Saudi Arabian Educational System and Contest

Introduction to the chapter

The educational system of Saudi Arabia has evolved from the network of katatib (kuttab) schools to quite secular and modern international educational establishments. The 20th century was the period when most changes in the system took place. However, the educational system of the kingdom is experiencing a fundamental transformation only at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. The transformation is associated with various difficulties including cultural peculiarities of the country, the lack of resources, and the lack of expertise. It is also necessary to note that the transformations occurring in the educational system of Saudi Arabia have attracted a lot of attention in academia.

As for the areas of particular interest concerning the Saudi educational system, the issues related to gender have acquired significant attention. The inclusion of females into the social life in the kingdom has translated into the increase in the level of literacy among girls and the rate of enrolment into higher educational establishments (Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth & Al Dighrir 2015; Elimam et al. 2014). Another aspect of special concern is the curriculum. Young (2014) argues that curriculum can be regarded as the backbone of the educational process that defines its effectiveness. The Saudi educational establishments’ curricula involve a focus on religion and Saudi traditions. This approach has quite a strong effect on the development of the Saudi education and its quality (Aljuhaish 2015b).

Finally, the country’s focus on transformation and international leadership has brought issues concerning globalization to the fore as well as the understanding of the need for significant changes or rather transformations. The recent educational reform has also received considerable attention, and researchers as well as practitioners try to assess it and suggest strategies to improve it (Alnahdi 2014; Alyami 2014). Finally, researchers also try to assess various strategies utilized in other countries and assess their adjustment to the Saudi context (Alnahdi 2014; Alhaggass 2015). This chapter includes a review of the literature concerning recent advances in the field with a focus on the educational contest in Saudi Arabia, the contest of the Saudi educational policies, and the international experience.

Educational contest in Saudi Arabia

Historical background

As has been mentioned above, the educational system in the region was rooted in religious education. Researchers often mention the oldest type of an educational establishment in the areas that are now known as Saudi Arabia. Thus, the network of kuttab schools was the background of people’s education. Kuttab was a Quran school that focused on the religious education of young boys and sometimes girls (Rugh 2002).

Importantly, in most kuttab schools, students were to learn the Quran by heart. They memorized holy texts, and the teaching was confined to drills, instructions, and revisions. The principles of Islam were central to the training. In some kuttab schools, however, students also learned Arabic, the basic arithmetic as well as “Arabic and Persian classical poetry” (Huffaker 2009, p. 437). Notably, rich people hired private tutors who taught their children (mainly boys with only some exceptions). Kuttab schools were available for children of the poor and the middle class. At that, even such a basic education was not mandatory, and people remained illiterate or had only basic knowledge of Arabic grammar and arithmetic.

Another stage of the development of the educational system in the kingdom is regarded in detail in many works. For instance, Rugh (2002) traces the development of the educational system in the territories that later became the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The researcher stresses that the Ottoman Empire had a positive effect on the educational system. The colonial rule of the Ottoman Empire introduced a more secular approach to education.

Rugh (2002) traces the development of the educational system in the territories that later became the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The researcher states that the Ottoman rule brought certain advances, and more schools were established, but they were still mainly for boys. The governmental schools offered courses in such disciplines as history, geography as well as religion. One of the barriers to further development was the language of teaching, which was Turkish. More importantly, Rugh (2002) stresses that people were afraid to give their children to those schools as they feared their children would be turned into Ottoman spies.

Researchers also pay specific attention to the developments of the 20th century. Thus, Bowen (2014) claims that the middle of the 20th century can be regarded as a period of a significant shift in the attitude towards the educational system. Thus, in the 1930s, around 2,000 students were enrolled in Saudi schools while the number of students increased up to 30,000 in the 1950s (Bowen 2014).

At that time, only males were allowed to obtain any formal education. Importantly, the mandatory elementary education for boys was established in 1954. The girls were allowed into schooling as late as 1960. First, only rich and educated parents let their daughters obtain the education in schools (Bowen 2014). Some of the primary obstacles to the inclusion of girls and the spread of schools in Saudi Arabia were the focus on Islamic values and adherence to traditions.

