The History of the Education System in Saudi Arabia
Education was established in Saudi Arabia some time before the formation of the country in 1932. According to Alrashidi and Phan (2015), King Abdul-Aziz established the Directorate of Education in 1925 to complement the mosque and Quranic school-based practices of the past. Initially, it was small in scale and did not include higher education due to the poor financial status of the country before the discovery of its oil reserves.
The event led to the incentivization of every sphere of life in Saudi Arabia, including its education, which began expanding to educate more people quickly. According to Alamri (2011), by 1950 there were 365 schools in the country, as opposed to only 12 in 1932, by 1957, the nation’s first university was established, and by 1960, the first girls’ school opened in Riyadh. Nevertheless, the population’s literacy levels remained inadequate compared to the country’s wealth, and so the system continued expanding rapidly at all levels. There are now hundreds of higher education institutions in the country, most of which have been created recently for diversification and preparation of all manners of professionals.
In the beginning, the country’s schools were small and not overcrowded with students, possibly due to a lack of proficient teaching staff. Alamri (2011) notes that there were 12 schools with 700 total students in 1932, compared to 365 schools that educated 42,000 pupils in 1950. As the country became more prosperous, it could teach more educators, who spread their knowledge among the nation’s children, in turn.
All of the students were male, as a considerable portion of the population opposed the idea of non-religious education for women. However, as Alrashidi and Phan (2015) note, the perception eventually changed, and by 1960, the first school for girls opened in Riyadh. Nevertheless, the opinion still has considerable influence that can be seen in the segregation of men and women in the education system in Saudi Arabia. As noted by Altamimi, Lee, Sayed-Ahmed, and Kassem (2015), education in Saudi Arabia is based on the traditional Islamic religious curriculum, and so men and women study separately in general and special education. There are separate men’s and women’s institutions at all levels, including higher education, though they offer highly similar curricula.
The Saudi Arabian government is heavily involved in the education system as its creator and the controller of a large portion of the nation’s educational facilities. As mentioned above, the Directorate of Education was responsible for creating the first schools and expanding the system to meet the population’s needs. Alrashidi and Phan (2015) claim that 25% of the nation’s total budget was devoted to education, the only category not to be affected by financing cuts.
The budgeting is reflected in the ability of Saudi citizens to receive all levels of education for free and potentially obtain financial incentives during higher education. According to Alrashidi and Phan (2015), the government also encourages Saudi people to obtain higher educations internationally in many different countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. With that said, private education also plays a significant role in the nation’s overall system. According to Alamri (2011), there were 33 private colleges and universities in the country in 2011 despite the recent introduction of the concept. They teach students for a fee and promise exclusive benefits such as high education quality or specialized knowledge.
The purpose of education in Saudi Arabia is to ensure that its citizens have sufficient knowledge to use the nation’s vast resources properly and increase its wealth further. Alnahdi (2014) notes that the nation’s education has still not caught up with that offered by developed nations, requiring further reform and growth. Alamri (2011) cites issues such as the lack of availability for specific degrees to prospective students, the reliance on expatriate staff despite discrimination against non-Saudi faculty members, gender inequality in offered courses, and the cultural and political limitations on academic freedom.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s education has progressed vastly in approximately three-quarters of a century, as shown above. As such, it will likely grow further in the future and create a standard that is more appropriate to its position of a world power. It is already able to fulfill its role by educating excellent specialists in many different areas, though there is always room for improvement and expansion.
Saudi Arabia offers many levels of education to children, including preschool, primary school, intermediate school, secondary school, and higher education. According to Alrashidi (2015), the primary school consists of 1st through 6th grade, intermediate school is 7th through 9th grade, and secondary school is 10th through 12th grade, with the first two stages being compulsory for all children and supported by 34784 schools by 2013.
Hanadi, Gregory, Jessel, and Khalil (2015) claim that there are at least 2323 preschool centers in Saudi Arabia, but the education level is not mandatory, and they struggle with the implementation of appropriate education programs. Alamri (2011) lists 203 different higher education institutions for learners who want to continue their studies alongside various international opportunities. With the assistance of the government, the various educational levels in the country keep expanding.
The History of Special Education in Saudi Arabia
As Saudi Arabia’s education systems expanded, they began encountering children with various types of disabilities and had to accommodate them. Aldabas (2015) claims that adult male blindness was first addressed in 1958, blind boys received help in 1960, with the female analog appearing in 1964, which is also the year when the education of deaf members of both genders began, and in 1971, the system began assisting children with educational disabilities.
