Research by MEED has found there is a perceived divide in quality between state and private education sectors within the GCC.

Private schools better cater to the needs of the job market and the desires of parents, allowing them to lure more students away from public education. While public schools are seen as better equipped to teach traditional subjects such as Arabic and Islamic studies, it is areas such as problem-solving and technology that are in highest demand. Private institutions are seen to teach these skills better.

More than a third of GCC-based respondents to the 2012 MEED Education Survey rated state primary and secondary education in the state where they live as weak or poor, and state higher education was rated weak or poor by 32 per cent. Private education fared better. Some 51 per cent of respondents said education was good or excellent at primary level, 47 per cent at secondary level and 43 per cent at higher level.

Increasing gap between state and public education

This gap between state and public education in the region reflects a June 2012 report by UAE-based Alpen Capital on the GCC education sector. “In recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the quality of education due to the rising gap between education provided by private and public schools,” says the report.

The MEED survey’s respondents said graduate employees across the region were generally adequate, good or excellent, most notably in the UAE where 49 per cent described graduate employees as good or excellent. Only in Saudi Arabia did more people (32 per cent) rank graduates as very poor or weak than as good or excellent (30 per cent).

The UAE also has the highest standard of vocational training and apprenticeships in the GCC, with 49 per cent ranking it good or excellent. In all other countries, most respondents said the standard was below adequate, with Saudi apprentices again disappointing respondents the most; 32 per cent described training standards as weak or very poor.

When asked what is most important to employers recruiting school and university graduates, a third of MEED’s respondents, the highest percentage, said competent English-language skills. Problem-solving skills were deemed vital by 29 per cent. A third said Islamic studies, where state schools are stronger than private schools, was the area of least importance, and a quarter said languages other than English and Arabic were least important.

Last year, MEED’s survey found that traditional subjects such as Arabic and Islamic studies were where state schools ranked highest and it remains the same this year. In 2011, 40 per cent said Arabic was the strongest subject in state schools and 30 per cent said Islamic studies. This year, those numbers are 39 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively. Perceptions of English and maths teaching have improved, with 12 per cent saying state schools are strongest at English this year, up from 9 per cent, and maths, up from 4 per cent to 7 per cent.

English was seen as the strongest subject in private education by 46 per cent of respondents this year (36 per cent in 2011) and Arabic was ranked highest by 17 per cent (16 per cent in 2011). However, 18 per cent of respondents saw Arabic as the weakest subject, down from 24 per cent in 2011.

Neither state nor private education providers are seen as providing students with a good grounding in problem-solving. Just over a quarter of respondents said it was the weakest aspect of state education, and 17 per cent of private education. Of state schools, 13 per cent said presenting and debating skills were weakest, and 8 per cent said this of private schools.

In November, the head of the Programme for International Student Assessment, an international ranking system that tests 15-year-olds in science, maths and reading, and in which the UAE took part for the first time in 2010, said UAE pupils were competent at rote learning, but schools are failing to develop creative thinking.

Improved English

In reference to primary schools, 38 per cent of survey respondents say focusing on improving skills in English would do most to raise the standard of GCC education. Arabic and problem-solving skills were second at 12 per cent.

Respondents had mixed opinions on the areas where improvement would most benefit secondary education, with the largest number, 19 per cent, saying problem-solving was crucial, but 15 per cent each opting for English, IT, and presentation and debating skills. In higher education, it is the analytical and creative areas of problem-solving (32 per cent) and presentation and debating skills (24 per cent) that most require improvement.

The areas respondents felt most require increased financial investment are standards and numbers of local teachers at primary level, and the use of technology in secondary and higher education. The Alpen report echoed a similar pattern, finding that although the pupil-teacher ratio in the GCC’s primary segment is lower than world and Middle East and North Africa averages, the quality lags behind developed countries.

Shortage of teachers

“The shortage [of skilled teachers] is particularly evident in private and international schools, which set higher standards of education,” says Alpen. “One of the main reasons for this is low pay scales and incentives, which have restricted GCC nationals, particularly men, from entering the profession.”

Alpen found technology investment is set to pick up. “In most GCC states, the role of technology in education has long been ignored,” says the report. “However, we expect technology to play a key role in improving the quality of GCC education in the future.” The region will see an increase in technology, programming and computer engineering classes, and workshops to familiarise teachers with technology.

The correlation between state schools’ weaknesses, private schools’ strengths and the requirements of employers mean it is unsurprising that more parents favour the private system over government-run institutions.

MEED’s survey found that 59 per cent of respondents send or would send their children to a fee-paying private school offering an international curriculum. However, this is down from 73 per cent last year. In 2012, 11 per cent, compared to last year’s 6 per cent, said they would or do send their children to a fee-paying private school offering the national curriculum of the GCC country in which they live. The number of parents who favour a school outside the GCC remains unchanged at 15 per cent.

While private international schools in the GCC used to be largely the territory of expatriates, Alpen has found that more locals are enrolling their children in the private system. “The increasing income levels of nationals and expatriates have led to an increase in living standards, which have influenced people’s attitudes towards education,” says the report. “Parents across the GCC have started focusing on the quality of teachers, curriculum, reputation of schools, learning environment for children, and the preservation of culture before choosing a school. Moreover, due to a gap in the quality of education in public and private schools in the region, parents are increasingly willing to avail private education despite the high costs.”

Willing investment

Research from the US’ Booz and Co in 2011 found a large difference between the amount families spend on education and the amount they are prepared to spend. Expatriates in the UAE spend $4,363 a year on schooling, but would be prepared to spend $11,471. Nationals in Kuwait spend $2,860 to send their children to school, but would spend $26,373.

While there are areas of improvement in both public and private education, perceptions of the private sector are more favourable. MEED’s results suggest the divide in perceptions of quality may be closing, although Alpen says the discrepancy is widening. But it is indisputable that the gap is there. Schools are improving, but the MEED survey suggests it is the private sector that is best focusing its resources where parents and employers would like.

Key fact

Some 51 per cent of respondents said private primary education was good or excellent

Source: MEED Education Survey