The prospect of educating children in Qatar has been a legitimate cause for concern for expats and the reason many may turn down postings or choose to send the children to boarding school. If you read any of the internet blogs and websites about the schools in Qatar, you will undoubtedly question the relocation. Take these internet postings with a grain of salt (and maybe an aspirin or two) and know that there are some good schools in Qatar and the family can stay together!
Unfortunately, then there’s the reality or prospect of trying to get your child into one of the “good” schools which may cause even the calmest mums to go into convulsions or a catatonic state. It can be done, but it will take patience and perseverance!
The Qatari Educational System
There is a concerted effort to advance the educational opportunities within the country. The Royal family, in particular, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, have put a high priority on improving the Qatari education system and providing quality schools and educational opportunities for all residents of Qatar – both nationals and non-nationals.
Qatar provides free education for all citizens, kindergarten through high school. In implementing their comprehensive “Education for a New Era” reform policy, Qatar has poured a staggering number of financial resources into the educational system to adequately prepare Qataris and, thus, Qatar for the future.
The most obvious monument to the education advancement effort is Education City, an enclave of academia with Qatar Academy, a private primary and secondary school, and branches of many US universities: Carnegie Mellon, Cornell Weill Medical, Georgetown, Texas A & M, and Northwestern.
Sprinkled throughout the state are a number of other newer private schools established as part of the Qatar Foundation’s Outstanding Schools Initiative. Under this program, Qatar has brought in and opened up “franchises” or satellite campuses of well-regarded UK, US and other international primary and secondary schools such as the International School of London – Qatar, Compass, Sherborne (UK), Debaky HS (US) and the American Community School.
Two agencies oversee schools in Qatar, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Supreme Education Council (SEC). The MOE is in charge of the public schools in Qatar. The ultimate governing authority for education policy in Qatar rests with the SEC. Their purview includes all public, independent and private schools and universities. In addition to all curriculum decisions, the SEC also must approve all academic calendars and any tuition and fee schedules charged by the private schools.
As Qatar’s expat population has grown exponentially, so, too, has the number of private schools. There are schools established for almost every nationality: American, British Canadian, French, German, Indian, Filipino, and Lebanese. Although Qatar has made vast improvements to their independent and public schools, they offer a strict Muslim curriculum, so most expats (as well as an increasing number of Qatar nationals) choose to educate their children in one of the many private schools. Many of the new SEC “Outstanding Schools initiative” are required to teach Arabic and Islamic studies to Arab students, so they tend to be gaining popularity with locals and arab expat families.
The increase in the quantity of private schools has, however, not resulted in a proportional increase in quality of private schools. It seems as though new schools keep popping up like weeds, making it difficult to keep track of all of them. Unfortunately, many have opened more for a business opportunity for the owners, rather than to offer a solid educational environment for expat and local children. Tales of teachers not being paid or leaving in the middle of the night abound in some of the newly established private school enterprises.
The date of establishment of a school does not always determine the school’s quality of education provided. There are some schools in Qatar that maintain an excellent reputation year after year, and there are some that have been consistently awful for years. Other, newly opened schools show great potential.
There is a definite, recognized hierarchy of private school reputations. As soon as you start the task of researching schools, you will hear the same names mentioned over and over in both the good/top tier and bad categories. It is fairly obvious which schools are the top tier; which ones are a good second choice until you can get your child into one of the top tier schools; and finally, those schools that you should not entrust your child to no matter how desperate you are.
Demand for slots at the good schools far surpasses the supply, so persistence is key. Schools are inundated with perspective callers, so do not be put off by a less than encouraging initial response. Openings do become available since the expat community is more transient here than many other locations with families coming and going quite frequently. Get on the lists and be the “squeaky wheel” that keeps calling.
Be prepared for some curt, borderline rude office staff at some of the schools. If the office staff seems smug or dismissive, they may be having a bad day or they may be that way because they know they have the upper hand and can get away with it because they do not have to work to recruit the top students.