Eventually, the nation created special day schools that can accommodate children with many different disabilities. Children who are affected by mild or moderate impairments can study in general education classrooms if there is a resource room available to help them. As such, Saudi Arabia has put considerable effort into ensuring that all children can receive the education they need, regardless of possible impairments.
The Saudi Arabian government was essential to the establishment of educational support to children with disabilities. The Ministry of Education had sponsored nearly all of the initiatives listed by Aldabas (2015), showing its awareness of the issue and intent to provide all possible assistance. Furthermore, as the emergence of private educational facilities in Saudi Arabia is somewhat recent, the government had to accommodate children who would have difficulty following traditional educational methods. Al-Mousa (2010) provides the example of the Al-Noor Institute for the Blind as a national facility that was created to accommodate people with disabilities as early as 1960.
The Ministry of Education remains primarily responsible for the accommodation of such students and continues researching and implementing initiatives that make learning accessible to everyone. It does so by providing segregated schools and trying to fit children with disabilities into general public schools.
The purpose of special education is to ensure that students with disabilities can integrate as much as possible and participate in the community’s life. To that end, they receive an education mostly similar to that of their peers, with some omissions depending on the nature of their condition. Bin Battal (2016) refers to a practice known as mainstreaming, where children with special needs are educated in general schools that have specialized equipment designed to accommodate them. The practice helps the children integrate into society at a young age while teaching the others about disabilities and the respect every person deserves regardless of their condition. As such, the children educated in the program would be able to continue their education and find a job that suits them later on in their life.
The development of special education in Saudi Arabia was slow, possibly due to the need to implement a robust teaching system for the general population, as described above. According to Aldabas (2015), the first special education program opened in 1958; the first formal special needs school opened in 1960; and over the next 27 years, 26 more similar instutions opened throughout the country.
The growth accelerated afterward, as the government devoted more resources to the matter of special education. Alqahtani (2017) notes that one average, children who receive appropriate special needs interventions in Saudi Arabia tend to perform 21% better than their peers who do not. As such, both the deployment of facilities for children with disabilities and the development of appropriate assistance programs are successful. However, issues remain, particularly with regards to inclusion and especially the gender segregation of special needs education.
The History of Intellectual Disabilities in Saudi Arabia
This paper concentrates on intellectual disabilities, specifically, and so an investigation into their history in Saudi Arabia is prudent. According to Aldabas (2015), the first effort to address these issues began in 1971 with the opening of a special school for them. The Saudi government was heavily involved in the program and remains so to this day, opening and funding various facilities and programs. According to AlMedlij and Rubinstein-Ávila (2018), the purpose of education for students with intellectual disabilities is to fulfill the law by providing them with “free and adequate medical, rehabilitation, social, and educational services in the free sector” (p. 84).
As mentioned above, initially there was a single school for the specific disability variety, called the Intellectual Education Institute. The nation has since advanced its understanding of intellectual disability considerably, achieving one of the highest integration levels in the Arab world.
The definition of “intellectual disability” in Saudi Arabia is somewhat different from that of some other developed countries, primarily due to its use of “learning disability” as a separate category. According to AL-Kahtani (2015), the condition is primarily defined by “perceptible differences in the existing functional performance of an individual” (p. 14). It is segregated for educational purposes depending on the IQ evaluation of the student in question.
Alharbi and Madhesh (2018) claim that while Saudi Arabia has inclusivity laws that match international standards, it is slow to adopt the appropriate approaches. However, Alnhadi (2019) states that the nation’s children tend to adopt positive attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities. Alquraini (2011) claims that children with disabilities receive special assistance such as occupational and physical therapy as well as speech and language pathologist assistance. Also, they are provided with residence, food, money, and other necessities at specialized educational institutions, where their curriculum is mostly similar to that of their peers.
Special Education Laws in Saudi Arabia and Worldwide
There is a considerable amount of different laws in developed countries that have contributed heavily to ensuring that children with intellectual disabilities. The United States, for example, has a law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to Alquraini (2013), the legislation guarantees that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate education regardless of the severity of their issues and are integrated into the overall learning system with other children. As such, children with disabilities are usually taught in public schools alongside children without any abnormalities.
Alquraini (2013) states that the Office of Special Education Programs, an agency that operates under the Department of Education, oversees this process. It interprets the law, conducts many of the activities mandated by the law, oversees their implementation throughout the nation, and provides assistance wherever it is necessary.