It is noteworthy that any development and innovation in the sphere of education (especially when it came to secularisation and globalization) was accepted with hostility and a significant degree of confrontation. Saudi people (particularly older generations) feared that the traditions, as well as values, will be neglected and forgotten. However, this opposition weakened as the country had to keep up with other states.

Researchers also claim that the start of oil production has led to a new milestone in the development of the Saudi educational system. Thus, Al Sadaawi (2010) states that the rapid development of the Saudi economy due to the production of oil unveiled the need for qualified professionals. The founder of the country King Abdulaziz Al-Saud launched a significant change in the educational system that transformed into a multilevel training (Al Sadaawi 2010).

Thus, the new system included the division into the primary school (6-years education), an intermediate school (3-year training), and secondary school (3-year education). The Ministry of Education was established to manage the new educational paradigm in 1953. The ministry aimed to “improve the school system for male students to meet international standards” (Al Sadaawi 2010, p. 1). The commitment to reach international standards translated into the development of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education that concentrated on the issues associated with female education.

Contemporary educational system: gender and subject choice

The changes that took place in the middle of the twentieth century are still present in the 21st century. Government formal and private schools offer courses in major disciplines, but religion still occupies a significant part of the curriculum. Higher educational establishments follow the same paradigm. One of the most burning issues in the kingdom’s educational system is related to gender. Doumato (2003) explores the way gender issues are manifested in the educational system and employment patterns.

The researcher stresses that the educational paradigm of the kingdom is deeply rooted in the Saudis’ focus on Wahhabi concepts. Strict compliance with religious values and traditions as well as the political agenda of the country shape the curricula and the overall educational system. The peculiarities of the Saudi educational curriculum will be considered in detail further in the paper.

Doumato (2003) notes that educational establishments in Saudi Arabia are still segregated as there are schools for boys and schools for girls. The school education for girls is similar to the one of boys’ education with the exception that boys have physical education while girls have home economics instead. Doumato (2003) claims that the shift towards a more egalitarian paradigm within the sphere of education is apparent as four out of nine government universities enroll both male and female students. More so, women are now allowed to obtain an education abroad, and many Saudi females go to other countries (mainly the USA) to get their degrees. At the same time, the author states that irrespective of such advances, females face numerous barriers as they are not allowed to various spheres of social life.

Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir (2015) explore these obstacles. The researchers state that the Sharia law, as well as tribal culture, keeps the Saudi society segregated. Hence, females are only allowed to areas that involve female spheres including education, healthcare some services. According to the Wahhabi paradigm, women cannot be in places if there are males other than their relatives. It is noteworthy that males are allowed to almost all areas.

The exception is, of course, the places where exclusively females can be (schools, hospitals, hairdressers, private homes and so on). Thus, a woman in Saudi Arabia should be accompanied by a male guardian (a relative) in a public place, which restricts female’s participation in various aspects of the social life. Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir (2015) add that only slightly more than 20% of the Saudi workforce is constituted by females.

Females cannot possibly penetrate such spheres as technology or engineering where males operate. Science is mainly confined to males as well. Women can only partially join the pool of entrepreneurs as they have to have a person who will act on their behalf. Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir (2015) emphasize that females are even prohibited from driving, which also restricts their movements. The situation is aggravated by the way girls are brought u. Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir (2015) note that females are reluctant and even fearful to work in a mixed-gender environment.

At that, women eagerly occupy posts in the spheres of education, healthcare, and services that are related to the female involvement (schools for girls, beauty centers and so on). The progress is also evident as women are allowed to occupy positions in the Shura Council (Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth & Al Dighrir 2015). It is necessary to add that these peculiarities of the female inclusion shape (and reflect) the educational system of the kingdom.

On the one hand, females are encouraged to obtain up to secondary education, and the rate of literate girls is almost universal. On the other hand, not all disciplines are available for females in higher education. Such spheres as science and technology as well as jurisprudence and government are mainly reserved for males. However, the enrolment rate of female college and university students (which is similar to the rate of male students) unveils the demand for education and eagerness of females to play a more active role in the social life of Saudi Arabia and contribute more to its economic growth.

