From building new educational facilities to rewriting the curriculum and outsourcing education services to private companies, the GCC is pushing forward with educational reform. The methods may differ from state to state, but the required end-result is essentially the same: to produce citizens that can contribute to a knowledge-based, diverse economy.

All the curriculum changes in the world will not transform a textbook dependent didactic teaching style

Natasha Ridge, Dubai School of Government

It is widely accepted that change is needed, but agreeing how to implement it is more challenging. Striking a balance between a culturally appropriate system and a modern international educational model is not easy.

“There needs to be a student-centred approach, with more emphasis on creativity,” says Natasha Ridge, acting director of research at Dubai School of Government, a public-policy research organisation.

GCC spending on education* ($bn)
Saudi Arabia 36.7
UAE 2.7
Qatar 5.4
Oman 2.1
*2010 budget  
Source: MEED  

“Everyone’s intelligence is different and this needs to be maximised. Teaching style is first. All the curriculum changes in the world will not transform a textbook dependent didactic teaching style.”

Creative thinking needed in GCC education

Encouraging students to think creatively and solve problems rather than just learn facts is a key aim of the reforms under way in the Middle East. The education survey recently conducted by MEED revealed that businesses in the region consider problem-solving to be the weakest skills area for school leavers and that more attention to this and creative thinking in schools is needed.

There is determination to use and develop the human capital, mistakes will be made, but things will work in long-term

Edwin Eisendrath, Huron Consulting Group

Qatar is almost a decade into its school reform programme, which aims to create motivated and enquiring minds, rather than what has been described by the government itself as a tradition of passivity borne through rote learning. The Supreme Education Council (SEC) was also concerned that students were leaving the Qatari school system without the academic proficiency required to go on to further studies or take up demanding, skilled jobs.

To modernise the system, in 2001, the SEC asked US-based Rand Corporation to review the entire system from kindergarten (infants) to year 12 (K12).

The chosen strategy from a range of options identified by Rand was the establishment of state-funded independent schools, which had the freedom to develop their own operational plan and educational syllabus. They would be accountable to the SEC and have to meet a range of performance indicators, particularly relating to student performance in the core subjects of Arabic, English, maths and science.

The school staff have the freedom to choose what methods they use to meet the standards. These schools would then compete with existing ministry schools to attract pupils, with parents free to choose the school their children attend. In 2004, the first 12 independent schools opened and today there are 102. A further 77 ministry schools have also become autonomous. These are known as semi-independent schools.

The new system started off well and independent schools outperformed ministry schools in terms of student achievement, according to the Rand Corporation. However, it noted that progress was hindered by a raft of policy changes at government level; these included newly imposed Qatarisation quotas and a requirement that all head teachers should be Qatari nationals. Independent schools found their freedom being increasingly constrained.

Higher education in the GCC

Despite this, educational standards are continuing to improve and more Qataris are going on to further education. “We have noticed an improvement in the quality of students coming to us, but it is hard to tell if that is because our profile has increased or if it is because of educational improvements,” says Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon University Qatar, based in Education City.

This institution was established in 2004 and represents another aspect of the government’s strategy for improving education standards. Education City is a state-funded initiative to attract international universities to set up in Doha and to stimulate research and further investment in faculties and undergraduates.

“[These efforts] will spread into other parts of society and as more people engage in research activities it builds a culture of enquiry and problem-solving. It takes time to build up,” says Thorpe.

Carnegie Mellon itself is seeing a steady growth in student numbers and has a range of nationalities of students in attendance with approximately 40 per cent from Qatar. The other 60 per cent come from 34 different countries including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Ghana and Germany. “Our biggest spike in applications was the year after our first graduation in 2008. We are aiming to take 100 new students a year and we did this in 2009,” says Thorpe.

Along with other universities in the region, Carnegie Mellon is attempting to engage the private sector in the education system. Historically this has only really happened in the case of the energy sector where state oil giants would select the best students. Now the engagement is more of a two-way transaction. “We are doing summer internship programmes and we have lots of involvement from local companies,” says Thorpe.

Ridge agrees that the spread of work experience is one of the improvements that would make a major difference. A common criticism of teaching in the GCC is that it does not provide students with much exposure to the working world, creating unrealistic expectations.

“Students would really benefit from things such as work experience and internships supported by career counselling to get experience of what work is like,” she says.

As is the case at primary and secondary level education, universities in the region are also trying a variety of models for improvement. “The region is now in an experimental stage and the models are very different,” says Edwin Eisendrath, managing director for the international division of US consultant Huron Consulting Group. “You have Education City in Qatar, Kaust [King Abdullah University of Science and Technology] in Saudi Arabia and New York University in Abu Dhabi.”

GCC education challenges

What these three initiatives have in common is that they are focused on research and are targeting the highest calibre students. From 9,000 applicants, New York University in Abu Dhabi plans to open its doors to 150 students in September and its admission standards are on a par with Ivy League institutions in the US.

With the investment in primary and secondary education, it is hoped that the region’s new universities will grow exponentially over the next few decades and fewer students will complete their education overseas. In the short-term, there still remains a variety of challenges to overcome, particularly relating to quality. Compared internationally, the region is not performing well in key areas such as maths and science.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international examination conducted every 4 years. The latest survey conducted in 2007 assessed 48 states at grade 8 and none of the 12 Middle East and North Africa countries surveyed made it into the top half of the list.

Asian states dominated the top of the table, with Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan seizing the first four spaces and this has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East. In a bid to improve the quality of its own education provision, Abu Dhabi has entered into a partnership with Singapore National Institute of Education, which is now providing educational consultancy services and supporting the development of new academic programmes.

A key lesson that the Gulf states can learn from Singapore is the quality over quantity approach. Only the top 30 per cent of graduates are permitted to apply for teacher training, with only one in six being accepted, and this makes the profession one of the most prestigious in the country. The approach in the Middle East is much less selective and teachers do not receive much professional development. Teacher quality is not helped by the appointment of teachers by the education ministries, which are able to relocate them or terminate contracts at short notice. For expatriate teachers, contracts are renewed annually. “There is always a threat looming that a contract might not be renewed and teachers don’t have much say as to where they teach,” says Ridge.

On the positive side, class sizes in the region are small, which is considered a benefit to learning. In Qatar, for example, the 149,848 students are educated by 15,175 teachers giving a ratio of just 10 pupils a teacher. However, countries with much larger class sizes, such as Singapore with 19 and the UK with 17 still performed better in the TIMSS survey.

Bahrain model

When it comes to measuring progress in schools, Ridge says Bahrain as a good example of a successful model. “Bahrain is making very positive steps on reform. It has now separated the Education Ministry from the body in charge of standards testing and this is very positive. It means that the achievements are independently examined.”

Along the same lines, Dubai has established the Knowledge and Human Development Authority to oversee and monitor school performance. However, the authority still falls under the remit of the UAE Education Ministry and this has led to some tensions, including a row earlier this year over the setting of fees in private schools.

The educational reform process in the GCC is gathering pace. The private sector is contributing more than ever through new schools, the use of partnerships in the development of new facilities and management of existing ones, and the provision of training. However, many hurdles remain.

“They have just started the process, so the challenges are innumerable and range from defining and measuring effectiveness to organisational and cultural change, financial stability and growing a core research culture,” says Eisendrath. “Amazing steps are being taken and in terms of higher education, [the Middle East is] the most exciting place in the world. There is determination to use and develop the human capital. Mistakes will be made, but things will work in the long term.”