Focus shifts to early learning in the Middle East

05 March 2012

Governments in the Middle East are identifying strategies aimed at improving pre-school care and education facilities for their youngest citizens

Key fact

Just 19 per cent of children in the Middle East receive formal pre-school education

Source: Unesco

Across much of the Middle East, children must be educated by law between the ages of six and 16. Moves to expand regional education provision have to date focused on primary, secondary and tertiary services. However, this strategy has often overlooked the need for pre-school education and childcare for the region’s youngest children.

According to the Paris-headquartered United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), just 19 per cent of Middle East toddlers receive formal pre-school education. This is less than half the global average of 41 per cent.

Internationally, there is a growing body of evidence that educating a country’s youngest citizens represents an investment in society as a whole. In the Middle East, governments are coming to understand that pre-school childcare and education is a positive means of supporting future learning and social skills development.

Early education in the Gulf

Education specialists see early childhood development (ECD) programmes as a foundation for learning. Bodies including the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) argue that ECD, including pre-school education, boosts cognitive development later in life and helps infants to develop language, problem-solving and social skills.

“Brain development is at its most rapid in the first four years of life,” says Margaret Dick, assistant principal for Qatar Academy’s early learning programme. “Hand-in-hand with brain development is structure, [which] is vital for the pre-school child. Children this age require routine and to be taught expectations.”

Saudi kindergartens, 2009-10
Number of kindergartens1,521
Children attending kindergartens106,301
Number of teachers10,337
Number of administrative staff2,047
Source: Saudi Ministry of Education

Toddlers who attend nursery school or kindergarten gain early access to trained childcare professionals who may be more able than those inside the family to spot problems ranging from learning or reading difficulties to physical issues related to vision or hearing.

There is evidence that pre-school education brings social benefits too. Researchers at the University of Minnesota in the US recently published a study that tracked 1,000 low-income children from a poor Chicago neighbourhood over 25 years.

The study found lower incidences of arrests and drug-taking and better career outcomes among respondents who had spent just one year, aged four, enrolled in an intensive pre-school programme.

With mounting evidence pointing to the benefits of pre-school education, particularly when they need to address their own restive young populations, regional education authorities plan to invest significantly in expanding their pre-school capacity.

“The quality of early-years provision varies across and within regional countries,” says Chris Sullivan, general manager of knowledge and growth at New Zealand-based education consultancy Cognition. “But across the region, there’s growing recognition of the need to further develop provision, both on a school-by-school and a country-by-country basis.”

Children aged three years and under can attend creches or nursery schools which, in the GCC, are nearly always privately funded. Children aged six are legally required to enrol in primary school. Children aged three to six can enrol in kindergarten classes, but historically few regional state-run primary schools have offered this option.

This situation could soon change. In 2009, Saudi Arabia embarked on a strategy to boost pre-school and kindergarten education provision. Then, only a handful of Saudi primary schools catered for under-sixes and there were few private kindergartens or nursery schools. Today, just 6 per cent of Saudi infants aged three to six attend state-run nurseries and 12 per cent are enrolled in private kindergartens.

Saudi education initiative

Historically, the kingdom’s state-run primary schools have offered no kindergarten classes. Instead, Saudi Arabia has focused on expanding its nursery schools, aiming to create jobs for up to 7,000 Saudi women and to increase the number of infants enrolled in preschool programmes from fewer than 10 per cent in 2009 to more than 40 per cent by 2015.

Saudi Arabia population and demand for education
(Percentage of 24.735 million in 2007)
PopulationPercentageTotal (million)
Post-school age6816.905
Primary school age133.220
Secondary school age122.958
Pre-school age71.652
Source: Unesco

The initiative aims to promote kindergartens as local businesses to improve access for small children. “Saudi Arabia has launched a real push to encourage the private sector, in particular, to set up kindergartens,” says Chadi Moujaes, partner at US consultancy Booz & Company in Abu Dhabi.

“The state is offering loans of SR4m-5m [$1.07m-1.33m] to help women open kindergartens. It sees this as a way to boost employment for women and to support female entrepreneurs. As well as funding such ventures, it helps businesswomen with curriculum content and professional development.”

The initiative comes at a considerable cost to the state. Saudi Arabia provides funding support for four million school-age students. It aims to support a million more. This, analysts estimate, will add 15-20 per cent to the country’s education costs and the kingdom is looking to the private sector to help take up some of the slack.

