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The Middle East’s public school system needs a rehaul

Parents opt out of public education due to inadequate resources, educational quality, and safety concerns.

The Middle East’s public school system needs a rehaul
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Parents are increasingly turning away from traditional public schools in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region. A complex interplay of factors is driving this shift.

At the heart of this lies a desire for quality education. Public schools, often burdened by large class sizes, limited resources, and outdated curricula, cannot provide the individualized attention and rigorous academic environments that parents seek. 

The promise of smaller classes, specialized instruction, and cutting-edge facilities offered by private schools acts as a powerful magnet, drawing families willing to invest heavily in their children’s education.

According to a Grand View Research report, the private higher education market in the MEA was valued at 49.76 billion in 2022, with a projected compound annual growth rate of 5% until 2030.


“The fast-growing private school sector in the region reflects the general global trend in increasing private school enrollment. A growing middle class, emerging affluence of countries, and a demand for higher quality education are some primary drivers in demand for private schools,” says Nyla Khan, Founder of CDL Group and Edtech expert.

Khan also attributes this growth to the multi-religious landscape in the MEA, which creates a demand for diversity in schools offering a religious-specific curriculum. For instance, Catholic, Islamic, or Druze schools. 

“Outside of growing income, the other major factors are exposure to information about what is considered a good education and the other being lack of quality public school offerings,” she adds.

Saying some parents choose private schooling for academic and career aspirations, Lee Hole, School Principal at Dubai British School Jumeirah Park, says, “Emirati families that choose international schools, in my experience, do so as they aspire for their children to attend university overseas — although this is also reducing as Dubai universities grow in popularity and the ever-expanding range of courses they offer — and eventually work there so they see value in attending an international school.”

“They want something beyond the inspection ratings; they want reassurances that their child is going to be safe, happy, and engaged in their school life,” Lee adds.

To provide a better education, foster the development of valuable skills and attributes, and prepare the child for university, Aly Mahfouz enrolled his five-year-old child in private schooling in Dubai. 

“I don’t trust the management process of public schools. Due to the bureaucratic system they go through, it makes it impossible for them to be agile. I also don’t think public schools believe that developing a child’s skills is part of their job,” says Mahfouz.

Similarly, Nermine Zaher, a mother of three, highlights the level of education provided in private schools in Egypt as the main reason for her choice. “Cultural and social surroundings are better; the people they get to know and network with at that age help them in their future. But quality of education remains the main thing, the way these students study and process and analyze data, instead of just memorizing information.”

“Private schooling also offers much more room for creativity,” adds Zaher. “Public schooling fully depends on memorizing information and does not leave much room for creative thinking or alternative approaches.”

Public schooling needs to catch up in many aspects. Khan says apart from some GCC countries, the rest of the region still lags. “With information at the fingertips of parents, it is clear to them that the current public school sector is not fitting the needs of their children’s future. So if I were to summarize the most common concerns for public schools, it would be the lack of quality education due to lack of investment and quality assurance over the education system.”


Beyond academic standards, parents are increasingly worried about the overall environment, social and cultural values imparted, safety measures, and the prevalence of bullying within these institutions.

Private schools, often boasting a more international student body and a greater emphasis on extracurricular activities, can offer a more cosmopolitan and enriching environment.

Zaher believes the school you go to also informs the kind of friends you make, the places you hang out in, your community, your behavior, values, and thoughts.

“Safety is also a concern for sure,” Zaher says. “Bullying and students’ behavior in general is a major issue due to the way these kids are raised, due to their surroundings and upbringing.”

“The rise of bullying in these schools is also due to a complete lack of awareness of the harm bullying brings, as opposed to private schools, where they are more likely to raise awareness through campaigns and proper repercussions.”


Private education comes at a cost. Tuition fees can be exorbitant, putting them out of reach for many families and exacerbating existing social inequalities. This creates a two-tiered education system, potentially widening the gap between those who can afford a private education and those who cannot.

Mahfouz says she had to cut down on personal expenditures and let go of unnecessary expenses to put his child through private schooling.

Similarly, Zaher speaks of the financial sacrifices she’s had to make for her children’s education. “We’ve made big financial sacrifices. You’re talking about private international schooling, which costs a fortune and is much higher than public schooling. Which, in turn, has affected our standard of living as a household.”

The exodus from public schools creates a vicious cycle. As resources and talented teachers increasingly flow towards private institutions, public schools face further decline, making them even less attractive to parents. This raises critical questions about the role of government in ensuring quality education for all and the need for policies that bridge the growing divide.

Neveen Naiem, mother of three, says one of the main reasons public education fails is the lack of funding and pay that teachers get. 

“There’s a severe lack of resources, with class sizes ballooning to accommodate 50-70 students per class. The qualifications of teachers are often lacking, and even when well-qualified, they may not invest sufficient effort in teaching. The inadequate compensation for teachers compels many to rely on tutoring for their livelihoods. Consequently, this dual focus results in subpar in-class instruction, with the material often more thoroughly explained during tutoring sessions.”


Parents’ choices reflect a deep desire for their children to thrive in a rapidly changing world. While private schools offer a compelling alternative, the true challenge lies in strengthening public education, ensuring it can cater to the diverse needs of a vibrant and aspirational region. Only then can the promise of quality education be truly fulfilled for all, not just the privileged few.

Hole has a positive outlook on the future of education in the UAE, driven by the proactive steps the Dubai government is already taking. “There are partnerships across the city to support the great work already happening in public schools. Taaleem and other operators have several schools engaged in public-private partnerships, and they are having a tangible impact on the education offered in those schools.”

“I hope that we continue to see more great educators moving to the city and becoming part of what I think is one of the world’s fastest moving, growing, and innovative education sectors,” he adds.

Khan says some steps can be taken to improve public education and increase its appeal to parents. “Outside of increasing the share of education spent in the annual national budget, there needs to be transformative leadership applied to the public education sector so that the curriculums, training of teachers and facilities are re-imagined and re-aligned.”

She also highlights the need for more robust state-level quality assurance protocols, processes, and frameworks to ensure that the positive changes made are being sustained.

Already significant reforms have been taking place all over the region, with Egypt introducing several significant reforms like Education 2.0, increasing private-public partnerships, and investing quite a bit in education technology, including infrastructure. “This is outside of the fact that it is the most populous country, the largest population in the region, and a growing middle class,” adds Khan.

Her hopes for the future of public education include an outcomes-based approach that prioritizes children, emphasizing their security, health, and happiness in reform efforts. 

Additionally, she advocates for increased investment in education as a vital component of annual budgets, particularly with these regions’ expanding youth and adolescent populations. “The provision of high-quality education is paramount not just to ensure high attendance and participation in education, but also to safeguard and elevate future economic growth and prospects for the countries.”

Some parents feel differently about the future of public education in Egypt. ”Even in the far future, when it comes to my grandkids, there is no way I can see myself putting them through public schooling,” says Zaher.

Sharing the same sentiment, Naiem says, “I don’t have much hope for the future of public schooling. Our educational establishments have remained stagnant for years, showing minimal initiative in implementing substantial reforms. Although there are attempts to modify the curriculum and the education system, there is a noticeable reluctance to alter the training of educators.”

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