There are additional laws in the United States that protect people with disabilities from discrimination in educational activities. Grady and Moorman (2015) discuss Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which ensures that an individual with a disability who is otherwise qualified for a federally sponsored program cannot be forbidden from participating in the program. The provisions of the law apply to public education, and so children with disabilities can learn in public schools, which are then required to accommodate them if possible.
The bill also brought an expanded and improved version, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability similarly to other characteristics such as race or gender. The law applies to employers, public entities, public accommodations as well as commercial facilities, service animals, and telecommunications, ensuring that a variety of complex situations is covered.
There is also a considerable number of laws in Saudi Arabia that try to ensure that children with disabilities receive education of the same quality as their peers. According to Alquraini (2011), the Legislation of Disability, passed in 1987, was the first bill that guarantees equal rights to all people with disabilities, which it defines, discusses, and for which it establishes procedures. It is the initial step in the process, supplemented by a variety of laws that expand on the support for the population category later on.
Alquraini (2011) discusses the 2000 Disability Code, which ensures access to “free and appropriate medical, psychological, social, educational, and rehabilitation services through public agencies” (p.150) and requires these agencies to provide various assistance options. However, these laws do not regulate the specific procedures necessary to aid people with disabilities, which are covered in other bills.
Saudi Arabia took much inspiration from international experience in its design of disability assistance programs. According to Alquraini (2011), the Regulations of Special Education Programs and Institutes (RSEPI) are the result of such an effort, emulating some of the American policies described above. It defines the main categories of disability and describes the interventions appropriate for them, such as individual education programs.
Lastly, the Saudi Arabian government has expressed its intent to ensure that children with disabilities receive every possible opportunity to learn through considerable financing. According to Murry and Alqahtani (2015), it emphasizes the ‘Education for All’ idea to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign workers. As such, it tries to both increase the number of people who receive an education that is appropriate to their needs and the quality of the services they receive.
Alamri, M. (2011). Higher education in Saudi Arabia. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 11(4), 88-91.
Aldabas, R. A. (2015). Special education in Saudi Arabia: History and areas for reform. Creative Education, 6, 1158-1167.
Alharbi, A., & Madhesh, A. (2018). Inclusive education and policy in Saudi Arabia. International Journal of Education Research and Reviews, 6(1), 946-956.
AL-Kahtani, M. A. (2015). The individual education plan (IEP) process for students with intellectual disabilities in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and solutions. Web.
AlMedlij, M. A., & Rubinstein-Ávila, E. B. (2019). The development of LD education in Saudi Arabia: Services and implications for the future. International Journal of Modern Education Studies, 2(2), 83-96.
Al-Mousa, N. A. (2010). The experience of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in mainstreaming students with special needs in public schools. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States.
Alnahdi, G. H. (2014). Educational change in Saudi Arabia. Journal of International Education Research, 10(1), 1-6.
Alnahdi, G. H. (2019). The positive impact of including students with intellectual disabilities in schools: Children’s attitudes towards peers with disabilities in Saudi Arabia. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 85, 1-7.
Alqahtani, M. (2017). Teacher perspectives on full inclusion of students with learning disabilities in Saudi Arabia high schools. Web.
Alquraini, T. (2011). Special education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges, perspectives, future possibilities. International Journal of Special Education, 26(2), 149-159.
Alquraini, T. (2013). Legislative rules for students with disabilities in the United States and Saudi Arabia: A comparative study. International Interdisciplinary Journal of Education, 2(6), 601-614.
Alrashidi, O., & Phan, H. (2015). Education context and English teaching and learning in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: An overview. English Language Teaching, 8(5), 33-44.
Altamimi, A. A., Lee, L. W., Sayed-Ahmed, A. A., & Kassem, M. M. (2015). Special education in Saudi Arabia: A synthesis of literature written in English. International Journal of Special Education, 30(3), 98-117.
Bin Battal, Z. M. (2016). Special education in Saudi Arabia. International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education, 5(2), 880-886.
Grady, J., & Moorman, A. M. (2016). The Americans with Disabilites Act 25th anniversary: Assessing progress, opportunities, and challenges. Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport, 26, 1-4.
Hanadi, A. O., Gregory, E., Jessel, J., & Khalil, A. (2015). Early literacy model in a Saudi Arabian preschool: Implementation in a different cultural context. International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, 5(2), 2511-2522.
Murry, F., & Alqahtani, R. M. A. (2015). Teaching special education law in Saudi Arabia: Improving pre-service teacher education and services to students with disabilities. World Journal of Education, 5(6), 57-64.