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By MOHAMMED IQBAL
In line with the rapid and fundamental changes taking place in the education sector in Qatar, the Supreme Education Council (SEC) is working on a new law to regulate the growing number of private schools in the country.
A senior official who headed the Council’s Private Schools Office until recently, said the new law will bring in key amendments to the existing law (No. 7), issued in 1980.
A new law has become necessary apparently because the existing one was issued more than 30 years ago. Over this period, the education sector in Qatar has witnessed vast changes, both in the public and private sectors.
Educational reforms were launched a decade ago with the establishment of the SEC as a regulatory body, replacing the erstwhile Ministry of Education.
The SEC was given the authority vide a ministerial decision (minister of education and higher education) in 2009 to regulate the private schools until the new law was passed.
All government schools have already been transformed into Independent schools, which represent an innovative concept in public education in the Middle East.
The number of private schools has grown manifold, reaching more than 185, with nearly 100,000 students on their rolls. These include 71 international schools and 24 community schools which cater to the various expatriate communities in the country.
Reflecting the diversity in the expatriate population in Qatar, private schools follow different curricula and academic systems. Although no comprehensive law has been issued to regulate these schools, the SEC has, from time to time, modified existing rules and formulated new regulations to improve their standards and performance.
The new law is expected to bring all these regulations under a proper legal framework and fill gaps in the existing law.
So far, the private schools have mostly attracted expatriate students, but an increasing number of Qatari children study there now. Their intake of Qatari students is expected to increase with the launch of the education voucher programme by the SEC. This programme allows Qatari students to pursue studies in 32 private schools with state support. Each Qatari student will get up to QR28,000 annually to pay his or her school fees.
The objective of the scheme is to provide more options to Qatari students in quality education, and it has given a major boost to private schools.
In a move to acquaint expatriate students with Qatari history and culture, the SEC has made it mandatory for private schools to teach Qatar’s history, starting from the current academic year. These schools are also required to teach Arabic and Islamic history if they have Qatari students on their rolls or Arab/Muslim students wishing to study these two subjects.
There are also regulations to ensure that all private schools respect the moral and religious values and traditions upheld by the country.
The SEC has not disclosed the details of the law in the making. In a lecture organised by the Consumer Protection Department at the Ministry of Business and Trade last year, Fawziya Al Khater, former head of the SEC’s Private Schools Office, hinted that the law will incorporate most of the new regulations formulated by the SEC for private schools.
Of late, the SEC has become assertive in supervision and monitoring of private schools. Strict rules and conditions are in place for issuing licences to new schools, and existing schools have been given deadlines to improve their performance to meet the SEC’s standards.
Accreditation by the SEC has been made mandatory for private schools, and teachers in private and Independent schools are now required to obtain a professional licence from the regulatory body. Even the job contracts of private school teachers may have to be endorsed by the SEC once the new law comes into force, the SEC official hinted.
Despite such measures, many citizens feel more needs to be done to discipline erring private schools, and they expect the proposed law to address this challenge.
“The new law should organise all aspects of private schools -- educational standards, curriculum, class size, teachers, fees, among other things,” Dr Nawal Al Shaikh, a prominent academic and former SEC official told The Peninsula.
“It is not enough to have a nice law, it should be properly implemented. Proper follow-up is also necessary, and all private schools should be assessed every two years to ensure that they comply with the law,” she added.
Private sector education in Qatar has seen major improvements in the past few years in terms of the quality and diversity of schools, which now offer more choices to Qataris and expatriates.
“But still, their number has not grown in proportion to the growth in population. There is shortage of good private schools, which has resulted in long waiting lists for admissions,” said Al Shaikh.
She expressed the hope that the new law would address the issue of high fees charged by some private schools.
“It is true that some private schools are charging very high fees, and this should be monitored. They may be providing quality education, but that is no justification for raising fees exorbitantly. The new law should address such issues,” said Al Shaikh.
School buildings are another issue that needs immediate attention, she said.
“Many private schools are functioning in buildings that are not suitable to run a school. They don’t have adequate play areas and outdoor facilities for children. Some of them are functioning in villas. This is not good, especially for young children,” said Al Shaikh.
There is also a need to improve communication between parents and school administrations. Parents have negligible or no role in the management of many schools, noted Al Shaikh.
Saud Al Hanzab, chairman of the Central Municipal Council (CMC), the public representative body, expressed similar views while calling for stricter monitoring of private schools.
“There is wide variation among private schools in fee structure. Is this just because of the difference in language or curriculum? The new law should lay down standards to regulate these schools. International schools should be regulated on the basis of Qatari rules, not the system in the countries of their origin,” said Al Hanzab.
He said many private school buildings did not meet safety and security standards.
“Some school buildings do not have even emergency exists and fire alarms. Incidents like the Villaggio fire could occur in schools if we don’t take necessary precautions,” he warned.
The CMC chief said the civic body used to discuss various issues concerning education.
Recently, the CMC’s services committee discussed the issue of school uniforms and asked the authorities to end the nexus between some schools and commercial outlets for the sale of school uniforms. Accordingly, the Ministry of Business and Trade had issued a directive ending monopolistic practices in this regard, he said.
Officials of several private schools said they were not aware of the proposed law but were obliged to follow all rules and regulations imposed by the authorities.
“Our primary focus is on helping the Qatari government achieve its educational aspirations and promote partnership between the government and private schools. We are always in conversation and there is no breakdown in communication (with the educational authorities),” said Steven Leever, Middle School principal at the American School of Doha.
Asna Nafees, principal of DPS- Modern Indian School, expressed the hope that the SEC would give schools “proper guidance” in all matters.
“There is a communication gap on some issues. Today, we got a message from the SEC asking us to provide details about all our teachers, including their Qatar ID, email address and educational qualifications. When we sought a clarification, we were asked to send a representative to the SEC office. It would be helpful if things are explained properly from the very beginning,” she said.
She appreciated the SEC’s decision on teaching of Qatar’s history, Arabic and Islamic studies in private schools, but said there was confusion among schools on this issue in the beginning because the decision was not properly explained to the schools.
Dr G Manulal, principal of Bhavan’s Public School, said the SEC, despite its strict monitoring, had given private schools flexibility regarding curricula and academic systems.
“We are following the Indian CBSE curriculum, and the SEC is not intervening in that. We have been asked to teach three additional subjects and we are happy to do that. It is true that there is continuous monitoring, but we think it is good for the schools,” he said.
Asked about the school buildings, he said most private schools had done away with Portakabins in line with a strict instruction by the SEC in this regard.