Contemporary educational system: curriculum

It is necessary to note that the analysis of Saudi schools’ curricula is mainly concerned with the dichotomy between religious values and secular approaches (Almogbel 2015; Hamdan 2013). Gender issues are also central to the academic research concerning the Saudi educational curriculum (Alharbi 2014; Doumato 2003). Some attention is paid to particular areas of concern, especially technology and science. However, before looking into the literature available on major issues related to the curriculum, it is important to identify the most recent perspective on the definition of the word.

As has been mentioned above, the curriculum is regarded as the basis of an efficient educational system in any country. Aljuhaish (2015b) defines curriculum as ‘the sum of all experiences, which are to be provided in an educational institution’. Young (2015, p. 7) articulates a more comprehensive view on the matter stating that a curriculum is a ‘structure that constraints not only the activities of those involved – primarily teachers and students, but also those who design curricula or attempt to achieve certain goals with them’. The researcher adds that the curriculum is central to ‘the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next’ (Young 2015, p. 2). This transmission of knowledge is not confined to a set of data within the field of some disciplines. It involves a significant focus on values and traditions. In Saudi Arabia, this component plays an exceptional role, and a significant portion of the curriculum is devoted to the cultural and religious aspects.

Alharbi (2014) states that students are often the source of curriculum, which is also partially the case in the kingdom. As far as the male education is concerned, the needs of students have been incorporated into the curriculum. Thus, the curriculum reflects men’s needs as regards professional skills and knowledge. At the same time, female’s needs and aspirations are often neglected when it comes to the development of the curriculum or rather the developers of the curriculum base on their understanding of the Saudi females’ needs when crafting the educational paradigm (Alharbi 2014).

This difference in approaches to curricula in male and female education is determined by the cultural peculiarities and the beliefs concerning the distribution of gender roles. The curriculum for girls’ education includes a significant portion of religious studies and less focus on physical education as well as science and technology. At the same time, the curriculum is under a great influence of imams and Wahhabi scholars, which makes it less flexible (Bowen 2014).

Alharbi (2014, p. 2023) specifies that Saudi officials have utilized a three-facet paradigm that implies the focus on the preparation of students for “him or herself, a career, and citizenship”. In Saudi Arabia, males can realize themselves in all three areas. Therefore, the curriculum for boys’ schools is comprehensive and enables students to prepare for their future careers or academic pursuits. Alharbi (2014) emphasizes that the higher education for boys has been available since the middle of the 20th century, and schools’ curricula have been adjusted to the needs of students who could decide to obtain higher education.

The late establishment of higher educational establishments (or overall availability of higher education) for females explains why girls’ school curricula are significantly less effective than those of boys’ schools. Alharbi (2014) claims that the period of the girls’ school curriculum evolution is still quite short, which translates into various weaknesses and inconsistencies with the challenges of higher education and females’ participation in the social life. Girls were taught to be good wives and mothers, and this basic role affected the curriculum that involved the focus on religion, Arabic, and the basics of arithmetic. Although the contemporary educational paradigm is different, and girls are allowed into more areas of the Saudi social life, curricula of many schools still bear traits of the traditional education for girls.

Researchers also pay certain attention to the curriculum in different types of schools as it slightly differs. Thus, the public and many private schools employ the curriculum based on Saudi cultural values. These educational establishments are also characterized by quite a strong adherence to rigid curricula developed (Hamdan 2013). However, the international schools (mainly private) provide a more flexible curriculum that is based on the western approach to education.

The curriculum includes a variety of disciplines and, what is important, egalitarian values are propagated. It is necessary to note that international schools are acquiring more popularity especially in the regions of the kingdom where diverse populations live. People have acknowledged the benefits of such educational paradigms although many Saudi people (especially religious leaders) oppose the spread of these schools as they are seen as a threat to traditions and even the development of the Saudi society.

As for specific disciplines, a lot of attention is devoted to the place of science and technology in Saudi schools’ curricula. Baqutayan (2011) explores the way studying and teaching science and technology is reflected in the curriculum. The researcher sheds light on major barriers to the effective incorporation of science and technology into the Saudi educational curricula. The author argues that the basic issue is the focus on theory rather than a particular application of science and technology in day-to-day life. Baqutayan (2011) also stresses that the overall knowledge in science and technology is far from being sufficient, which leads to the improper curriculum.

