The hurdles to educational reform in Saudi Arabia

Proposed curricula are hampered by required approval of radical revivalists in the Ministry of Education.
Saturday 07/09/2019
A woman looks at a book during the Riyadh Book Fair at the International Exhibition Centre in Riyadh. (Reuters)
Major changes. A woman looks at a book during the Riyadh Book Fair at the International Exhibition Centre in Riyadh. (Reuters)

RIYADH - A year has passed since the Saudi Ministry of Education introduced philosophy and law as new subjects in Saudi schools and the announcement of a strategic change in educational curricula involving a new vision reflecting the ministry’s outlook on the future of education. New educational positions go along with the reforms, such as the appointment of English teacher Souad al-Shammari as spokeswoman for public education,

How do Saudi intellectuals look at education in the kingdom after these reforms and what do they think of the state of the field, which has been hostage of the religious revival movement for 40 years, as stated by Saudi Prince Khaled al-Faisal when he was minister of education?

Will curricular change the educational system or should measures be introduced gradually to ensure a shift from a rote-learning approach to a more creative one?

The Arab Weekly surveyed intellectuals about Saudi Education Ministry plans and curricular development in Saudi Arabia.

Writer Hassan bin Abdo Samili said delays in the development of the new curricula were indicative of a lack of a clear vision at the foundational level of reform as well as of a lack of an overall project that underpins objectives and new values sought from reform.

“The current state of education, which is tied to rote learning and the reproduction of traditional education, is no longer redemptive for a generation that believes in the necessity of a change and a paradigmatic shift,” said Samili. “Perhaps the educational institutions’ fear of change and risk-taking has obstructed many initiatives and hampered different visions that seek a deep partnership between curriculum and society as well as between institutions and the individual.”

“The Ministry of Education should be quick in taking decisions and must be honest about the efficiency of those decisions and the depth of its vision,” Samili added.

Poet Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Hefdhi said: “The past five decades have created a trust gap and have made it more difficult to find suitable foundations to build on for a future equivalent to what is found in developed countries. Curricular development has gone through a difficult birth that we have experienced as students and that has caught up with us as adults. It still has not changed.”

“The educational environment is not suitable for the evolution that we seek because the structure of curricula and schools is at its worst,” said Hefdhi. “Teachers, on whom the realisation of the reforms depends, are neglected and marginalised and their simplest demands are ignored.”

Hefdhi said proposed curricula are hampered by required approval of radical revivalists in the Ministry of Education so reforms do not easily pass through the bureaucracy.

Writer Wael al-Maliki had a more optimistic outlook, pointing out that education had long been under the tutelage of the religious establishment but the educational plan in Vision 2030 should shift that responsibility.

“This tutelage from some religious groups has indoctrinated minds and society. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have infiltrated both education and people’s minds and were able to mould educational curricula and especially the religious syllabus, so it can control minds and achieve its political goals and ambitions,” explained Maliki.

“This religious dominance in education has always been opposed to the introduction of the arts and philosophy and law in school curricula and emphasised religious curricula. This shows that these religious groups, more specifically the revivalists, have hijacked education and curricula but their project has fallen apart and is on its way out.”

Writer Nawaf al-Salem, who has a doctorate in educational philosophy, said: “Education is a societal issue and not just a strategy developed by a government or a ministry. It is part of a nation’s national security strategy.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recognises the importance of developing and modernising the educational system. This is why there is the required political will behind moving forward with education.”

“The kingdom’s Vision 2030 emphasises the centrality of education and the National Transformation Programme 2020 gives great importance to education improvement so that it can keep pace with the transformations that Saudi Arabia is experiencing in all areas of development,” he said.

Salem said curriculum development in education is a complex and continuous process.

“To find out how effective the curriculum is and to analyse it, there must be criteria through which we can evaluate our Saudi curricula,” he said. “Among these criteria, we can cite: the extent to which the curriculum focuses on citizenship and patriotism and on respecting diversity and plurality in society; the extent to which it highlights critical thinking and creativity; the extent to which it is interested in human and women’s rights; the extent to which it rejects and opposes extremist thought and intolerance; and the importance it gives to art and aesthetics appreciation, human issues and emotional intelligence, humanisation of education and work and environment issues.”