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Tue 16 Jun 2020 11:38 AM

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'I can't sleep' - the story of GEMS pupils left without access to education

World's largest operator of schools is withholding student report cards and transfer letters over unpaid fees

'I can't sleep' - the story of GEMS pupils left without access to education

In April, GEMS said it would offer parents a reduction in fees, but only after they handed over details of their financial situation, including their bank statements for the last 3 years. Image: ITP Media Group

Calum Muff's favourite subject at school is science. But instead of looking forward to biology and chemistry, the 11-year-old is worried his parents will not be able to afford his tuition. He is just one of several children facing similar situations with GEMS Metropole School, which has cut off learning for students whose parents have not been able to pay full re-enrolment fees due to Covid-19-related economic challenges.

"I miss seeing my friends and learning," he said. "It kinda scared me. I didn't realise I got kicked out and I thought, what are my friends going to think if they find out I was kicked out?"

Muff's parents lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, and owe the school AED25,000. With the easing of restrictions in the UAE, however, they've been able to find new opportunities, and can gradually pay off the amount. But the parents tell Arabian Business GEMS Metropole School is barring their son from starting the school until the full amount is paid.

"I explained to GEMS that I can't make the first payment until my husband gets his salary," said Calum's mum Jane. "They told me they'll accept my offer, but that Calum can't go back to school until everything is paid, so they're postponing his start date. It's absolutely horrendous.

"I can't sleep. I don't have a solution. What do you do in the UAE when you can't put your child in school? They start on the 30th of August and Calum is not allowed to start. He's now worrying that we don't have money to pay his school fees. He's worrying his friends will make fun of him because his mom and dad can't afford his school," she said.

She's not the only one.

Over 15,000 parents signed an online petition calling for the world's largest operator of kindergarten-to-grade-12 schools to provide a 30% discount for the third term, during which students stayed at home 'e-learning' instead of in classrooms. In April, GEMS said it would offer parents a reduction in fees, but only after they handed over details of their financial situation, including their bank statements for the last 3 years.

In a letter sent to parents this week, GEMS Metropole School said students whose parents do not pay re-enrolment fees before Monday 15 June will lose their child's seat for September 2020.

"We regret to inform you that if we do not receive your payment, we will: Assume that you are not returning and exclude your child from the class and teacher allocations for September 2020. Remove your child from next year's induction programme with friends and teachers. Replace your child's seat with a new applicant. Automatically generate a transfer certificate for your child," the letter, seen by Arabian Business, said.

If the outstanding balance is not paid, however, the school will withhold report cards and transfer slips, preventing students from enroling in another school, the letter said.

Chris Kuppa, whose 16-year-old daughter goes to GEMS Metropole, is "outraged" by the school's action.

He said: "My daughter now wants to go to another school, but now they (GEMS Metropole) are saying they can't issue any transfer letter until the [outstanding] amount is fully paid. But the other school needs it now, not in August. So on one hand, they give the extended payment plan, and on the other, they refuse to give the documents necessary to join another school.

"I'm outraged because in a situation like this, everybody should take a part of the burden. When kids attend one of the GEMS schools, they have to sign a paper with the values of the school, things like integrity and loyalty. What does it teach the children when the school itself is operating like a ruthless business and not in the interest of the community?" Kuppa said.

Another parent who spoke on condition of anonymity said she had applied for the GEMS Covid-19 relief package, but was rejected because she didn't provide 3 years of bank statements.

"I said I can't provide it due to difficulties and I explained why. I didn't get any reply or callback. Not a single email from the head of school. Nothing. Then I got a reminder that if we don't pay, [my daughter] will get kicked out of the online classes and won't get a report card, and that she will have to repeat Grade 10 again. The whole situation is embarrassing for her.

"GEMS is not a school. It has nothing to do with education. It's pure business. That's it. [My daughter] is definitely not going back to a GEMS school. The [owner of GEMS] is sitting in a fancy villa, not caring about the students. It's really unbelievable," she said.

A parent, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, was offered a GEMS discount after several calls to the school. 

He said: "When they called asking for payment, I said why are you not giving any help to parents? They said, we can review your case but you have to apply [for the Covid-19 relief package]. I said, why don't you do a blanket discount of 20 percent like other schools have done? They said because I'm self-employed, they want my bank statements and my company bank statements. I said listen, even the Dubai Department of Economy doesn't ask for my bank statements. Who are you to ask me for my bank statements?

"I said to them, I have three kids in the school. You won't get a dirham from me. It's not because I care about the discount. If I do not fight, you will do this to parents who need the discount more than me. I'm doing this out of principle... I said, if you don't give me a discount, you won't see a cent from me, and please remove my children from online learning today, I don't care. I'll fly them all the way to the UK or Switzerland. They can repeat the school there. This is a matter of principle. I was very tough with them. The next week they gave me 25 percent. But it's not about the money. They are appalling," he added.

Jane Muff, whose son Calum has been with the GEMS Metropole School for six years, said she first heard the news about GEMS cutting off students from learning through an article on Arabian Business.

"They (GEMS) didn't even warn me. I found out from your paper... So I've now got a child with no education. I can't put him in another school because they won't give me the [transfer] slip. I can't have his report cards. They have denied me access to anything. They genuinely don't care; that's what they have practically said. I'm super shocked. My son feels embarrassed and worried. How does he get back to school?" she says.

It announced in April that over 20,000 students will benefit from its Covid-19 relief package, which offers relief for term 3 fees for parents who have experienced reductions in income, lost jobs or have been placed on unpaid leave. For those in extreme need, it has offered up to 50 percent in discounts, it claimed.

Education in the UAE is higher than anywhere else in the world, except for Hong Kong, according to a 2017 study from HSBC Holdings Plc.

GEMS Education's response to the article: 

“As educators, our priority during this extraordinary time has been balancing the need to keep our students safe while ensuring they continue to receive a quality education delivered by fantastic teachers. That has meant families, teachers and schools talking regularly, making changes to our normal routines and finding solutions to new challenges, including in some cases financial concerns. GEMS owes families a big thank you for the adjustments they have made and for the constructive engagement they have shown. Without their understanding and support we would not be able to provide the comprehensive and world-class virtual learning programmes our schools and teachers are currently delivering.

“We also want to specifically thank the vast majority of families who have now settled their school fees and made commitments to pay. We know how difficult this period has been for some, but our parents’ efforts are ensuring that education comes first. For our part, we have managed to assist the families of close to 30,000 GEMS students through our Covid-19 Relief Package and introduced several additional measures to help ease the burden of school fees for families that are struggling. Together, we are ensuring young people keep learning no matter what this terrible virus throws at us.

“Our re-enrolment deadline was June 15, which is an extension of the usual deadline of April. We have also been very flexible in terms of re-enrolments, allowing parents to pay re-enrolment fees according to their individual circumstances as opposed to insisting on the usual five percent fee.

“Having said that, we do need to take appropriate action where some families are not willing to engage in a constructive dialogue. We have therefore reluctantly started the process of temporarily suspending access to our remote learning programmes for a very small percentage of families that have outstanding school fees – many for more than one term and some from before this crisis took hold. We do not take this action lightly and it is an absolute last resort.

“Those temporarily excluded have not engaged with us or are no longer responding to calls, emails or messages. We have in effect provided more than ten weeks of free education to these families, and in some cases much longer, but their lack of engagement puts additional pressure on schools and their communities. It is not fair to those families that have met their commitments, to continue to support others who are showing no willingness to pay, or even to correspond with us to find a solution. We urge these families to contact their school to discuss how we can support them through this time. We are here to help where we can, but that starts with letting us try.”

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