When Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved the establishment of the General Education Evaluation Authority (GEEA) in late September, observers could be forgiven for assuming this would create yet another layer of bureaucracy in a system already stifled by red tape. Instead, creation of the new body may demonstrate the kingdom’s commitment to change more than any other initiative of the past decade.

The reasons for this are plentiful. Firstly, the new authority is neither a division of the Ministry of Education (MOE), nor does it report to the MOE. Instead, it will report directly to the Supreme Committee for Educational Policy. Secondly, it is charged with introducing a new national education standards framework, including national testing at every grade level. Thirdly, it will be in charge of evaluating performance of the country’s 32,986 schools. Furthermore, the body will bring private sector expertise into governance of the education system through both the structure of the board and the testing regime.

Major education step

Headed by a governor, the GEEA will be run by a board consisting of representatives of every major educational body in the kingdom including the MOE, the Ministry of Higher Education, the General Organisation for Technical and Vocational Training and the Saudi Society for Educational and Psychological Sciences. It will also contain private sector experts in schools evaluation and educational standards.

“That will be a good initiative,” says Said Belkachla, a senior programme specialist in education policy, planning and management at the Paris-headquartered Unesco. “Looking at how the system works is very important.”

Although a range of initiatives are currently under way to improve the quality of education in the kingdom, these are seldom coordinated with one another.

“Each department is creating its own initiatives and there really is a need for better governance at the MOE if they want to improve the quality of education,” says Belkachla.

Saudi Arabia schools, 2012
Stage   Schools Academic staff Students
Kindergarten Total 1,667 11,431 117,653
Elementary (grade 1-6)* Boys 6,784 113,821 1,273,119
  Girls 6,844 114,504 1,240,696
  Total 13,628 228,325 2,513,815
Intermediate (grade 7-9) Boys  4,179 62,306 636,693
  Girls 3,820 60,174 561,721
  Total 7,999 122,480 1,198,414
Secondary (grade 10-12) Boys 2,533 49,654 625,365
  Girls  2,480 52,762 500,237
  Total 5,013 102,416 1,125,602
Special and adult education Total 4,679 18,056 109,935
  Total 32,986 482,708 5,065,419
*=Elementary grade 1 begins at age 6. Source: Ministry of Education

Saudi Arabia does have a long way to go if it is to meet its goal of creating an internationally competitive education system. According to the Netherlands-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Saudi Arabia is one of the weakest performers among the participants in maths, science and literacy, both worldwide and regionally.

“It is a picture that can be seen several times over. They know that the quality is not good and this is why there are now a lot of initiatives under way,” says Belkachla. “Recently, Saudi Arabia asked to set up a regional centre for quality and excellence under the auspices of Unesco as a category II centre. The request is now under examination.”

Category II centres are not legally part of the organisation as they are funded and managed locally, but Unesco collaborates on the goals and the programmes of the centres. There are currently 81 such organisations around the world. Decisions on new institutes can only be approved at the bi-annual conference, which will next take place in October 2013.

Tatweer progress

Perhaps the biggest initiative designed to improve quality that has been launched in Saudi Arabia so far is the $2.4bn King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Public Education Development Project, also known as Tatweer. The scheme seeks to improve education quality through a range of initiatives: from decentralisation of power in the education system to introducing new teacher training programmes and creating ‘smart’ schools.

“By 2017, all schools in Saudi Arabia will be Tatweer schools,” says Rfah Alyami, a former head teacher from Najran, who also taught maths in Riyadh. She is currently in her second year of doctoral research at the University of Reading in the UK, examining the innovation and cost-effectiveness of the Tatweer schools. Funded by the MOE, her research is effectively evaluating the new system as it is implemented.

“They started the project in 2007 with a pilot of 50 smart schools in the first phase,” she says. Of those, 25 were boys’ schools and 25 girls’ schools. Teachers were given intensive training in modern methods such as interactive activity-based learning and the use of laptops and other technologies.

Interntaional performance in maths*
Country Ranking Score**
Top 5
Chinese Taipei 1 598
South Korea 2 597
Singapore 3 593
Hong Kong 4 572
Japan 5 570
Lebanon 28 449
Jordan 31 427
Iran 34 403
Bahrain 35 398
Syria 37 395
Egypt 38 391
Oman 41 372
Kuwait 44 354
Saudi Arabia 46 329
Qatar 48 307
Note: Survey is out of 48 participating countries.*=8th Grade (approx age 14); **=Adjusted to an average score of 500. Source: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2007

Head teachers were also given autonomy to manage the schools and collaborate with local communities. “For example, if the head teacher has an idea to implement within a school, she can send a survey to parents, the mosque or experts from different sectors such as universities or business,” says Alyami.

