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Saudi private schools’ report card points to untapped potential 

Saudi Arabia will need an extra 1.2m school places by 2030, Colliers says Shutterstock/Zurijeta
Saudi Arabia will need an extra 1.2m school places by 2030, Colliers says
  • 15% of pupils at private schools 
  • Compares to 73% in UAE 
  • ‘Potential for future growth

Saudi Arabia has the Gulf’s lowest rate of students attending private schools, despite being the region’s largest market, a report has found.

Consultancy Colliers, which published its overview of K-12 education (kindergarten to 12th grade, covering ages 5 to 18) in the kingdom last month, attributed the low take-up to issues around education quality and availability, as well as the high cost of land. 

Some 6 million students were enrolled in K-12 education in Saudi Arabia in 2022, out of a total 9.6 million across the GCC. However, only 15 percent of Saudi pupils attended a private school, Colliers said. 

This compares to 73 percent in the UAE – 90 percent for Dubai and 64 percent for Abu Dhabi – and is the lowest figure across the GCC. 

Take-up of private education is generally linked to income levels. Yet Saudi Arabia has an average per capita income of $20,000 – between the figures for Oman ($16,000) and Kuwait ($26,000) – the report pointed out.

“This indicates potential for the future growth of the kingdom’s private education sector,” Colliers said.

If Saudi Arabia's state-run schools were performing strongly, this could explain the discrepancy – and shrink the private sector’s potential for investors and school operators. 

However, the kingdom has struggled to reach global average scores for student attainment over the past decade. 

The OECD's latest Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were released in December. 

The Pisa tests measured the reading, maths and science skills of 690,000 15-year-olds in 81 countries. Pupils in Saudi Arabia scored 389 in maths, improving 16 points since the previous assessment, but still below the global average of 472. They scored 383 in reading and 390 in science, below the averages of 476 and 485. 

The country has been working to improve education standards as part of the Vision 2030 strategy, setting up academic institutions, curricula and teacher training programmes. 

But it is being held back by stark geographical variation in quality, a wider-than-average skills gap between girls and boys and underinvestment in teaching, education experts told AGBI in September.

Colliers estimates the kingdom will need 7.2 million K-12 school places in 2030, as its population continues to grow. Of the extra 1.2 million places, 400,000 are likely to be in the private sector – translating to 200 new schools with around 2,000 students each. 

“The combination of increasing incomes, evolving demographic profiles and steady population growth” are set to drive the private education sector in Saudi Arabia, according to Mansoor Ahmed, executive director for healthcare, education and public-private partnership at Colliers. 

“This is complemented by the development of new residential communities, particularly in Riyadh." 

However, he also pointed to "challenges including high capital expenditure requirements and the necessity of attracting and retaining qualified staff”.

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