Training students to be realistic

Published in MEED, 26 July 2016

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.

Big problems

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 government’s 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 that’s what Saudi Arabia’s 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 haven’t; some have done very well. The model, broadly speaking, is right. It’s still at its early stages, it’ll 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 don’t think the issue is so much around the colleges, it’s around the relative attractiveness of jobs in the public sector,” he says. “It’s 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, there’s 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 haven’t seen much evidence of that in the past.”