There was a time when flights to the UAE at the start of the school holidays were known as the "Lollipop Express", crammed full of unaccompanied children on their way home from boarding schools around the world.
Those days are long gone as the UAE now has its own range of reputable schools for parents to choose from. However, the attraction of an overseas education is still there and in some cases it can be more cost-effective than a day school in the Emirates.
"With the current exchange rate in the UAE, British boarding schools are a good value option to provide the best educational options," says Sarah Sparling of UK boarding school specialists Anderson Education. American boarding institutions can also offer value for money.
Veronica Ayanian has asked her parents to send her to a British boarding school for some time now.
"I want to be in that atmosphere and meet all the different students who go to boarding school," says the 13-year-old Lebanese-Italian. "Here in Dubai, I always have to say: ‘Hey mum, drive me to this place so I can meet my friends.’ I want to have more independence."
Which is why her mother, Francesca Ayanian, took her to the fifth edition of the British Boarding Schools Show – held recently at the Sheraton Hotel, Mall of the Emirates – to find out how a UK boarding institution might measure up to the standards of private day schools in the UAE. Thirty-six exhibitors attended this year’s event – its biggest ever line-up.
But how does it compare price-wise?
According to Ms Sparling, the average British boarding school costs £30,000 (Dh141,432), with Dulwich College in London, for example, in the highest bracket at £39,480 a year. A report released earlier this year by the online education guide Edarabia shows that average school fees in the UAE are significantly cheaper, ranging from Dh2,479 at the lower end to Dh120,145 at the top end.
But boarding school prices also include accommodation, tuition, meals, laundry and school trips with only pocket money and flights to factor in on top.
The cost of a full education up to degree level per child in the UAE is almost Dh1 million, according to the insurer Zurich, which claims this makes it the most expensive country in the world in this regard.
"This number does not account for the price of books, uniforms or trips, which could further increase the total expense by 40 per cent for top-level schools," says a spokeswoman at the comparison website Souqalmal.com, which has about 300 UAE schools listed on its site. And with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) recently allowing private schools in Dubai to increase their fees for the academic year 2017-18 by a minimum of 2.4 per cent, up to a maximum of 4.8 per cent, dependent on each school’s rating, Souqalmal.com says more expats will reconsider their education options.
"Amid the rising cost of education, more families will be considering sending their children either back home or to other countries to finish their studies."
Veronica Ayanian has shown an interest in attending Bedales, a school set in 120 acres of farmland, orchards and playing fields in Hampshire in the UK. Bedales boasts an alternative curriculum that includes rudimentary farming, and charges £34,533 a year for the privilege. Annual fees at Veronica’s current school, the American School of Dubai, are only Dh113,169 (£24,057) in comparison. But the extra cost of a boarding school does make sense for what the schools provide, argues her mother.
"As a parent you make it work, if it is something you know your child truly wants," says Ms Ayanian. "Veronica wants to experience a different upbringing than we can give her here in Dubai. She feels like she’s living in a bubble here and finds it restrictive."
American boarding schools are a little harder on the wallet for parents considering other overseas locations for their child’s education.
Ronald Mangravite, author of the book American Prep: The Insider’s Guide to US Boarding Schools, says that US boarding schools range from US$55,000 to $65,000 annually.
Out of the 200-plus boarding schools in the US, he claims that the two best known are Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (known as Exeter) and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (known as Andover). "These schools, founded by the same family in the 1700s, are known for excellent academics, large endowments and very low acceptance rates. Each enrols around 1,000 students," he says.
Other top schools, which are smaller in size, include Groton, Saint Paul’s and Hotchkiss.
"All these schools have very low admission rates, high test scores, a stunning range of academic, athletic and extra curricular programs, and many international study and service opportunities," Mr Mangravite adds.
Other international options include Switzerland, a country that prides itself on the reputation of its private schools. All of the top 10 most expensive boarding schools in the world can be found there, according to Business Insider. Topping the list is Le Rosey at Dh402,121 a year, which boasts an equestrian centre with 30 horses and a spa for kids to unwind in after classes.
But not all countries have a strong tradition of sending children to boarding schools.
The Dubai-based couple Erin and Stein Arnesen are from Norway, where boarding schools are not a popular part of the culture.
However, their 11- year-old daughter, currently a student at Jumeirah College, has her heart set on a British boarding school education.
"Kids can’t explore here in Dubai the way that they can in Europe, and she doesn’t want to be a teenager here," says Mr Arnesen, who runs a business in the oil sector. The Arnesens are planning to make sure they can afford the extra cost of a boarding school education by downsizing from a villa to an apartment.
"We’re finding that British boarding schools cost about double what a day school costs here in Dubai," Mr Arnesen says.
"But you get quite a lot more for that, so I think it’s reasonable. Here, you hire someone to do after-school tuition, and also pay for extra-curricular activities like football, squash and gymnastics. At boarding school, these activities are all included in the cost."
The front of the prospectus for Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland features a photograph of the school’s 80-foot sail boat, Ocean Spirit of Moray. Gordonstoun also boasts a rifle range, golf course and squash courts.
"It’s the out-of-classroom offer which is the reason why British education still stands up so strongly," says the Gordonstoun’s principal, Simon Reid.
As well as Prince Charles, members of the Al Maktoum family have attended the £34,000 a year school, and these days, wealthy Omanis count among the one- third of Gordonstoun students who arrive from overseas.
The wide range of activities available at such boarding schools, as well as their focus on discipline, is why Thomas Iype, an Indian engineer living in Al Ain, would like his teenage sons Eric and Brian to consider such an education. But Brian has other ideas.
"I prefer to be in the family environment, because I enjoy spending time with my parents – and I get to work with my friends here in Al Ain," says the 16 year-old.
As well as appealing to expat parents whose jobs involve extensive travel, plenty of Emirati families also opt for a boarding education.
The Emirati Lubna Qassim, who is the group chief general counsel and company secretary of Emirates NBD, credits her former Shrewsbury boarding school with giving her a strong work ethic.
"My father invested in the education of his children and got huge returns – he once said it was the best investment he ever made," she says.
Ms Qassim was sent to boarding school in the early 1990s, when she was 15.
"It was unheard of for a young Emirati girl to go abroad by herself back then. It wasn’t easy for my mum, because she had to deal with all the calls of the women of the community. But I was ready to fly. I’m a big advocate for private boarding school education in Britain. It is world class."
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