Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is the driving force behind a number of education reforms aimed at producing something perhaps once unheard of in the Kingdom: critical, independent thinkers.
The country’s National Transformation Programme seeks to repair an outdated education system that has consistently placed Saudi students near the bottom of international assessment rankings and failed to prepare them for a post-oil economy.
“Education is key to the success of Vision 2030, our current education system is a product of the past, not an enabler of the future,” Saudi Arabia's Minister of Education Dr Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Issa told an audience of international education and business leaders gathered for the Yidan Prize Summit in Hong Kong Monday.
“A tradition of simply transmitting existing knowledge is no longer adequate. We need to rethink education from preschool through graduate schools and we need to do this urgently.”
Education accounts for about 25 per cent of the country’s annual budget.
This year, the government allocated about SR200 billion (about US$53.3 billion) toward public education, which employs more than 500,000 teachers in 30,000 public schools across the country, according to the minister. About 5.5 million children are enrolled in Saudi’s K to 12 schools.
The high investment in education hasn’t necessarily translated to quality, however. Results from the latest 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) - an international assessment that measures the reading achievement of 10-year-olds from 50 countries - released last week showed that fourth-graders in Saudi Arabia were reading at a level well below the international average. The Kingdom scored 430 –significantly lower than the PIRLS Scale Centerpoint score, 500 – placing it 44th out of 50.
Next year, KSA students will take part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the first time. The test is issued every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to 15-year-olds across the globe to measure reading, maths and science comprehension.
Dr Al-Issa said the ministry signed an agreement with the OECD just last month to “to explore opportunities to further deepen cooperation on the design and implementation of education reform in Saudi Arabia.”
The ministry is also working with the National Association for the Education of Young Children in the United States to acquire additional expertise in early childhood development, curriculum design and setting new standards.
Since Dr Al-Issa was appointed minister two years ago, major curriculum reforms have already taken effect. Last year, he announced that the subjects of health and physical education would be offered in schools for girls. The new classes began this academic year, he said. The evolving curriculum, which also applies to religion, is still developing, he said.
“To me, it’s giving the students a chance to participate, to question, to open their eyes to different ideas, this is the way that the students will engage and this is the way that they can develop their own critical thinking skills and communications skills,” said Dr Al-Issa.
“Once they leave the school system and participate in the job market, they should be different people. In general, the government looks at education as a driving force.”
In the meantime, the Kingdom has started working with its public school teachers to improve the quality of teaching.
Unlike in the UAE, where both private and public schools struggle to recruit teachers, Saudi Arabia faces the opposite challenge: an oversupply of graduates from the local colleges and universities with teaching degrees.
"The ratio between students to teachers in our system is quite low," Dr Al-Issa told The National. "We have more teachers than what we need, and the waiting list – those who are waiting to get a job in the education sector – is too high."
Dr Al-Issa said the ministry is working on a new initiative to improve the quality of education and calibre of graduates coming out of the colleges of education across the country’s public universities. The government is also considering changing the criteria for new hires.
“We are putting new standards and maybe we will go to accept only those who have master’s degrees in the education sector as teachers, and to stop hiring those who only have a bachelor’s degree,” said Dr Al Eissa, noting these changes may be applied within two years.
“Next year we will have new requirements in the college of education to accept the new students with these new requirements.”
Teachers who are already working in schools are being offered additional training and professional development, short courses between one and two months long, led by international experts.
The ministry also selects about 1,000 teachers annually to travel abroad for one year to gain international training and experience in US, UK, Canada, Finland, Australia and New Zealand. The international teacher training program will continue until at least 2030, he said.
“The key factor is to retrain our teachers,” said Dr Al-Issa.
“The international teacher training program opens a new opportunity for teachers to look at the world differently. They engage in a real-life experience, they have this type of, let’s say, tolerance, acceptance of other people and talk with people from different religions, with different backgrounds. So, this is the way that we think education should move forward.”
The ministry recently introduced a new initiative called Future Gate to promote digital learning and “change the whole setting” in schools. It handed out iPads to students and teachers in 150 schools and is encouraging more technology-enabled teaching and learning. Next year, the program will be expanded to include 1,500 schools. It is the first step toward the Government’s goal of eliminating all textbooks in K-12 classrooms.
“Hopefully, by 2020, we would like to stop printing any textbooks and using only technology because we think this is the way the technology is driving us,” said Dr Al-Issa. “The excitement that students have when they use technology in the classroom and at home it’s different than the way they are studying now. It’s a complete change.”
“The focus is to change the philosophy of education from teacher-based instruction to student-centred instruction, from the traditional way of teaching and learning to more sophisticated engagement with students in the classrooms, and giving them opportunities to be responsible about themselves, to be critical thinkers, to engage in the most critical issues. They have to question; they have to participate in complex situations. This is the biggest challenge for us, how to change the whole environment.”