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Inside Saudi Arabia’s plans to raise the bar on education

Saudi education plans include incentivising teacher training Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff
The upcoming National Institute for Educational Professional Development aims to incentivise and train Saudi nationals to enter the teaching profession
  • Need for skilled workforce top priority
  • Teacher shortage to be addressed
  • New curricula and colleges

Saudi Arabia has launched a series of initiatives to address deep-seated issues in the quality of its education.

Last month the giga-project Neom unveiled plans to roll out a “comprehensive” early-childhood-to age-18 education programme.

The scheme includes a career-oriented talent academy, an education, research and innovation foundation and the Neom U university.

Elsewhere, the kingdom’s education ministry is preparing to officially launch a National Institute for Educational Professional Development (NIEPD) to incentivise Saudi nationals to take up careers in teaching and to provide them with better training. 

Saudi Arabia has a shortage of high-skilled teachers, especially in its regions that are more sparsely populated. The NIEPD has spent the past few years drawing up a strategy to tackle the issue, with support from professional services firm PwC. 

Sally Jeffery, global education and skills network leader at PwC Middle East, says the NIEPD is needed to address the inconsistent quality of the kingdom’s education offering.

The country “hasn’t invested sufficiently in teacher professional development in years,” she says. 

Policy experts including Jeffery welcome the new initiatives, as there is much to be done. 

Educational attainment among GCC schoolchildren is below par. Gulf countries have struggled to reach the global average scores in the three major assessments – PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – over the past decade. 

Attainment rankings

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) measures reading achievement at year-five level (ages 9-10) in 57 countries. 

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the OECD’s study of 15-year-olds’ abilities in reading, maths and science. 

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests are taken every four years by two cohorts of students – year five and year nine – from 60 countries.

The UAE and Qatar have consistently scored the highest in the region followed by Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait has yet to participate. 

The quality of provision in Saudi Arabia in particular varies dramatically according to location. Across the region there is a wider-than-average skills gap between girls and boys.

In the most recent PIRLS reading assessment, Gulf states are among the 10 countries with the highest gender gap. 

There are several underlying causes, including low social status afforded to teachers, and problems with early attainment of reading and writing skills in Arabic. 

“Gulf countries are working hard to improve their performance,” says Jeffery. “The region has a problem with teacher quality and structural challenges when you look at gender segregation and attitudes towards the teaching profession. 

“They know that unless they tackle education outcomes, they're never going to produce the workforce they need to achieve their economic goals.”

GCC countries are diversifying their economies away from oil, developing high-skilled industries like technology, renewables and advanced manufacturing and investing in skills development. The region requires 1,127 new schools by 2027 to cater to population growth, according to Alpen Capital.

“Look at the breakneck speed with which they are transforming their economies,” says Elizabeth Fordham, senior education advisor at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which runs the PISA assessments.

“They want to see that pace of change in education.”

Much of the work begins at home, says Dirk Hastedt, executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which runs PIRLS and TIMSS. “Parents matter and an early start matters.”

“Saudi Arabia is very aware of this and trying to fix it,” adds Jeffery. “The UAE, too, is big on messaging around how important it is for parents to engage in their children’s learning.” 

“The Gulf is putting a lot of emphasis on achievement – on education in general – and that is to be commended," says Hastedt.

Learning poverty in Mena

More than half of children in the Mena region experience “learning poverty”, meaning they cannot read and understand an age-appropriate text by the age of 10, according to a 2021 report by the World Bank.

This has prevented many children from fully engaging in their education and is holding back countries’ progress in human capital formation, the study says.

Insufficient attainment of early reading and writing skills in Arabic is a key factor in this.

When children start school, they learn to read and write in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is different from the more vernacular Arabic they may speak at home. This has a knock-on impact on future learning and contributes to poor literacy outcomes, the report argues. 

Possible solutions include wider enrolment in early education programmes such as preschool, encouraging parents to read to young children and play word games, and greater exposure to language-rich environments “that maximise the overlap between MSA and colloquial varieties”. 

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