Ministerial Decision No. 287/2017 of the Ministry of Education (the Ministry) issuing the By-Laws Regulating Private Schools in Oman (the Decision) came into force on 19 September 2017. The Decision applies to any private schools established in Oman (Schools) and repeals the Ministry's previous by-laws (Ministerial Decision No26/2006) (the Repealed Decision). Schools that have been established under the Repealed Decision have a grace period of one year from the date on which this Decision came into force to bring practices in line with the Decision. The Decision includes a number of very interesting developments around a classification system for Schools, parent/school contracts, the use of advertising and social media, special needs education and student welfare.
The Decision provides that the Ministry may put in place a classification system and publish results of Schools on its website and in various media. This is an indication of a move towards a more transparent education market as is sometime seen elsewhere in the Middle East.
There are restrictions on a School in relation to announcements or publications without the approval of the Ministry. Also in relation to advertising, there is a prohibition on an announcements or advertising of an opening of a School opening, registering students or carrying out any education activities prior to the issuing of a school license.
Article 35 of the Decision specifically provides that a contract shall be entered into between the School and the student's parents (or presumably guardians). A form of prescribed contract may be made available in the near future. This follows the trend elsewhere in the region.
Licensing application process
The private school license application process is set out in a more transparent and detailed manner in chapter two of the Decision. These include a comprehensive outline of the steps involved in the licensing procedure, which include the application for an initial approval, followed by an application for a final approval, with all of the conditions required to be satisfied by applicants expressed within this chapter.
The Repealed Decision set out the conditions for Omani individual investors applying for private school licenses. The Decision now goes further, providing requirements for Omani individual and institutional investors, as well as foreign individual investors. At this stage it is not fully clear what conditions foreign institutional investors are required to satisfy in order to obtain the Ministry's approval. It is likely that these conditions will be put in place by the practical application of this chapter going forward.
The Decision repeals the previous obligation imposed on applicants for a private school license to put forward a bond amounting to 3% of the value of the aggregate annual tuition fees of the School which must be approved by the Ministry. This is now replaced with bonds valued at a range of set amounts, which the Ministry has the discretion to reduce if the applicant has fulfilled any of the pre-conditions for a licensing application.
Categories of Schools
The obligations imposed on Schools appear to have been streamlined, doing away with the previous distinctions between Arabic language schools, bilingual schools and international/global schools. The repeal of these distinctions signifies a more unified approach towards the regulation of Schools. We understand that recently the Ministry had temporarily ceased accepting applications for international/global school licenses. It is unclear at this stage whether the Ministry will change its approach.
Previously a private school license would only be granted for a one year period, to be renewed annually. The Decision now amends the period of the school License to three years, with further three year renewal periods being possible.
Reform of Ministerial Bodies
Various ministerial bodies of the Ministry appear to have been reformed. The 'Private School Committee' appears to have been dissolved and re-established with a committee of the same name, but with a different constitution and competencies.
The new Private School Committee now no longer requires membership to include a member representing the following categories: owners of private schools, a member representing the principals of private schools and a member representing the parents of students. However, the Decision now requires the Private Schools to comprise, among others, representatives from each of the Ministry of Municipalities and Regional Provinces, Muscat Municipality, the Public Authority for Civil Defence and Ambulance, and the Director of the Private School Licensing Department.
Furthermore, the competences of the new Private School Committee have been narrowed to concentrate solely on the broader aspects of policy-making and monitoring the compliance with such policies. Previously, the competences of the old Private School Committee was much broader, and these obligations have since been delegated to the competent ministerial bodies which already exist in the Ministry. We predict that this new framework for the Private Schools Committee will lead to a more administratively workable and efficient structure for all of the Ministry, the Private School Committee, and the Schools affected by its decisions.
Article 13 of the Repealed Decision established an Inspection Committee for School Buildings and Facilities. The Decision repeals this and does not replace it with any provisions for a new committee with similar functions. Instead, chapter four establishes regulations related to School buildings and facilities, with supervisory and regulatory functions delegated to the Directorate of Private Schools (the DPS) in general.
Furthermore, the supervisory functions of the DPS are set out in detail in the Decision. The DPS is responsible for the ongoing supervision and monitoring of Schools, including the approval of any external educational service providers (whether these originate from Oman or abroad), as well as the approval of any kinds of donations or grant to a School.
Boards of Trustees and Management
The Decision now requires Schools to appoint a board of trustees of no less than five members, which are now required to include at least two persons experienced in the field of education, and one person representing the parents of the School's students. The Decision also gives the board of trustees a set of positive obligations, making its role in the management of the School more transparent, including the addition of reporting requirements to the Ministry.
An interesting provision of the Decision is that the owner of a School (or its partners or shareholders) may be the chair or member of the board of trustees and do have the ability to vote (as determined in that School's board of trustees rules governance) however that person is prohibited from participating in the management of the Schools day to day matters. This is a welcome provision which provides a clear delineation between the responsibilities of the board and the day to day School management.
Specifically in relation to School management, the Decision provides that a deputy principle is required where a School exceeds certain pupil numbers or grades, which is to be expected, or if the head principle is of non-Arab nationality. In such circumstances the deputy principle must be of Arab nationality. In terms the management structure, it is important for Schools to bear this requirement in mind.
Schools are now required to use modern IT systems to assure that the quality control measures set by the Ministry will be met. This includes an obligation on Schools to create a website publishing relevant information related to the School, such as tuition fees.
Student Welfare and Special Needs Education
The Decision provides robust health and safety regulations which include relevant conditions that must be satisfied for an appropriate school bus system, and obligations for the School to provide healthy meals that meet the standards set by the competent health authorities in Oman.
Article 48 provides an obligation to provide ongoing professional training to both teaching and administrative staff for not less than 20 hours per academic year. In addition to other specific staff requirements, there are certain parameters around when a School will require a special needs teacher, a social worker or psychological specialist and a nurse or health supervisor. Each of these is clearly a positive development in terms of student welfare.
Article 89 of the Decision specifically provides for equal opportunities for disabled students and requirements in terms of special needs education.
Violations and Policing Crimes in Schools
One of the most significant reforms relates to violations and sanctions. The Decision, in conjunction with the competent authorities, which in this context we assume may be the Royal Oman Police, grants juristic powers to employees of the Ministry. It is unclear at this stage the extent of these policing powers and how these will be enforced, such as whether the appointed Ministry employees will be required to patrol schools, or simply act on crime reports submitted by the staff at Schools.
A further development is the addition of a wider range of sanctions on Schools. The Ministry now has the discretion to impose fines on a School of up to 5,000 Omani Riyals, as well as reduce tuition fees, amongst other measures. This allows the Ministry greater flexibility in imposing sanctions which it considers to be more proportionate to the violation in question, before resorting to a final sanction of revoking the offending School's license.
The practical application of the provisions of this Decision remains to be seen. The reforms to private school regulation extend beyond the sample set out in this article. These reforms indicate that the Ministry may be moving towards a more objective-based approach, with more streamlined committees with defined competences of each.
There is a significant increase in provisions regulating the welfare and rights of students, which are always a positive development. Greater clarity in the licensing procedures and the obligations of Schools towards students, teachers and the Ministry alike will, in time, undoubtedly provide more certainty to investors, owners and operators in the education sector in Oman.