back to Sri Lanka, and she has to study the local curriculum so she will be able to enter a university,” said a father of two girls studying at SSLSD.
“It’s too expensive for us to send children to foreign universities,” he said.
Due to a shortage of places at the Sri Lankan school, many Sri Lankan students are studying in international schools or other Asian community schools.
“There is need for more Sri Lankan schools in Qatar, but unfortunately the community members are not taking any initiative to invest in this sector” lamented another Sri Lankan parent.
Several international schools are preparing to open new branches. Lycee Voltaire, the French school officially inaugurated in 2008, set up its second branch last year and is planning to open a third one next year.
The school has more than 1,000 students enrolled in the two branches. Teaching is done in French, Arabic and English.
“Every year we get more new students, and this academic year alone 160 children were admitted to the kindergarten,” said Olivier Porretti, Director, Primary Section, Lycee Voltaire.
“Because of the increasing student population we need a new campus for the secondary school,” he added.
About 40 percent of the students are Qataris, 20 percent French and the rest are of other nationalities.
“Qataris show a great interest in learning French,” said Porretti, explaining the reason behind many Qatari students seeking admission at Lycee Voltaire.
American School Doha and Newton International Schools are also expanding their facilities due to a huge rush for admissions every year, it is learnt. The number of Qatari students seeking admission in international schools has grown after the introduction of the Education Voucher programme by the SEC, which allows Qatari students to join select private schools with state support.
Several parents complain that uncertainty about securing a place in a school is costing them heavily. They apply to several schools and most of them put their children on a waiting list. An application form at the international schools cost between QR200 and QR500.
“I was lucky enough to get admission for my son last year in the kindergarten. But many of my friends still have their children on waiting lists. If one applies to many schools one has to spend more just for the application while not being sure of getting admission,” said a mother of two children.
A parent of children going to a British school said, “Some schools keep accepting applications even though their classes are full. Schools should stop this practice so that parents do not have false hopes about that particular school.”