Region needs better teachers

Far more teachers are needed across the Middle East and North Africa, but the real challenge for governments is finding and developing staff who can inspire students. Published in MEED, 9 November 2014

About 827,000 people make their living from teaching in the GCC, almost half of them in primary school classrooms. The greatest number by far earn their crust in Saudi Arabia, which is home to almost 640,000 teachers. But while these may sound like large numbers, the region’s education ministries will have to attract far more to the profession in the coming years.

The UN’s education arm, Unesco, estimates that classrooms in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region will need to accommodate an extra 7.7 million children between 2012 and 2030. That in turn translates into some 464,000 more teachers being needed by 2015 if the aim of universal primary education is to be achieved, while 2.6 million must be found by 2030.

On a positive note, Unesco says the policies being followed by the region’s governments mean the gap between teacher supply and demand should stabilise by 2025. But that still means the next decade could see a shortfall, and GCC governments will not escape the pressures.

Good position

Overall, the Gulf countries are relatively well-placed at the moment. According to the Washington-based World Bank, the teacher-pupil ratio varies quite widely between countries in the Gulf, but in almost all cases, it is better than the regional and world averages.

Kuwait is in the best position, with the lowest number of pupils per teacher throughout the years of schooling from pre-primary to secondary. Qatar and Saudi Arabia both have consistently low numbers as well. Omani children appear to be worst off, with the highest pupil-teacher ratio at the pre-primary and secondary levels, and the second-highest at primary schooling after the UAE.

But the rate at which pupil numbers are forecast to rise in the coming years will present a challenge to some governments. Dubai-based investment bank Alpen Capital estimates that overall pre-primary school numbers will rise from about 647,000 in 2013 to 959,000 by 2019, a 48 per cent increase. The fastest growth will be in Saudi Arabia, where the numbers will climb by 83 per cent from 265,000 to 484,000. Total student numbers in primary and secondary schools across the GCC will also rise, albeit at a slightly slower rate, from 8.8 million in 2013 to 10.1 million by 2019.

In its GCC Education Industry report, published in July, the World Bank pointed out that, on average, teachers in the region stay in their posts for three years, which means recruitment is a constant issue for schools. UK and Indian curriculum schools face the greatest pressures to recruit, particularly in Dubai, it says.

Despite the relative strength of teaching resources at the moment, more could and should be done beyond just preparing to recruit more teachers. Education is, after all, not simply a question of the number of pedagogues but also the standard of their teaching. In its report, Alpen Capital highlighted this fact, saying: “There is a need for an increase in the skilled teaching faculty across schools in the region, particularly the private ones.”

Standard of teaching

The proportion of trained teachers across the GCC varies more widely than the pupil-teacher ratio. In the UAE and Oman, almost all teachers are trained, from pre-primary to secondary stages. In Qatar, by contrast, less than a third of pre-primary school teachers have training, and less than half of primary school teachers and only two thirds of those teaching at secondary school are formally qualified.

Faced with these twin pressures of having to recruit more teachers and ensure higher standards of instruction, governments have been following several policies, including trying to boost the number of locals who enter the profession and, at the same time, recruiting more teachers from overseas.

This year, the Supreme Education Council (SEC) in Qatar hired more than 900 teachers to fill vacancies at independent schools and institutions in the country. The basic task of filling the empty posts is not too difficult given the interest among teachers in working in the Gulf. Ibrahim Rajab al-Kuwari, director of human resources at SEC, said in May that 36,000 teachers had applied for the jobs, 29,117 from abroad.

SEC’s selection policy is based on hiring experienced teachers among local Qataris and expatriates already in the country, as well as from elsewhere in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. It also plans to improve the supply of educated candidates by setting up a centre for teacher training.

“We will continue to exert efforts to set up a national centre for developing educational leaders and teachers, and to apply a new system to evaluate the performance of principals and review the evaluation of teachers,” said Mohammed al-Hammadi, minister of education & higher education and secretary-general of the SEC, at a press conference to mark the start of the new academic year on 4 September.