There is no need for slick marketing materials or pr (or even civility it may seem). Everyone knows which schools are the best and most everyone wants their kids in them – it is that simple. It is rumored that one school’s receptionist is purposefully nasty to prospective callers to see how much they are willing to put up with, and hence how much they want their children in the school. They are in control, and if you want your child in one of the good schools, you may have to suck it up and take it, at least until you get the admission notice. After that, then you can join in the smugness or make some customer service suggestions.
You will have to decide if that is something you want to deal with on a regular basis if your child is accepted since you won’t know if they can be pleasant until after you start paying those exorbitant fees! And yes, if you do get a slot at a one of the better schools, expect to pay a premium. Tuition is absurdly expensive at the “good” schools, particularly if your employer does not pay the fees.
Special Education Needs
Few, if any, schools can or will accommodate moderate to severe learning disabilities. Some schools have learning assistance specialists but they are for mild problems. You'll eed to speak to the school directly to see if and how they can assist; you may be required to pay for assistance in addition to the tuition and fees. One school, The Learning Center, opened to try to address students with special needs.
The American (primary, middle school, AP), International Baccalaureate and British curricula are the main ones on offer. Be aware that many of the British schools are felt to offer a somewhat watered down version of the UK curriculum. Some will have only minor adaptations, while others may be barely recognizable. Most of the newer schools, established as part of the Qatar Foundation’s “Outstanding Schools Inititaive”, have additional requirements such as Arabic and Islamic studies for the Arab students, and those take time from the standard UK course of study and tend to attract more Arab/Arab speaking students.
School campuses, like much of Doha, can be a bit of shock - particularly the gated/high walls. Do not expect lush, green grass campuses. Many schools have little to no grass play areas– partly due to the limited size of the campuses and also to the temperatures that make it difficult (and expensive) to maintain grass, and too hot to use it for much of the year.
ASD and DESS do have playing fields but they are the exception. Land is at a premium, and older schools unable to expand and renovate. All changes must go through the SEC. A number of schools have moved into new facilities, but the campuses still have pockets of construction or work being done. Cafeterias seem to be the last part of the school to be completed or space that is taken over for other purposes.
Start and end dates change regularly, as determined by the SEC. All depends on the timing of Ramadan. Most schools will follow the Muslim holidays as well as many of the school’s nationality.
Language and teaching considerations
There are a number of international schools. Many claim to teach the British or National Curriculum of England, but beware: that doesn't mean much if the teachers are not trained in the curriculum. Parent blogs are full of comments about teachers that are not qualified.
You need to consider the number or percentage of native English speaking students v. non-native English speakers. Even if you like the curriculum, if the teachers are teaching to the non-native speakers, it may bog the progress of the class down and they may not get through the curriculum.
Transitions into other school systems
With influx of expats, there are schools for almost every nationality. How do the Qatar schools measure up? If you are coming from a British curriculum school, you may find the Qatar “British” schools offer a watered down version of National Curriculum of England, so it's easier to transfer in than out. International schools may also offer elements of the IB curriculum. But school days tend to be shorter and many of the new schools are required to teach Arabic – a ruling handed down by the Supreme Education Council – so the actual time spent on the curriculum is less.
UK students transferring to the American school and Americans transferring to an international British may find the spelling and terminology different at first, and reading expectations later in American schools.
Traffic is horrendous: a 10 minute trip one day may take two or three times that other days. You will want to factor the terrible traffic into your school choice as well as residential location. Many activities occur at schools – ASD , DC and DESS – so if you will be making multiple trips, check the trip at different times of the day.
Most schools do offer buses, but a number of students are dropped off by parents or drivers. Drop off and pick up can get quite scary; there are no safety patrols. Although schools may have a security guard, many Qatar drivers (parents included) ignore basic school zone safety logic and things like speed bumps. When there are multiple schools clustered near by and start and end time coincide – beware!
Neighborhoods and schools.
Schools are spread out throughout the city as are the residential compounds.
In the Al Waab area, local schools are ASD, DC , Newton British and Doha British Montessorri.
In West Bay, the nearest school is Newton International.
Compass (primary) is located in Gharaffa, and Compass (primary and secondary) in Madinat Khalifa.