Saudi Arabia’s education system in the spotlight again

Education in Saudi Arabia is in the spotlight again with the appointment of a new minister

Jamal Khashoggi

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Education in Saudi Arabia is in the spotlight again with the appointment of a new minister for this famously problematic ministry. In fact, education has always been a main concern for Saudi officials involved in public affairs and they were about to lose hope that the ministry, and the education sector as a whole, could be fixed. Whenever unemployment, labor and terrorism issues are brought up, education becomes the main concern of parliament and the media.

Will the new minister, Khaled al-Faisal, be able to mend what his predecessors failed to fix? He does not have a background in education but he is a strict bureaucrat who has worked for more than 40 years as the governor of the two most important regions of the Saudi Kingdom. Also, he has been known for his firmness and discipline at work. Some believe that if Faisal managed to “adjust and fasten” the administrative and education board of the ministry, which is the largest employer of Saudis after the defense and interior ministers, he would achieve great reforms. He would have to handle more than half a million teachers who are busy with their rights and careers. Making their main job of teaching their sole concern is already a massive effort.

As soon as Khaled al-Faisal assumed office as Education Minister, a torrent of suggestions was heaped upon him as to where to start; curricula or dilapidated school buildings? Teachers, or their salaries? Or the long holidays teachers receive in Saudi Arabia, an issue that has made it to the forefront of the news in the past. There was almost a consensus among columnists and commentators that the problem lies in the curriculum. It is an old case that is divided into two parts: the first is a debate about the predominance of religion and languages at the expense of science and mathematics, and the second is about the content of religion and humanities education and how to content with the narrow and intolerant visions that do not agree with the fact that the kingdom is open towards the world.

Strongly criticized

It is an issue that launched the “local” education issue into international forums. The kingdom’s curricula were strongly criticized by both allies and antagonists; in fact, there is an acute problem in the curricula. However, the political currents and polarization conflicts in the kingdom have forced it to deviate from its main goal. Some used this issue to settle old scores by accusing the “awakening” - a colloquial term we use to refer to political Islam - as the cause for “extremist” curricula, ignoring the fact that they couldn’t pass curricula by the government if there wasn’t anyone inside the government to agree on them. Moreover, senior scholars are fiercely protecting these curricula and thus with all the stirred controversy and polarization, reform efforts, along with the $2 billion that was allocated by King Abdullah to the development of education a few years ago, are now pending. Eventually, taking the decision was postponed after that the “technical” matter turned into a political one, so political imperatives will be chosen over education reform.

The harshest findings of the report show that those who choose to work in the field of education were not the best students themselves

Jamal Kashoggi

I believe that the real predicament is quality and not the curricula because good teachers cannot be found. The lack of good teachers will result in students with a lack of basic education skills who will still make it to university despite their weaknesses.
Then, once they finish their university studies they will get hired to work in the education sector, for example, and will create another weak generation. This cycle will continue from one generation to the other until it completely distorts society on the economic and political level.

A report has been issued by the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution regarding this issue. It is entitled: “Arab youth: Do they suffer from a lack of educational foundations that would guarantee them a productive life?”
In a word, I would say yes. We have heard lots of parents complaining that their children spend many years in school and, according to the report, “they failed to meet the requirements of basic education” which means that they failed to acquire mathematics, reading and writing skills.

The report

The report only covers 13 Arab countries where statistical information was available. Among those countries is Saudi Arabia whose statistics reveal that about half of the male students did not succeed in acquiring basic education after four years of primary school. Girls, however, were better because one third were able to acquire the basic requirements in education and thus they recorded the highest difference between boys and girls in the Arab world.

According to the report, there are countries that are worse than Saudi Arabia, but when the situation and the limited spending in these countries is compared to the stability of Saudi Arabia and to the enormous spending on education (1.2 trillion riyals during the last ten years, and a quarter of last year’s budget), the problem is much more dangerous. This is also confirmed by the results that include the level of school students, as well as the level of the teachers. The problem lies in the “quality” and not in the “quantity.” The percentage of boys and girls enrolled in Saudi schools is impressive with more than 95 percent in schooling. Therefore, it seems that schools are available for everybody but there is a problem in the quality of education. The harshest findings of the report show that those who choose to work in the field of education were not the best students themselves. They are instead academically weak individuals who cannot find employment anywhere else. They ended up as teachers without even thinking about it and without having the desire to take up the career. This is not only a matter of concern for Saudi Arabia, but for all Arab countries.

Testing proficiency

I spoke to one of the report’s researchers, Mrs. Maysa Jalbout, and asked if testing the proficiency of the teachers is a solution to keeping the qualified ones and dismissing the incompetent persons. She said that there is a debate about this issue because there are schools that believe that any teacher can pass the test on the paper, but an incompetent and unskilled teacher won’t be able to succeed in the training course. They believe that training is the best alternative for the proficiency tests because the task of the teacher is no longer limited to teaching students how to read, write and do math, but it also includes solving problems and communicating with others: a skill that must be conveyed to the teachers through training programs.

Nevertheless, there is another group of people who believe that testing teachers is efficient and that is what former U.S. President Bill Clinton did when he was governor of Arkansas. He imposed a proficiency test on all the teachers after a fierce battle with the teachers’ unions. He succeeded in converting his state from a weak one on the economic and employment level to a success story, through education reforms that produced better graduates who were able to compete and be productive. This is the crisis tackled by the Brookings report, a crisis manifested through protests and anger in the streets of the Arab Spring countries.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 8, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

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