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Chasing the elusive gold star for Gulf schools

Global education benchmarks are useful, but they don't tell the full story

Book, Publication, Person Reuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi.
An Emirati 4-year-old, Saeed Al Meheri, at his school library in Al Ain. Curricula are being redesigned across the Gulf

“Could do better.” I doubt I am alone in having had school reports that used this phrase – and it seems this is also the conclusion of recent research into Gulf education standards. 

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which tests 15-year-olds around the world, found that standards in the Gulf had improved, but outcomes still ranked below global averages.

The Pisa tests cover mathematics, reading and science skills. If we look at maths attainment in the 2022 tests, the global average across the 81 countries was 472 points. Saudi students scored 389, up on their 2018 result, while Qatari students maintained their result of 414 and UAE students dropped four points, scoring 431.

In other assessments, such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the Gulf also falls below global averages.

There will be numerous reasons for this. Specific factors affect the results of every country in these tests. For many countries, though, efficient education funding is vital. 

Strong education outcomes rely on good teachers and infrastructure, all within the context of a clearly delineated national government policy. Assessment in the form of exams and minimum attainment levels are important parts of monitoring how well education systems are performing.

But it also comes down to cultural factors, such as teaching being considered of lower social status than other professions, and parents being disengaged from their children’s schooling.

Government spending is critical. GCC nations have spent increasing amounts on education in recent years. Spending as a percentage of GDP in the Gulf is high in comparison to many countries, including the UK and the US.

Saudi Arabia was the GCC’s highest spender on education in 2020, allocating 7.8 percent of its GDP to the sector, according to Unesco and the World Bank. The US allocated 5.4 percent that year and the world average was 4.4 percent.

This is in part a response to populations where young people make up a much larger proportion of society: 29 percent of the GCC’s population was under 18 in 2021, according to the United Nations Development Programme.  

Preparing students for a different future

These young citizens need to be equipped with the skills to contribute to the economic health of their country.

The development strategies of GCC members – which can best be summarised as diversification – mean much higher numbers of nationals will have to work in the private sector, set up businesses and become entrepreneurs. The days of vast state largesse are numbered.

These are really strong imperatives to raise education standards – and using international organisations to benchmark this can be useful.

But there are potential pitfalls. One is grade inflation, whereby grades are lowered to raise the overall average and in turn the perceived quality of the education system. This is something the UK is currently battling and the situation there should be seen as a warning

There are plenty of ways that the GCC’s schools can improve – and are improving – attainment levels. These include raising the quality of teaching, focusing on Stem subjects, introducing new programmes and investing in education tech, as well as enhancing infrastructure and working directly with businesses.

The private sector is playing its role across the region. According to Alpen Capital, demand for private schools is growing by 1.5 percent a year, against 0.4 percent for publicly funded institutions. Leading private sector providers such as GEMS are hiring more teachers.

This momentum may be in part down to the fact that outcomes in private schools are generally higher than for state providers, which is not unique to the Gulf.

At the policy level, revisions are being made to national curricula in recognition of the greater diversity of talents and the broad needs of the future economy.

In the UAE, fourth graders (ages 9 to 10) have had the Arabic language, Islamic studies and ethics “Salama” component of the curriculum made optional in a bid to free up students’ capacity for other areas of study. All of this is already having significant benefits.

It is also important to remember the pace of change that has taken place in the region, particularly in the Saudi education system. It will take time for investments and reforms to be seen in outcomes, which it is fair to say have improved hugely in recent years.

The process is inherently time-consuming and there is only so much acceleration possible. Meanwhile, solely chasing rankings is not the answer.

Oliver Cornock is global editor-in-chief at Oxford Business Group

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