Education provision represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Qatar, as an already booming economy is further boosted by the massive programme of investment under way to prepare for the 2022 football World Cup.

Dynamic growth and heavy spending on infrastructure is expected to drive increased demand for specialist international labour across a wide range of professional and business sectors. Many of the new workers will bring their families with them, creating additional demand for school places.

Earlier this year, Qatar National Bank projected that the country’s population will have risen by more than 10 per cent this year alone – an astonishing rate of demographic expansion.

The growth in demand represents a major challenge for both the government and developers of private schools, particularly in terms of staffing new facilities. But it also signifies a considerable opportunity for investors looking to establish and operate the schools that are needed.

Moreover, Qataris themselves represent an important education market both for private international schools and the independent public schools that are the backbone of the national system.

Rising demand

Demand for both public and private education has been steadily rising, with student enrolment increasing by 4 per cent a year, although it is the private school sector that is seeing the strongest growth. Between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of children resident in Qatar enrolled in private schools rose from 33 per cent to 51 per cent – far ahead of all other GCC countries except the UAE. This is a Gulf-wide trend, according to Kenneth Jones, country head for Qatar at Dubai-headquartered Gems Education.

The government is encouraging investment in private [education] to prevent a shortage of school places

“In our region, we have a large number of expat communities, and specifically parents looking for schools that will allow their children to graduate with internationally recognised examination results, often from their home countries,” he says. “In Qatar, parents are looking for international schooling that will prepare their children for places at the best universities and colleges in the world. This is equally true of Qatari and expatriate resident parents.”

The state school system is built around two models: semi-independent public schools, which account for 21.1 per cent of schooling; and independent public schools, which are government-funded but can choose their own teaching methods and staff, and account for 24.7 per cent of the market. As of 2013, there were 178 state-funded independent schools in Qatar, according to Dubai-based Alpen Capital.

The public system caters mainly for Qataris, although some expatriate children are admitted. The system is overseen by the Supreme Education Council, which has steadily tightened the regulation of standards.

Public education has been benefiting from sustained investment: the government allocated $7.2bn for the education sector in its 2014/15 budget – a 7.4 per cent rise on the previous year – and it expects to double annual spending over the next five years, with the bulk of this money going into schools.

The 2014/15 spending programme set out plans to build 85 new schools in just 18 months, an expansion of an earlier initiative set out by the Public Works Authority (Ashghal), which, in mid-2013, announced the start of construction on 29 schools and 15 kindergartens, to be completed by the end of 2014.

Ashghal’s track record suggests the authority is capable of meeting these ambitious goals. In 2012, it constructed 26 kindergartens and schools under a QR1bn ($275m) programme. The government has produced four approved design types, each including a full range of facilities including disabled access and making use of techniques to save energy and water.

Kindergartens have been a focus for investment as Qatar has emerged as a regional leader in promoting pre-school learning. The 2011-16 National Development Strategy introduced mandatory kindergarten attendance for children from the age of three, and as a result, the proportion of pre-school children enrolled at these institutions leapt from 54.5 per cent in 2011 to 73.4 per cent the following year. Most of these institutions are private.

International schools

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of expatriate residents send their children to international schools – as do many Qatari households. These institutions fall into three categories: Arabic-medium schools teaching the Qatari national curriculum; community private schools sponsored by embassies in Doha for their nationals living locally; and international private schools teaching foreign curriculums.

Just over half the private schools teach the Qatari curriculum and research has found that being taught in Arabic improves local pupils’ understanding. As a result, the Supreme Education Council has been promoting Arabic-medium teaching in an effort to improve results in subjects such as mathematics and science. But this approach also poses challenges. Being schooled in Arabic can hinder pupils’ ability to adapt when they move on to higher educational institutions, which often teach in English.

The British curriculum is the second-most popular in private schools, accounting for 31 per cent of the market, far ahead of the next most popular, the American and Indian curriculums with 7 per cent each.

In addition to building new public schools, the government is encouraging investment in the private sector to prevent a shortage of school places and to maintain competition in the market, with the provision of low-cost loans.

September will see the opening of the first Gems school in Qatar – Gems American Academy Qatar. It will have places for up to 1,550 children initially, from kindergarten up to grade 5, but will gradually expand over the secondary school age range. Gems partnered with state-backed firms The First Investor, Qatar Insurance Company and Tanween in June 2013 to set up two private schools in Al-Wakrah.

“This is the first Gems-owned-and-operated school in Qatar, but we are also looking at the possibility of opening other schools,” says Jones. “Speaking to parents and teachers as well as to the education authority in Qatar, we know there is a need for high-quality American, British, International Baccalaureate and Indian curriculum schools.”

Of course, school fees are a serious cost for families and parents must make hard choices in deciding where to educate their children. Annual fees at the French Lycee Bonaparte are about QR25,745, according to Alpen Capital, while the Deutsche Internationale Schule Doha charges QR39,000-QR45,000 for grades 9-10. But these cater for specific markets. Many schools teaching the English or US curriculum – which appeals to a wide range of international and local families – tend to be more expensive.

Fees for 2014-15 at the Doha British school are QR54,570 a pupil for those in years 12 and 13, while the ACS Doha International school charges QR63,000 for pupils in grades 6-9 and fees at the American School of Doha are QR67,180 for grades 9-12.

When parents are paying substantial sums for their children’s education, they expect high standards and in a crowded, albeit growing, marketplace, a new education provider has to develop a distinctive offer.

New approach

So, Gems will draw on US traditions of promoting creative thinking and pupils’ self-confidence. The group has recruited Tom Farquhar, who for four years led the highly regarded Sidwell Friends School in Washington, as dean of the American curriculum. “My speciality is in bringing the experience of the school into alignment with the skills students need in the future workforce,” he says. “The American education system, at its best, is focused on critical thinking and the development of student voice, and I hope to help bring that to students in any Gems American curriculum school.”

Qatar’s private school market was estimated to be worth just under $500m in 2010, the year the country won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. With the influx of expatriates that has followed since then, and the forecast for continued population growth in the near term, the value of the market is set to grow considerably.

Key fact

Doha expects to double annual spending over the next five years, with the bulk of this money going into schools

Source: MEED