There are parts of the world where, when the electricity stops, learning too either slows down or stops entirely. During daylight hours, tropical humidity and heat can conspire against pupils trying to concentrate on what their teacher is saying. And if the school goes dark once the sun sets, no evening lessons can be held in the classrooms.
Private education is still a minority pursuit, but poor results from state-run schools mean its popularity is growing in most parts of the region
Last year, the number of students in the GCC education system was about 12.6 million, according to Dubai-based Alpen Capital. The figure is growing by 3.6 per cent a year and is projected to reach 15 million by 2020. That fast rate of growth puts pressure on the authorities to provide ever more classrooms and teachers. More than 7,000 new schools need to be built in the next five years alone, most of which are needed in Saudi Arabia.
Underlying those overall figures are some other critical trends. The vast majority of students attend a state school, but their numbers are only expected to grow by 2.6 per cent a year between now and 2020. In contrast, student numbers at private schools are expected to rise almost twice as fast, by 5.1 per cent a year. By 2020, there will be some 3 million students in private education versus 2.3 million now.
Even those numbers do not tell the full story. The private sector is particularly strong in some corners of the region, but relatively weak in others. Private schools are dominant in the UAE and Qatar, while in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman the public sector is the main education provider. In the UAE the private sector educates about 70 per cent of pupils, but in Dubai, the most advanced market, 90 per cent of students attend a private school. In Saudi Arabia, the reverse is true, with less than 13 per cent of pupils in private schools. Things are changing there, but very slowly. The proportion of Saudi students in public schools fell from 89 per cent in 2009 to 87.3 per cent in 2014.
Private schooling is not necessarily better than public education, but in the Gulf it often is. The state system tends to provide poor teaching, based on outdated curriculums that emphasise rote learning above critical thinking and do little to prepare pupils for working life. The Swiss non-profit foundation World Economic Forum rates GCC education systems badly compared with the rest of the world. Out of 133 countries ranked by quality of education, Saudi Arabia is rated 45, followed by Bahrain (68), Kuwait (71), Oman (72), the UAE (90) and Qatar (91). In that context, it is not hard to understand why private schools are so popular.
In this part of the world, the government has been spending a lot of money on education; about 20-25 per cent of the budget is invested in education, says Mahboob Murshed, managing director of Alpen Capital. But the results are not very encouraging in terms of people being prepared for the jobs market. There is still a long way to go.
The growth of international private schools in places like Dubai has been fuelled by the presence of expatriates, most of whom are keen to give their children an education similar to the one they received; the tax-free environment means many of them have enough disposable income to make it affordable. But locals are also increasingly keen. For them, the private sector is often perceived as providing better quality education and there is a desire to give their children internationally recognised qualifications and a good grounding in foreign languages, particularly English.
Parents are looking for international education for their kids. Locals who can afford to, at least in the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, send their children to private international schools, says Murshed. The ultra-rich send their kids overseas for education at the school level, not just at the university level.
The popularity of different international curriculums varies from place to place. In Dubai, the British curriculum is most popular, while in Abu Dhabi the American syllabus tends to win out, partly as a result of the presence of US oil companies. In Saudi Arabia, the US curriculum is also popular due to the desire of students to study at American universities, but the International Baccalaureate is also gaining in popularity, as it is elsewhere around the region. Across the GCC there are also schools catering for expatriates from Japan, France, India, Pakistan and elsewhere, offering the curriculums from those countries.
All this presents a clear opportunity for private sector operators of schools and universities, as well as the investors that support them. According to Alpen Capital, some 500 education schemes are currently under way around the region, with a total value of more than $50bn.
It is not always plain sailing, however. Teacher recruitment is an ongoing issue for all providers. The recruitment of staff, especially experienced staff, becomes more competitive annually, says Clive Pierrepont, a spokesman for Taaleem, which runs 11 schools in the UAE. Salary packages are important, but teachers are also looking for professional development and career progression.
The staffing issue is particularly tricky for operators in Saudi Arabia, where social conditions make it hard to persuade international teachers to come. Another issue is fees, particularly with the slowing economy and a rise in job insecurity. The downturn in the regions oil and gas industry in particular means some families have left and there is now overcapacity in school places in the UAE, prompting some school operators to resort to discounting of fees, sometimes disguising them as scholarships or special rates for newly opened schools.
According to Ashwin Assomull, managing partner at UK-based consultancy Parthenon EY, the long-term health of the private schools sector relies on having variety and making it easy for school operators. To have an affordable and varied school sector, you need to make it easy for schools to open up, but also for teachers to come and live there, he says. If you create the right ecosystem to attract the schools to come and make it easy for teachers to come, you can provide education at various price points to satisfy the whole market.
Around most of the GCC, those conditions are being met to some extent or other. The one major exception is Saudi Arabia, and not just because of the difficulty with recruitment. School operators complain that the kingdoms regulatory system is inconsistent and many potential local investors are too driven by the pursuit of short-term profits rather than the idea of building a sustainable long-term business. Unfortunately, it is the one country that arguably needs the investment more than any other. In the current outlook, most of the thousands of new schools that will be needed in Saudi Arabia will have to be built by the government.
