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While Abu Dhabi has a number of options available when it comes to education and schooling, most expat parents opt for private international schools. Expat children may be admitted to local public schools, but the significant language and culture barriers make this an uncommon choice.
There are many private international schools in Abu Dhabi that adhere to various curricula, and the range of options are constantly expanding to cater to the city’s mushrooming expat community.
Predictably, with so many options, the standard, quality of facilities, teaching style, curriculum and teaching language all vary immensely from one school to another. Most expat parents choose an institution that mirrors the characteristics found in their home country's education system.
International schools in Abu Dhabi
New arrivals in Abu Dhabi will have quite a job on their hands deciding on the right school for their child. The British, American and International Baccalaureate (IB) schools tend to be the most popular, but also the most expensive. Inclusions of school allowances are less common than they used to be in expat packages, so we’d advise expats either negotiate for this or ensure their salary is large enough to cover the costs.
All schools are required to adhere to a uniform school calendar, made up of three terms, with the school year running from September to July. The school week runs from Sunday to Thursday, and school hours vary depending on the institution.
While international schools have more freedom in their curricula and language than local public schools, they are still required to adhere to certain local schooling regulations. Arabic as an additional language must be taught at all schools up to Grade 9, although students usually only have to achieve basic proficiency. Schools are also obliged to have Islamic Studies available as a subject. Attendance of Islamic Studies is compulsory for Muslim students, but optional for non-Muslim students.
Admission to international schools
One commonality shared across the board is seat shortages; Indian schools, in particular, have trouble accommodating the growing number of interested students in Abu Dhabi. Primary schools are also notorious for denying students due to unavailability. Even waiting lists can be long, and though efforts have been made to open new international schools in Abu Dhabi in recent years, space is still limited.
Finding a school can easily be the highest hurdle new arrivals must overcome and, in turn, should be an issue addressed from the very beginning.
Expats should not be afraid to ask their employer to help them secure a seat for their child, especially if they’ve been lured abroad into a senior position. We recommend expats start the enrolment process as early as possible – applications and admission requirements are usually posted on school websites.
Those who cannot place their child into the school of their choice immediately should be patient, as the turnover of students is high and places become available throughout the year.
As is the case the world over, international school fees in Abu Dhabi are often extremely high.
On top of the cost of tuition, most schools in Abu Dhabi have full uniforms, and many have a school bus transport system. Along with textbooks and other equipment, expats should remember to factor in these extra costs.
It's important to check whether a relocation package includes a school allowance; unfortunately, the days when this was a given are long gone. Also, most allowances won't be enough to cover a top school's tuition in full – so expats should make sure their salary is enough to cover the extra costs. We recommend expats negotiate for a better school allowance in such cases, especially if considering a senior position.
Tutors in Abu Dhabi
Private tutors in Abu Dhabi have started to gain massive traction in recent years. For expat families, tutors can be particularly useful in helping children adjust to a new curriculum, learn a new language or maintain their mother tongue.
We’d advise that parents conduct thorough research to find reputable tutors. Web portals and forums are a good place to start, and international schools will also be able to point parents in the right direction.
A few tutoring agencies worth considering are Sylvan Learning, Kip McGrath and Carfax Education.
Special-needs education in Abu Dhabi
The UAE government has in recent years begun to focus on providing support to students with special educational needs. As a result, more public schools are now equipped to support such students. The ultimate goal is integration so that even those with special educational needs can develop alongside their peers.
Some international schools have excellent special-needs education programmes, while others don't offer support in this regard at all. Parents with children with special needs should be sure to do their research before settling on a school.