The researcher states that there are only a few courses in the higher educational establishment and a very limited academic debate as regards scientific and technological advances. The Saudi society is not concentrated (due to the focus on traditions) on technology and science, which is reflected in the insufficient proportion of the corresponding disciplines in Saudi schools. As has been mentioned above, when it comes to technology and science, the curriculum is outdated.

Contemporary educational system: pedagogy

Pedagogy is another aspect of the Saudi education that has attracted much attention among researchers and practitioners. Thus, Risha (2014) analyses the peculiarities of the educational system in the kingdom and states that it has been shaped by religion to a great extent. According to the Islamic beliefs, Allah created Adam and taught him “the names of things” and sent the first human to Earth to be his vicegerent” (Risha 2014, p. 108). Therefore, religious leaders have stressed that the primary goal of the education was making students acquainted with things. It has been believed that there is no place for discussions, debates, and critical thinking.

The researcher stresses that these beliefs led to the adherence to rote learning approach. Thus, teachers made students learn certain information by heart. Clearly, in kuttab schools as well as later schools (up to the first part of the 20th century), the focus was on the memorization of the Holly texts. Irrespective of the advances of the 20th century in the sphere of Saudi education, this teaching practice is still popular among Saudi teachers. Risha (2014) notes that it is especially true for public schools while the approaches used in international schools and higher educational establishments have been transforming steadily.

Alghamdi and Al-Salouli (2012) also note that the pedagogical practices utilized in Saudi schools do not respond to the challenges of the modern worlds as they concentrate on the rote learning. The researchers emphasize that this approach is especially ineffective and even hazardous when applied to teaching science and technology. Students simply learn rules by heart without understanding the nature of the processes studied. Alghamdi and Al-Salouli (2012) add that such an approach discourages students from pursuing academic goals in the area of science and technology. Elyas and Al Grigri (2014) examine the effects of the pedagogical practices employed in Saudi Arabia and claim that the focus on rote learning decreases students’ motivation as well as their performance.

This approach is associated with the adoption of the task-oriented and teacher-oriented environment. Saudi educators remain strict and rigid. They do not encourage students to think critically and try to examine different perspectives on issues. Such teaching methods demotivate students, which hurts their performance (Elyas & Al Grigri 2014). It is also noted that the development of students’ identities is also threatened due to the rigid training methods utilized in Saudi schools. The system can create a cohort of people thinking in the same way and fearing to develop and offer new ways. This kind of population may slow down the development of Saudi Arabia.

Educational policy context in Saudi Arabia

The reform to impose the study

The weaknesses of the Saudi educational system have been explored in detail, which contributed to the development of a new paradigm and a change of the entire educational policy. An important driver for change in the educational sphere was the Saudi government response to one of the deadliest terroristic attacks that took place in New York. Saudi officials proclaimed the focus on the development of true Islamic values with specific attention to the prevention of the spread of extremism. Yamani (2006) traces the reform of the Saudi educational system that took place in the 2000s.

The researcher states that, in 2005, the reform initiatives included the analysis of the Saudi curriculum and the development of a new modernized one. The establishment of student councils in Saudi schools to make students prepared for a more active participation in the social life of the community and the state. Opening more educational establishments including private. Focus on English skills improvement has become one of the priorities as well. Comprehensive and far-reaching programs of teachers’ training have been under development since that period. Yamani (2006) also adds that the increase in funds allocated is aimed at the improvement of the schools’ equipment. The use of technology is another essential priority of the Saudi officials.

Alnahdi (2014) explores the peculiarities of the Saudi educational change and outlines three major aspects that are central to the reform. The author stresses that the reform is aimed at improving the quality of educational services provided that will lead to the development of the society of well-educated people capable of making a difference.

Alnahdi (2014, p. 5) adds that the reform implies the creation of the “balanced, flexible, and sophisticated” curricula that will be able to “meet the needs of students, the requirements of national development plans, and the needs of the labor market”. Educational change is also aimed at “increasing positive attitudes toward learning, thinking, using technologies, and the use of different sources of information” (Alnahdi 2014, p. 5). Finally, the reform will also have a focus on Islamic values as the educational system should bring up well-educated young professionals who will contribute to the development of the country.