This is a direct contrast to the top-down approach traditionally employed throughout the sector.  Efforts to decentralise are also under way outside the Tatweer programme, with head teachers in the kingdom having been given much more autonomy in the past two years.

Improving teaching in Saudi Arabia

The second phase of the smart schools project is now under way. In September, the general manager of the Tatweer programme, Ali Hakami, announced that by the end of the 2012/2013 academic year, 900 schools in 14 regions would be Tatweer institutions. Scaling this up to cover all 33,000 schools by 2017 will be a challenge.

Educators are largely positive about the programme, but warn the kingdom must be careful not to over-invest in technology and neglect to improve teaching methods.

“I visited some local schools and I saw teachers using a smart board to teach the Quran. It was very technical, but the teaching method was still traditional: all recitation, just using a smart board,” says the director of a Saudi international school. “That is the challenge; they have the technology, but have to use it with 21st century learning techniques. [The smart board] was an advancement, but it was having no pedagogical implications whatsoever.”

International performance in science*
Country Ranking Score**
Top 5
Singapore 1 567
Chinese Taipei 2 561
Japan 3 554
South Korea 4 553
England 5 542
Jordan 20 482
Bahrain 26 467
Iran 29 459
Syria 32 452
Oman 36 423
Kuwait 38 418
Lebanon 40 414
Kuwait 41 408
Saudi Arabia 44 403
Qatar 47 319
Note: Survey is out of 48 participating countries.*=8th Grade (approx age 14); **=Adjusted to an average score of 500. Source: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2007

Another issue that the kingdom must confront if it is to improve its performance, particularly in maths and science, is the length of time spent on the subjects. A typical week in an intermediate level school (grades seven-nine) will see eight sessions of Islamic studies taught, each lasting 45 minutes, and six sessions of Arabic. This compares with four sessions each of maths and science.

“In the high-performing countries, the situation is quite different,” says Dakmara-Ana Georgescu, a programme specialist in curriculum development at Unesco. “In Singapore, maths classes can reach 9-11 contact periods weekly.”

Even other Gulf states such as Bahrain and Qatar teach five hours of maths a week. “To cover the content and develop maths and science competencies, a minimum of four or five hours would be needed in lower secondary,” says Georgescu, who also adds that time spent on subjects is not the only parameter that affects standards. Teaching methods and selection of competencies also play a key role.

Tackling these issues by improving the way subjects are taught is another tenet of the Tatweer programme, which has implemented a new teacher-training scheme and is implementing professional teaching standards.

As the Tatweer programme rolls on, the MOE is sending teachers overseas to study the effectiveness of its initiatives. “We are receiving more proposals from students and never before have we had this extent of interest from Saudi Arabia,” says Naz Rassool, a professor of education at the Institute of Education at the UK’s University of Reading. “There seems to be a concerted effort in evaluating as the reform programme is developing.”

All of these initiatives should serve to improve the quality of education for young Saudis, but with the establishment of the GEEA the kingdom will be able to measure how effective its investments actually are. A national testing framework, with schools themselves being held accountable for performance, is a huge step for the country and mirrors the approach taken by Qatar, which brought in national tests at every grade in 2004.

Advised by leading organisations such as the UK’s Council for British Teachers and US non-profit research group Rand, Qatar used US-based testing companies such as Education Testing Services and CTB/McGraw Hill to create a standardised system of evaluation in Arabic, maths, English and science at every grade level.  Saudi Arabia is expected to follow a similar model.

School evaluation

Professionals in the kingdom say this evaluation of schools is required now more than ever. The growth of the expatriate population, along with the government’s decision to allow Saudi nationals to attend private schools, has led to a boom in private education. According to US advisory firm the Parthenon Group, the number of private schools offering international curriculums in Saudi Arabia is set to expand by 12-15 a year up to 2016, having grown from 12 in 2007 to 32 by 2011.

Locally owned private schools, which must offer the national curriculum, are also set for major expansion. Experts say there are fears about the quality and practices of some of the new entities. “There are a lot of questionable schools popping up and the government has sensed this and wants to ensure they are regulated in some way,” says the director of a long-established international school.

Dissatisfaction with the newly emerging local private sector is clear from the number of mandates that have been coming from the MOE regarding private schools in the past few years, from setting minimum salaries to preventing increases in fees. For their part, the new private schools argue that there are too many bodies involved in regulation and complain of difficulties in hiring local teachers who prefer to work in the public system.

With new teaching resources, a standardised system of education qualifications, new facilities and better training, Saudi Arabia is making the right moves to improve its education system. If it follows through with the changes, the kingdom should see its students climb the international league tables in coming years.

Key fact

The GEEA will be in charge of evaluating performance of the kingdom’s 32,986 schools

GEEA=General Education Evaluation Authority. Source: MEED