Doha rolls out private school vouchers

Doha rolls out private school vouchers

As Qatar seeks to move ahead with reform of its social services, it is expanding its voucher system for private schooling.

Nationals who send their children to private schools should now receive a government voucher to pay for it, according the Supreme Education Council, which made the announcement over the summer.

 In Qatar there are government-run schools and a private sector made up of international, community and private Arab schools.

Vouchers were previously authorised for the independent schools, which are government-funded but have operational autonomy. But the scheme has been extended to 32 private schools.

The vouchers cover a maximum 28,000 Qatari riyals ($7,700) per year, paid for by the government.

The expansion is the latest move in Doha’s struggle to improve its education system, which is well below international (and national target) standards. About 5 per cent of students meet national maths standards, as defined by the Qatar Comprehensive Educational Assessment. In science they fare slightly better.

Like almost everything in Qatar, formal education is relatively new. The first boys’ school opened in the 1940s and a girls’ school opened in the middle of the following decade.

At the time, much of the population was illiterate. Bit by bit, without a coherent structure, the system grew until the turn of the century when education was re-evaluated. It was found that 13 per cent of secondary students were failing end-of-year examinations, according to government figures.

The current independent school model, developed with consultants from the Rand Corporation, decentralised control, creating publicly funded but independently operated schools, The system is about a decade old.

Michael Romanowski, a professor and co-ordinator of the masters degree programme in education and educational leadership at Qatar university, says increasing the number of schools eligible for vouchers might improve education by increasing competition. But there are more pressing problems, such as the lack of qualified teachers, he says.

Some parents and teachers have interpreted the voucher expansion as a sign that attempts to reform state schools are falling behind. The money spent has not brought schools up to par, the theory goes, so the government is pushing funding towards vouchers to pay for private schooling.

Competition for admission to private (and the best independent) schools is fierce. And amid an influx of families moving to the country at a time of economic boom, that competition is increasing. Most of the desirable private schools have lengthy waiting lists.

Amanda, an expatriate with three children at private school, says the expanded voucher system will have little tangible effect in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

“Qataris have the means, and have had vouchers in the past, so it shouldn’t make a drastic difference,” she says.

Instead, for Amanda and others like her, quality is the main concern. Hamad and Maryam, a Qatari couple with three children at private school, will now receive QR28,000 per child per year. While they appreciate the vouchers, they say cost was not the overriding factor. Rather, their concern is that their children receive good English-language education.