The changes in the educational sphere have been characterized by the use of such principles of inclusiveness and innovation. Doumato (2003) the educational change has embraced the sphere of gender issues. More female schools and higher educational establishments are opening. Females are allowed to more spheres, which leads to particular economic benefits for the kingdom (Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth & Al Dighrir 2015). All these features of the change show the goals of Saudi officials who want to make education a platform for the development of a society where people are critical thinkers who come up with innovative ideas and share the values of Islam.

Changes to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment

It is necessary to note that researchers often focus on particular disciplines or areas (curriculum, the use of technology, pedagogy, gender, and so on) when they analyze the Saudi educational reform. For instance, such disciplines as the English language and science and technology have acquired specific attention. Aljuhaish (2015b) examines the effectiveness of the English curriculum and finds that it is quite efficient but quite difficult to incorporate into the real-life environment. On the one hand, the curriculum focuses on the development of major skills necessary to master the language. On the other hand, in some schools, the lack of technology, as well as educator’s skills, poses various threats to the successful implementation of the curriculum developed.

As far as gender issues are concerned, the educational reform in Saudi Arabia implies a considerable shift in the development of girls’ curriculum. Alharbi (2014) states that some shifts have occurred in this area, and the girl’s curriculum is becoming more varied and adjusted to the needs of the contemporary Saudi society. Females can now work in mixed working environments that involve such spheres as management.

Doumato (2003) also claims that girls’ curricula started becoming more diverse and comprehensive in the early 2000s. At that, Al Alhareth, Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir (2015) argue that the changes are quite slow as the cultural peculiarities and traditions are primary barriers to the implementation of the successful change. Although the reform includes an emphasis on the development of the girls’ curriculum, schools, and entire cities adopt the changes very slowly.

One of the ways to overcome this resistance is to empower schools, which is the idea shared by many researchers and practitioners. Alyami (2014) stresses that the empowerment of schools as regards curriculum is associated with a significant improvement of the faculty’s and students’ performance, motivation, and satisfaction. Almogbel (2015) notes that flexibility in the curriculum is also manifested in the adoption of international values and some teaching practices, which significantly improves the Saudi school curriculum.

Furthermore, this flexibility should also be associated with appropriate technological development. Thus, Al-Zahrani (2015) stresses that the implementation of the new educational policies is possible if schools are properly equipped. The use of the appropriate technology is especially important for teaching science and technology. Moreover, the researcher states that teachers should obtain the corresponding training to be able to use the technology available.

Alghamdi and Al-Salouli (2012) also claim that the technology is crucial to the success of the educational reform. The researchers voice science teachers’ perspectives on the matter, and it is clear that educators see the lack of technology as one of the basic barriers to the successful implementation of new educational policies. Notably, Al Mulhim (2014) reveals another obstacle to the use of technology and overall changes. Again, cultural peculiarities and religious beliefs are associated with the reluctance of teachers and officials to incorporate technology into the curriculum and day-to-day training.

Apart from the curriculum, the educational reform implies the change of the Saudi pedagogy. Sywelem and Witte (2013) state that teachers’ training can contribute to the change of pedagogic patterns used. As has been mentioned above, the teacher-oriented and task-centered approach is only yet to be changed. Saudi teachers are still reluctant to provide more freedom to students and empower them. Importantly, the development of critical thinking skills is also on the outskirts of Saudi educators’ teaching agendas.

Sywelem and Witte (2013) emphasize that the major reason for that trend is the lack of teachers’ training who are still unprepared to use novel methods. Rahman et al. (2011) share such opinions and provide the results of the research on the matter. The authors argue that the educational reform stresses that need to use new (more flexible) pedagogic patterns but the implementation of the change meets a considerable resistance in schools.

Assessment is closely related to the teaching practices employed in Saudi schools. This issue has also attracted some attention among researchers. Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir (2014) state that Saudi teachers assess the way students memorize rather than understand various concepts. The focus on rote learning is evident in the assessment as well. New educational policies involve the attention to this area. The requirements and recommendations include the focus on assessing students’ critical thinking skills rather than the mere ability to memorize some data (Al Alhareth & Al Dighrir 2014).

