For Dubai’s Foreign Workers, Private School Fills a Void

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 15, 2008 4 min read
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Ashok Kumar, who grew up in Chandigarh, India, presides as chief executive officer over a private school that serves 9,000 Indian students on a sprawling campus in this fast-growing city—and every day is an educational balancing act.

Mr. Kumar must make sure that Indian High School, the name that covers the entire K-12 institution, not only follows an Indian curriculum, including daily Hindi lessons, but also complies with regulations from the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Education for private schools. In accordance with those regulations, the Indian school also provides daily lessons in Arabic.

United Arab Emirates

Six states merged to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971.


SOURCES: Wikipedia; CIA World Factbook

Opened in 1961, the school fills an important niche in this city of about 860,000, which has a high proportion of foreign workers—many with children—who must find schooling alternatives because the UAE does not enroll non-Arabs in its public schools.

The demand for private schooling is particularly high among Dubai’s Indian population. Mr. Kumar estimates that about 30 percent of the people in this city are Indian. They hold a wide range of jobs: taxi drivers, hotel workers, bankers, information technology specialists, and business people, among them.


Mark Stapleton, an American consultant to the Ministry of Education’s office of planning and policy, works with Dubai’s private schools. He said that many parents, regardless of national background, perceive them as providing a stronger academic education than the public schools do. A fair number of Arab families send their children to private schools, Mr. Stapleton said.

For foreign worker families, however, there is no alternative. And Mr. Kumar said many Indian families and those of other nationalities don’t really want to send their children to public schools because the curriculum is in Arabic. At Indian High, the language of instruction, starting in kindergarten, is English, one of the official languages of India.

Varied Enrollment

Indian High charges the equivalent of $800 per year in tuition, and employers cover the tuition paid by about 2,000 parents of the schoolchildren, according to Mr. Kumar. The school waives the fee for some parents who can’t afford it, he said.

While the school enrolls children from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, most of their parents are Indian professionals. Taxi drivers and hotel staff members, for instance, are unlikely to earn enough for the government to let them bring their families to Dubai, Mr. Kumar and staff members at the school said.

Ashok Kumar, who grew up in Chandigarh, India, presides as chief executive officer at Indian High School. He says the school, which provides daily lessons in Arabic as well as in Hindi, cooperates well with the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates.Dubai.

Even though many parents stay in Dubai by continually renewing three-year job contracts, the student population at Indian High is surprisingly stable. Only about half a dozen slots open up annually in each of the lower grades and are filled with new students. About six students compete for each of those spaces, Mr. Kumar said. Kindergartners are admitted by lottery, and academic performance is considered for admission of students for the openings in other grades. New students aren’t admitted to the 10th, 11th, or 12th grades.

All graduates of the school go on to higher education, according to Mr. Kumar. The largest number of graduates attend university in India, and the next largest number head to colleges in the United States. He believes that one sign of the school’s academic success is the fact that top-notch universities, including American Ivy League schools, send representatives to Indian High each year to recruit its students.

See Also

For more stories on this topic see our International news page.

Mr. Kumar, who has a master’s degree in education from the University of Toronto, said his school cooperates well with the UAE Ministry of Education, which, in his view, takes a light hand on instructional matters.

David Ipe, the career adviser for the school, said the Indian school teaches boys and girls in the upper grades in separate classes in accordance with ministry regulations. Girls attend school in the morning, and boys use the same facilities during an afternoon shift. (Mr. Stapleton, the American consultant, explained that some private schools meeting certain criteria can get a waiver from the regulation.)

It seems that the school is an enclave of Indian culture in the middle of Dubai. With the exception of the school’s Arabic teachers, the 400 teachers are Indian. Mr. Kumar has Indian tea brought to Mr. Stapleton and a visitor, along with an Indian lunch of curries and biryani, a spicy Indian rice dish. Many of the teachers wear colorful saris.

Enthusiastic Students

On a recent day of heavy rain—so unusual for Dubai that many schools closed—Mr. Kumar decided to keep Indian High open. He’d closed the school already for one day this week; the government ordered that schools and government offices be closed because of traffic problems expected during President Bush’s Jan. 14 visit here.

Sayira Banu, left, Simran Gandhi, center, and Shailaja Krishnamurthy are 11th grade classmates who attend the Indian High School. Miss Krishnamurthy was born in India but brought up in Dubai. The other two girls were born in Dubai.

Sayira Banu, Simran Gandhi, and Shailaja Krishnamurthy—all 11th grade girls—said they had been brought up in Dubai. Ms. Gandhi and Ms. Krishnamurthy have attended Indian High since kindergarten, and Ms. Banu has been there since 3rd grade. Their parents, they said, came to Dubai in search of better job opportunities.

They had all chosen the “commerce” track for 11th and 12th grades—all three hope eventually to get MBAs. The other choices are humanities, which is only open to girls, and science.

Ms. Banu planned to attend university in India. Ms. Gandhi said she intended to go to the American University in Dubai. And Ms. Krishnamurthy said she’ll apply to universities in the United States and Great Britain.


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