In Qatar, as in much of the rest of the region, local teachers are often in the minority. Statistics from SEC show there are some 8,070 non-Qatari teachers in the independent sector, out of a total of 12,130.

But a reliance on foreign teachers is not something all governments are comfortable with. In March, Bahrain’s Education Minister Majid al-Nuaimi told the Council of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, that his ministry gives priority to the recruitment of Bahraini citizens as teachers. He also said the country prefers to delay recruitment of foreign teachers until just before the school year begins, to give Bahrainis the greatest opportunity to apply for any openings.

Localisation strategy

Each year, Bahrain recruits about 350 locals as teachers. Currently, some 90 per cent of female teachers in the country and 80 per cent of male teachers are locals.

Manama has also been trying to improve the standard of teaching. The National Authority for Qualifications & Quality Assurance of Education & Training was set up in 2008 to review the performance of education and training institutions. Four years later, the first graduates emerged from Bahrain Teachers’ College, part of the University of Bahrain. To date, some 357 teachers have gained a bachelor’s degree and a further 368 have been awarded a higher diploma in education from the college.

Other countries have also been making efforts to improve the quality of teaching. In May last year, Nayef al-Hajraf, Kuwait’s minister of education and higher education, vowed that underperforming Kuwaiti teachers would be reassigned to administrative duties and non-Kuwaitis deemed unfit for the job would not have their contracts renewed.

Countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain have the advantage of relatively small education systems, making the challenge of finding enough good-quality teachers relatively manageable. In Saudi Arabia, however, the pressures are far greater.

The size of the kingdom’s student population dwarfs all others in the region. There are some 7.9 million pupils in the Saudi education system, from pre-primary to tertiary levels, with about 6.4 million of them in primary and secondary schools. The overall figure is expected to grow to 9.4 million by 2019, according to Alpen Capital. As a result of its young, fast-growing population, the kingdom will need to attract a further 215,600 teachers by 2030, according to Unesco’s estimates.

The government has shown willingness to pour money into the system to deal with these challenges. In the 2014 budget, Riyadh allocated SR210bn ($56bn) to education, making it the biggest single area of spending and equivalent to almost 25 per cent of the total budget of SR855bn. It is worth noting, however, that defence spending is probably higher, but is not included in the figures released to the public.

The amount allocated for education marked a 3 per cent rise on the previous year’s budget, according to the local Jadwa Investment. The money is being used for, among other things, building 465 schools and eight colleges.

In Oman, education spending also takes up a large portion of the government’s budget. The allocation of RO1.4bn ($3.7bn) for the current year accounts for 11 per cent of total expenditure and 31 per cent of the overall budget for civil ministries.

An essential element of spending plans these days is information technology, both in terms of modernising classrooms and ensuring teachers and students alike become comfortable with using the latest technologies. In the UAE, there has been a push to integrate technology into classrooms under schemes such as the Mohammed bin Rashid Smart Learning Programme, which has now been running for two years. Some 2,000 teachers were trained under the programme in the past year, taking the total up to 3,500 across 146 schools.

The greatest challenge for education ministries, however, is finding and developing teachers who can inspire the next generation. That is vital if the Gulf countries are to make the most of their potential and if other wider economic and social policy aims, such as diversifying the economy away from oil revenues and getting more locals into meaningful employment, are to have any chance of succeeding.

Inspiring students

“It becomes critical to have a generation of teachers who are able to inspire students, broaden their knowledge, and establish the value of analytical thinking, use of research data and thinking outside the box,” said Amal al-Qubaisi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council at the Annual Education Conference in the UAE on 23 September.

Of course, such things are easier said than done and, despite all the efforts to improve teaching quality, the GCC states clearly still have a long road to travel. Unesco’s Education For All Development Index ranks 115 countries around the world on the basis of four criteria, including access to universal primary education, adult literacy rates, quality of education and gender equality. Not all the GCC states are included, due to a lack of data, but of the three that are, Kuwait is ranked highest at 50th in the world, followed by Qatar at 55th, while Saudi Arabia trails behind at 78th. Better teachers will help them climb the rankings.