There are some shifts in this area as Saudi teachers are employing different assessment tools. Hamdan (2013) claims that novel educators prefer such assessment methods as the report and oral presentation, which help to unveil students’ awareness of certain concepts, their understanding as well as students’ ability to utilize them. These assessment methods aim at evaluating students’ critical thinking skills. This example shows that the changes are taking place as the younger generation eagerly employ new ways.

International comparisons

It can be beneficial to consider some educational policies and changes that have taken place in other countries to develop and evaluate educational reforms in Saudi Arabia. Many researchers focus on issues associated with the latest advances in the educational sphere in different countries. Thus, Alnahdi and Abdulaziz (2014) compare the Saudi educational system with the ones in the United Kingdom and Finland.

The researchers stress that flexibility of the curriculum, student-centered approach and the use of advanced technologies are central to the success of the educational systems in such developed countries as Finland and the UK. Importantly, the experience of western educational establishments is valuable, but it can be more illustrative to evaluate educational systems and teaching practices in Islamic countries and countries that do not have such financial resources as developed countries do.

Das, Dewhurst, and Gray (2011) provide a detailed account of a new educational paradigm that has acquired wide popularity in Scotland. The development of creative pedagogies is regarded as one of the most efficient ways to improve students’ motivation and performance. Educators are encouraged to use interdisciplinary tools and empower students. Das, Dewhurst, and Gray (2011) stress that the student-centered paradigm has proved to be efficient, and students like the creative ways of instructing teachers utilize and assessing their skills. Importantly, the use of technology is essential as creative ways often require the use of certain gadgets and software.

Wati (2011) explores the effectiveness of some teacher training programs in Indonesia. The researcher states that the training focused on the acquisition of specific skills (in the corresponding disciplines) as well as sharing training methods. These two components have proved to be central to the success of the programs that made educators more empowered, motivated and even more professional. Suleman et al. (2011) provide insights into the peculiarities of the implementation of some teacher training programs. The authors highlight the strengths of the programs, which include teachers’ acquisition of the necessary skills within the scope of their disciplines.

However, Suleman et al. (2011) add that the primary weakness of the program was its inability to align theory with practice and Islamic values with more egalitarian and international approaches. These findings are especially important as they can help Saudi officials and practitioners to develop effective educational policies and programs that will be efficient and will contribute to the development of the entire system.

Another valuable research was implemented in Malaysia. Hamid, Hassan, and Ismail (2012) note that teachers’ professional skills and their personal traits are both important. At the same time, motivation and commitment also play an important role in the teachers’ professional development and the ability to fit into the new educational paradigm. Tan (2014) notes that Islamic traditions have posed certain barriers to the adoption of more egalitarian educational approaches and international teaching practices. The researcher claims that the use of student-centered approach is vital as it helps incorporate international teaching methods. Tan (2014) stresses that Indonesian teachers are also reluctant to employ new ways, but novice educators are more open to new policies and tools, which is a positive sign.


This chapter includes an analysis of the existing literature on the development of the Saudi educational system with the focus on the modern educational strategies employed in Saudi schools. Some practices utilized in other countries are also mentioned. A lot of attention is paid to the contemporary state of the Saudi educational system as it helps to understand the barriers existing in the field and areas to focus on when developing various training programs and educational policies. The process of the system’s reform has been commenced, but there is still much to do, there is still reluctance and unpreparedness for the change. The review of the literature shows that old ways are still persistent in the Saudi educational system.

Importantly, major barriers to the successful implementation of the educational reform have been unveiled. These include the lack of flexibility in curriculum, teachers’ training, and technology use (or rather its availability). The primary obstacle is still the adherence to traditional methods of teaching and the focus on Islamic values with no attention to the calls of the modernity. However, it is also clear that the Saudi educational system is transforming as many schools reveal unprecedented results.

It is noteworthy that good results (higher levels of motivation and performance of students and teachers) exhibit schools that adopt international approaches that imply curriculum flexibility, alignment of the theory and practice, and extensive use of technology. At the same time, it is necessary to add that there is a particular gap in the literature as more studies on the successful implementation of new educational policies and programs should be available. The debate on effective educational tools should be wider as it will ensure the development of an efficient educational system in the kingdom.

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