Saudi Arabia has committed itself to major reforms of its school curriculum, but it also needs to change the outlook of students if it is to achieve its goals
There was a time when a young Saudi could, if they wanted to, look forward to coasting through school, perhaps opt for an unchallenging humanities course at university and then settle for a well-paid but undemanding public sector job. That is no longer the case. With the government determined to reduce the inefficient state sector, young nationals are under pressure to acquire marketable skills so they can find decent private sector jobs. But the education system has a poor record of giving them the skills they need.
In international benchmarks such as the Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), both run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Saudi Arabia performs badly. In the most recent results, 12 per cent of Saudi students reached the high benchmark in science, 8 per cent in reading and 7 per cent in maths, while just 2 per cent reached it in all three subjects. Contrast that with the best performing country, Singapore, where 54 per cent of students reached the high benchmark in all three subjects.
There is clearly a lot of ground to make up. Two big problems are the reliance Saudi schools place on rote learning and the large amount of time devoted to religious instruction. Addressing these issues requires a fundamental rethink for the authorities and pushing through reforms that carry such social and political significance will not be easy.
But changes are afoot. Reform of the school curriculum is one of many areas included in the Saudi governments wide-ranging Vision 2030 strategy. Riyadh has vowed to invest particularly in developing early childhood education, refining our national curriculum and training our teachers and educational leaders. We will also redouble efforts to ensure the outcomes of our education system are in line with market needs.
The government fleshed out these ideas in its National Transformation Plan (NTP), which covers the first five years of the wider strategy. The Education Ministry has been tasked with improving TIMSS and PIRLS results, as well as 36 other goals, from improving the quality of primary education to developing core life and employability skills.
Such moves are in line with what other countries are doing. Governments all around the world are trying to move away from the more traditional focus on mastering facts to having a curriculum that is more about learning to learn, learning to ask the right questions, says Ashwin Assomull, managing director of Parthenon EY, a UK-based education consultancy. I think thats what Saudi Arabias going to do.
Long way behind
The problems with the Saudi education system are echoed around the Gulf. In Qatar, for example, 4 per cent of students reached the high benchmark across the three TIMSS and PIRLS subjects. The UAE was slightly better, with 6 per cent. While these are better than the Saudi results, they are still a long way behind the best performers.
Ali bin Abdulkhaliq al-Karni, director-general of the Riyadh-based Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, acknowledged the problems in a speech at the UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in Paris in May. In my part of the world our countries have spent huge amounts of money to develop education, but with little success, he said.
While it may be a region-wide issue, the problem is more serious in Saudi Arabia due to its larger population. Assomull suggests one way to improve the situation would be to increase the proportion of students attending private schools with international curriculums. What the kingdom needs to do is to encourage more private sector participation, he says. In Dubai, about 90 per cent of children go to a private school and most of them are international curriculum schools. In Saudi Arabia, less than 10 per cent are going to private international schools.
The government appears keen on this too. The Education Ministry is aiming to increase the percentage of students in private higher education from 6 per cent of the total to 15 per cent by 2020. But previous attempts in this area have not always gone well. In 2012, the government launched its Colleges of Excellence programme to get international operators to run 100 colleges, with a focus on vocational courses. However, some of those involved have reportedly run into financial difficulties and some have pulled out. Observers say some operators have struggled to recruit students in sufficient numbers, partly because of a stigma associated with vocational education. Recruiting teachers to work in Saudi Arabia is also a big challenge.
Colleges of Excellence
Despite the difficulties, however, the scheme has its supporters. The concept behind the Colleges of Excellence is fantastic, says Richard Bennett, a former teacher and now leader for education and skills in the Middle East at US consultancy Deloitte. Bringing in global expertise in a way that rewards success makes absolute sense to me. Some of the colleges have struggled to recruit, but others havent; some have done very well. The model, broadly speaking, is right. Its still at its early stages, itll continue to develop, but the direction of travel is very positive.
Bennett says one difficulty is persuading young Saudis that a vocational course leading to a private sector job is the best option for them. I dont think the issue is so much around the colleges, its around the relative attractiveness of jobs in the public sector, he says. Its all about changing that generational mindset. Once a cadre has been through the system and been seen by their peers to have done well it becomes a much easier argument.
Such issues are fundamental to the position that Saudi society finds itself in. In the coming years young nationals will be entering an economy in a state of flux as the government tries to pivot the country away from a reliance on oil and expand the private sector. That means the type of jobs they can expect to land once they are out of education will be different. For the government, the task is not just to change the curriculum, but also the expectations of its population. Whether it is up to the task remains to be seen. Some are sceptical.
In Saudi Arabia, theres always a great plan in place and then something throws it off, says one analyst. I hope [education reform] happens quickly and effectively, but I havent seen much evidence of that in the past.