This is one reason why the initiative encourages Saudi women to establish kindergartens as businesses. Moves are under way to address the kingdom’s shortfall in qualified childcare professionals as well. Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, which opens this year, has a pre-school education faculty.

Saudi Arabia school enrolment ratio
(Percentage of age-appropriate children enrolled)
Primary school87.3
Secondary school70.8
Source: Unesco 

In the UAE, meanwhile, there is a marked disparity between infants from expatriate families, who are generally enrolled in pre-school education, and those from Emirati families. Among nationals, care of infants generally rests with family members or household staff until the child reaches school age.

In expatriate households, both parents are more likely to work than those in Emirati families. But Emirati families are becoming more aware of the benefits of pre-school education. The federal government and private kindergartens plan new capacity to target nationals.

In 2009, Dubai had just 82 licensed private nurseries, in which an estimated 95 per cent of children came from expatriate families. It had just two publicly funded nurseries backed by the state and catering for nationals. On the other hand, 80 per cent of Emirati children enrol in primary schools’ kindergarten classes.

Abu Dhabi, in particular, is increasing pre-school capacity and expects private providers to accommodate this.

Education challenges ahead

Cognition has worked with the Qatari government to implement early childhood care and education (ECCE) guidelines in the country’s independent schools.

It is expanding ECCE provision through a private-public partnership with Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) to provide pre-school capacity in the UAE capital.

The scheme advocates a holistic approach to helping each child maximise his or her ability, rather than setting benchmarks. “This complements a new emphasis in Middle East pre-school education on the child as a whole person feeling comfortable with his or her own environment,” Sullivan says.

Regional governments committed to expanding pre-school education face several obstacles. In Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the state nearly always funds pre-school education.

Regional governments, including the wealthiest states, need to find a funding model that takes a sustainable approach to expanding capacity. Population growth will increase pressure on state-funded schools. A study by Booz & Company expects private schools to increase their market share at the expense of the state sector. It forecasts that a fifth of GCC students will be educated privately by 2020, raising the value of the sector to almost $17bn.

At the same time, governments need to provide access for all children, including those from low-income families. How they achieve this remains undetermined. One option is to offer a family allowance towards education, based on cash or vouchers. Another is to encourage employers to fund workplace creches.

There is also a structural barrier. In many countries, education ministries supervise kindergarten through to grade 12 (K12) provision, while social affairs ministries supervise pre-school care. Observers say education ministries, should supervise pre-school provision for reasons of budget, quality control and continuity.

“At kindergarten level, classes are small, allowing children to be children,” says one source. “Teachers and carers give them a lot of leeway. Then they join the K12 system and attitudes are completely different. The classes are larger and the teachers stricter. Children have to sit in rows and learn to listen.

“Regional schools really need to look at this in pedagogical terms, to find ways to smooth the transition.”

Education quality concerns

Quality is another issue. Regional governments want private education providers to expand kindergarten capacity, but without compromising children’s health and well-being. Improved access will be worthless unless the strategy also delivers quality childcare and learning support.

This is a particular challenge when countries across the Middle East and North Africa lack qualified childcare specialists, from speech therapists, to child psychologists and Arabic-speaking childcare workers. In the UAE, just 5 per cent of nursery school teachers speak Arabic.

Across the region, there’s growing recognition of the need to further develop [pre-school] provision

Chris Sullivan, Cognition

Access is also a particular challenge in the largest countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Oman, and beyond the GCC, in Egypt and the Maghreb countries. “Countries such as Saudi Arabia need to provide pre-school education to a sizeable rural population and just reaching those communities can be a challenge,” says Sullivan. “Governments need to build capacity and recruit staff to work in these communities. There’s a real lack of trained early-years teachers across the region.”

While oil-rich countries have the means to expand pre-school education, it is the region’s poorest states, such as Yemen and the Palestinian territories, that continually struggle to provide their youngest citizens with much-needed support and development.

Unicef currently operates local projects in Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and is looking to establish regional programmes. It aims to provide kindergarten places and improve teachers’ knowledge of cognitive development and psychosocial care.

A year after the Arab uprisings and after four decades of rapid education expansion across the region, pre-school learning is under the spotlight as never before.

The region’s growing young population will ensure it remains a top priority for governments across the Middle East and North Africa for many years to come.

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