Saudi educational reform progressing but not without resistance

There are 6 million students in Saudi pre-university general education, 1 million students at university and 170,000 in technical and vocational education.
Sunday 09/02/2020
A mother and her daughter on their way to school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP)
Step by step. A mother and her daughter on their way to school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP)

RIYADH - Saudi Minister of Education Hamad al-Sheikh said there are many important files that need the ministry’s attention and that he had to prioritise them. He said he wished for a magic wand to immediately change education in the kingdom but change requires time and patient planning.

Sheikh announced that Saudi Arabia would soon undergo important educational reforms, in accordance with Vision 2030, the plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil income and diversify its economy.

Sheikh indicated that the ministry’s development project considers size, goals, foundations and priorities. There are 6 million students in Saudi pre-university general education, 1 million students at university and 170,000 in technical and vocational education.

The ministry has 47 directorates and 422 education offices to oversee 300,000 schools, 27 public universities, 15 private universities, 46 private colleges, 70 technical colleges, 96 technical institutes and a group of private training institutes. Sheikh said the ministry employs 516,000 elementary and secondary school teachers, 70,000 university teachers, 12,000 trainers and 300,000 administrative staff.

Many in the educational sector wonder how real the education reform is going to be. Widad Mohamed Ali, a secondary school teacher, said: “The curricula are changing in a positive way but this change is slow to come and not commensurate with the rapid changes on the ground. Despite Minister Sheikh’s promises of coming changes, the educational field has not changed much.”

A study titled “Coexistence in Saudi Society,” conducted by the Department of Studies and Research at the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue, stated that Saudis were willing to coexist amid sectarian diversity as well as harmonise in economic and social dealings.

The study confirmed the failure of efforts by the religious revivalist movement to inject in educational curricula notions of exclusion of and hatred for the different other. That is why the Ministry of Education has worked to accelerate changes in curricula by screening out content that preaches hatred for anything different from the traditional Saudi social fabric and replacing it with content characterised by humanistic and moderate Islamic notions.

Sheikh acknowledged there was resistance to change. Educational researcher Mohamed Asiri said that “despite some resistance to change, the experience on the ground in developing curricula confirms students’ willingness to interact with the other and deal with different ideas.”

“The goal of quickly reforming and developing the curriculum,” said Asiri, “is to create a generation of patriotic and tolerant Saudis who appreciate the diversity of our world and deal with it according to a humanitarian, Islamic and moderate approach, a generation that does not reject renewal, does not rely on prejudice, does not try others but, rather, coexists with them, showing great tolerance.”

In the context of the rapid changes Saudi Arabia is seeing at political, social and cultural levels, former Minister of Education Ahmed al-Issa said during the International Conference on Education Reform in 2018 that the ministry had prepared syllabi for a course in critical philosophical thinking and another on the principles of law to be introduced at the level of secondary education.

However, Sheikh said in a statement in January there will be no independent courses of philosophy and law introduced but rather philosophical and legal principles would be included among other educational curricula.

Saudi author Abdullah Muhammad Dhia said: “The recent minister’s statement regarding not singling out syllabi for philosophy and critical thinking was disappointing since such a step (introducing philosophy in education) was necessary and urgent; philosophy cannot be marginally attached to another syllabus and handed over to teachers who are unqualified to teach it.”

Intellectuals and academics alike had welcomed having both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture cooperate in introducing music and art courses into school curricula and to create specialised academies for teaching all sorts of art forms.

The step, however, was fraught with doubts about its feasibility. There were questions about whether both ministries should hasten the introduction of these programmes or proceed gradually, especially when the curriculum contains religious education courses that teach fatwas prohibiting playing and listening to music.

Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, posting on Twitter, said: “Music, theatre and arts are included in our education and the best is still to come.”

The minister’s tweet was tantamount to inaugurating the official return of arts, culture and music to Saudi schools and universities.

The Ministry of Education introduced a programme called The Portal to the Future to promote and develop online education. The programme is designed to create an educational environment based on modern technologies to enhance the educational experience and develop teacher capacities. It is hoped the portal will shift to a digitally based educational environment.

The portal is being introduced gradually. The first phase of the programme began in 2017-18 with the participation of 310 schools in seven regions. During the second phase (2018-19), 1,893 schools in 16 regions were involved. The programme is to be generalised to all elementary and secondary schools over the course of this year, opening new horizons to education in Saudi Arabia.

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