The two South-Indian girls who live in my apartment building always offer a smile whenever we meet in the lobby or the elevator. I spot them as they stand on the curb, waiting for the school bus and wave to them. The girls look no older than 12 or 13 and I can hear snippets of their conversation. They are talking about the upcoming mid-term exams, as well as who did and didn’t get selected for the school play. The girls speak perfect English, albeit accented and come across as well-groomed individuals. Being a mother of young children always on the lookout for a good school, I finally ask them which school they go to. They name a popular Indian school in the UAE, and the bus arrives and they are off.
According to the ever-expanding Wikipedia, Pakistanis make up 16 per cent of the population in the UAE and by some estimates, in Dubai alone, there are 700,000 Pakistanis. But sadly, the options for educating your children here if you are a Pakistani, are, shall we say, not the most exciting.
Pakistani schools, about seven to eight in Dubai, offer the FBISE, or the Federal Board curriculum – the Matric system which is extremely outdated and people even in Pakistan will usually opt for their children to take their GCEs or O’Levels rather than board exams, if they can afford it.
The Indian schools on the other hand, offer the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Indian curriculum, and while it certainly has its limitations, it is a system that is constantly reviewed and updated, and is fast gaining respect locally as well as in the West. By contrast, the Matric system is of little value if you go to college or university outside of Pakistan, or look for a job.
Not surprisingly, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) an independent body which inspects schools across Dubai and then rates them by the following standards: outstanding, good, acceptable, or unsatisfactory, has given Pakistani schools a rather embarrassing rating. Two schools were ‘unsatisfactory’, one was ‘acceptable’. None were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
So where does the honest, hardworking, middle-class Pakistani in Dubai educate his child? In the Pakistani schools which have ad-hoc administration (reminiscent of the PCB) and a practically obsolete prospectus? Or in the notoriously expensive upper-tier schools where the majority of the children are Western expats? Or one of those pre-dominantly Arab schools where a Pakistani is put in special Arabic lessons because, well, he cannot even communicate? Or in one of those shady establishments that just about any expat can get into? Admittedly, not all expat schools are disreputable, but the ones with a good rating, an international curriculum and a reasonable price-tag are hard to find and can be counted on your fingers.
What I cannot understand is why we cannot have decent Pakistani schools in the UAE. The Indians for one, have an excellent network of schools in the UAE, as do the British, the Americans, the Germans, the French and even the Filipinos! If you were to opt for an impossibly posh ‘gora’ school (if at all you can afford the hefty price-tag) for your child, where you can sometimes spot Rolls-Royces and Bentleys after school, are you prepared to send your child to the after-school parties where alcohol and promiscuous relations are treated as the norm in higher grades? Or would you choose an Arab school, hoping that your child will learn a bit about religion?
Unfortunately, racism is at its worst in Arab schools and as the mother of a sixth-grade boy in a popular Arab school that offers GCSEs, Sarah, from Pakistan, lamented: “They don’t talk to Ahmad at all. They bully my son during sports and ignore him in class, even though he excels in his studies. But what can we do? The administration is over-powered by the heavy-weight Arab sheikhs who send their kids here, and the staff won’t say a word to the Emarati boys.”
In the Pakistani schools, which cost next to nothing, you find teachers who are unqualified, over-worked and under-paid, and speak in broken English you certainly would not want your child to emulate. Like I mentioned, for Pakistanis, the options for educating your children in Dubai are limited and because of that, you would be hard-pressed to find a place for your child in the few schools that offer quality education at an affordable price.
Mehmudah Rehman is a freelance writer based in Dubai who blogs at Notes to Self.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.