Saudis Shun Public Education, Enrolling in Foreign Schools

As Saud officials warn of the declining level of education in public schools, more and more Saudis are turning to foreign schools for education. Asmaa al-Aboudi reports.

al-monitor Secondary school students sit for an exam in a government school in Riyadh, Feb. 7, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed.

Topics covered

schools, saudi society, saudi, gulf, education

Sep 29, 2012

For the past few years, Saudis have been alarmed by the calls of government officials, attributing growing unemployment to "poor education" and a "lack of coordination between between university majors and the labor market." These two arguments became the basis upon which the future of hundreds of thousands of unemployed Saudi youth depended.

Nevertheless, public schools have not changed, and are probably getting worse, despite talk from the Ministry of Education for many years about strategic plans, development projects and reforming infrastructure. What has happened has pushed many Saudis to search for an alternative, which is often embodied by foreign international schools. This is especially true give the recent decision to allow Saudi students to enroll in these schools, after a ban that lasted many years.

Many Saudis, trying to escape the current desperate situation of public schools and searching for better results in these schools' foreign counterparts, have enrolled in the latter. These foreign schools graduate students who speak both Arabic and English fluently, in addition to providing a strong foundation in the sciences. They also teach their students to be punctual and to respect others despite cultural differences. In public schools, things are left to "luck." If student is lucky enough to be placed in the hands of a good teacher at school, he will come out having had a positive experience. Otherwise, his hope of getting good grades vanishes. Furthermore, public schools do not care about "student behavior," except as it relates to issues of "morality."

In this "simple" comparison between public and foreign schools, it is clear that there is an administrative and organizational gap between the two. There is also a difference in how the administrations in these schools deal with their students, in terms of both [social] awareness and education.

It is as if public schools are identical copies of one another, differing only in name and location. For any male or female student in one of these schools, the school day begins with a morning warm-up followed by the miserable school announcements. By the end of these announcements, students are already feeling bored.

Students often begin their day with a mathematics class, as this course requires the kind of mental activity that might be possible in the early morning. The other courses are arranged throughout the day according to the type of material and the amount of mental awareness their require. The end of the day is left for courses on religion, Arabic and English. Moreover, in between this long string of classes the students are given a "break" that is no more than 20 minutes. Although the purpose of this break is to allow students to rest and eat, it often ends with the student still standing in the cafeteria line, yet to receive his or her meal.

In this vast sea of weekly courses, there are only two courses devoted to [non-intellectual] activities, which together do not exceed 90 minutes. These courses merely consist of "routine" exercises. In girls' schools, these courses include school-related activities, developing vocational skills and handicrafts. This is of course in addition to religious activities, which usually consist of attending a religious lecture concerning prayer, respecting one's parents or religious holidays — such as the Prophet Muhammad's journey [from Mecca to Medina] or the yearly pilgrimage season. Moreover, a propagandist from the the ministry's religious programs unit might come to give a lecture to the teachers or the students. Moreover, once a month these activities are substituted by a visit from a administrative official who comes to the class to get to know the students and discover any problems they may be having and to learn more about their relationships inside of the classroom. This official may set some rules for the class and distribute various responsibilities among the students, in addition to a short program prepared by the teaching assistant.

In regards to these lessons, they usually take place in the classroom itself, except in cases where they are held in a science laboratory. Some science courses are held inside of the lab, and some lessons related to family education and housekeeping are held in a kitchen prepared especially for this purpose. Of course, these schools do not have English language laboratories, nor do they have adequate educational resources. Obtaining these resources requires the principal to constantly demand them, and to ensure that there is enough space in the school for these resources.

The traditional educational lesson begins with the teacher explaining a concept and then applying it. This is how various subjects are generally taught. Students are also given a number of homework assignments, and are responsible for recording these assignments in their planner. Sometimes, the last class of the day is reserved for completing homework in the presence of the teacher, although this is only the case for lower level classes.

Difference and Diversity

In schools that follow the American system, lessons begin after the first hour of the first day of classes. There are no special introductions or warm-ups, the educational courses are of utmost importance. The first hour only is reserved for distributing schedules so students know the location of their new classes.

Following this, textbooks are distributed — if they were not distributed during course registration — and each student is assigned an individual locker. This serves as a place for the student to deposit books, which he or she never takes home. A student will only bring the books home if the parents want him to look over them, which is usually the case over the weekend and during the examination period. Students don't carry book bags to and from school daily. Typically, the school day starts at 8:00 am and ends at 2:00 pm. The students are given two breaks: one for breakfast and another for games and physical activity. The children have a daily Arabic lesson, with each school having its own specific approach. This lesson involves grammar, reading, writing and dictation, in addition to lessons in modern Arabic literature. In the fourth year, students study literature from the Arab diaspora and modern poetry from a variety of fields. Moreover, there is an intensive mathematics and science curriculum that is taught in English, in addition to a course focusing on English language. The latter includes grammar, writing, dictation and spelling.

Concerning the social studies and religious curriculum, each of the two topics is given an hour of lesson time each week. These lessons are diverse and involve the children learning about the fundamentals of Islam and Islamic culture. Furthermore, there are two hours each week for physical exercise, in addition to computer skills. Um Saud, a Saudi mother, chose for her children to attend an international school as a result of these schools' eagerness to teach the students English from a young age. She noted: "The international schools here are not based on developing a child's creativity, and they do not offer recreational programs or non-systematic activities. However, the schools are strict and children learn discipline and focus. The curricula does not require much research on the part of the student, yet children feel a sense of equality. They take tests on a computer using a specialized code, and each student has his or her own computer to take these tests. A specific program gives the student his or her result, along with the opportunity to see any mistakes and make corrections."

Um Saud also notes that she is able to access her children's grades online using a "secret code" on the school's website, and she can see any comments that have been recorded about them and follow their progress.

She later added: "Parents are able to communicate with the school via an educational supervisor assigned to each grade-level. This means that parents do not have to make direct contact with the teacher, and can communicate with the school regarding their student via the internet or using the school's mail."

She notes that the "beautiful thing is that there are strict regulations and sanctions for students who make behavioral errors. I believe this is a good thing, as the school is a primary partner in the educational process."

She continues: "Despite the fact that the school relies on a traditional teaching method — including a blackboard, a pen and a teacher — I am very pleased with the level of education my children are receiving."

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