1. Background

The US Saudi Business Council (2010) observed that the largest country of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, allocated over 25% of the country’s budget (US$ 35.5 billion) towards education and manpower development in 2010, realising the need for investing in both quality and quantity of its human resource reserves. Investment in human capital is a salient approach in stimulating economic and social growth of any country and the Saudi Arabian government has been quite active in this regard. They poured in a lot of money into education development and implemented some significant educational reforms, however, there still seems to be some lacunae in the overall approach of their system. The unemployment rates are high in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region (Maroun et al, 2010), students still struggle with their English proficiency at the university-level (Alnufaie, 2014) and the job-worthy Saudis still fall short of the international competition (Hoetjes, 2013). Efforts have been made and are still being made to overcome these weaknesses, but the Saudi educational context still does not match its stated objectives. There have been feats, as well as failings, in raising the Saudi educational standards, especially with regard to English and this is precisely the object of the current discussion.

2. Saudi Arabia: A Snapshot of Its Educational History

Before discussing the achievements and shortcomings of the Saudi educational system, it is important to reflect on the country’s history, its educational system, its English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching standards and assessment practices.


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2.1. The Country

Saudi Arabia is one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The GCC was established in 1981, comprising six Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (Arouri et al, 2011). King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud had changed the history of the Arabian Peninsula in September 1932 by unifying the country and renaming it as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2016). In fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia constitutes most of the Arabian Peninsula with a unique geographical entity, boarded by the Red Sea on the West, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq on the North, Oman and Yemen on the South and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Arabian Gulf on the East (ibid.). The approximate size of Saudi Arabia is 2,150,000 square kilometres (830,000 square miles) covering nearly 80% of the Arabian Peninsula (ibid.). There are 13 provinces in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia containing more than 6000 cities and villages (Al-Sadan, 2000). The total population in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood at 33,770,375 in 2014 (General Authority for Statistics, 2016).


2.2. The Educational Context

In 1926, the Directorate of Education in Saudi Arabia was established and was considered to be the foundation stone for boys’ education (Ministry of Education (MOE), 2016). During the reign of King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz, the first Ministry of Education was founded in 1953 (MOE, 2016). As a result, public education was completely reshaped in 1953 by replacing the Directorate of Education with a new Ministry of Education, which was led by Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz (Al-Sadan, 2000).

The general educational system in Saudi Arabia consists of five main stages: kindergarten and primary (six years), intermediate (three years), secondary (three years) and higher education (Al-Seghayer, 2011). Figure 1 below illustrates the entire structure of Saudi’s educational system (both compulsory and optional).

Figure 1: Saudi Arabia’s Educational System (Scheme compiled by UNESCO-UNEVOC from Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, 2011)

Students are required to attend seven periods each day on different subjects and each period lasts about 45 minutes (ibid). The Ministry of Education holds the responsibility for developing and publishing textbooks and providing them, free of charge, to every student (Al-Sadan, 2000).  As a matter of fact, primary, intermediate and secondary schools across the country teach identical curriculums, use the same textbooks, applying the same assessment system, have the same number of taught periods each week and identical examination system, which is all determined by the MOE (Al-Sadan, 2000).

The secondary level of education in Saudi Arabia follows the intermediate level for pupils aged 15 to 18 years old. It comprises 10th, 11th and 12th grades. In grade 11 and 12, pupils have the opportunity to choose a specialisation (Al-Seghayer, 2011). Specialisation can be in any one of these: (1) administration and social sciences, (2) natural sciences and (3) Shariah and Arabic studies (UNESCO, 2010).


 2.3. EFL Teaching Practices

Al-Seghayer (2011) reported that although English was taught in Saudi schools since 1927, there was no established English curriculum until the early 1960s. He also clarified that the English language was only taught in intermediate and secondary schools until 2005 when English has became a core subject in the sixth grade of primary schools. Currently, English language is taught as a foreign language (EFL) from the fourth grade of primary school until Grade12, the last year of secondary school. In primary schools, English is taught twice a week in periods of 45-minutes (Alrashidi&Phan, 2015). However, English classes are increased to four times a week of a 45-minute period in the intermediate and secondary schools (ibid).

Alnufaie (2014) stated that English is taught as a core subject in public schools in Saudi Arabia with the integration of the four main skills in using English (reading, writing, listening and speaking). He also noted that due to the large number of students in classes in Saudi public schools with the limited EFL periods, teachers are struggling to teach the required skills of the curriculum. In 2009-10, the Ministry of Education reported that the total number of students enrolled was 2,493,125 in elementary schools, 1,188,342 in intermediate schools and 1,096,174 in secondary schools (UNESCO, 2010). It is, therefore, naturally difficult for teachers to attend to this huge number of students and give them adequate attention in developing EFL skills. As a result, Alnufaie (2014) rightly concluded that undergraduate Saudi students strive in English writing because of neglected writing guidance in the previous stages at school. Although this issue is fairly prevalent in many developing countries that follow a traditional approach to education, it is particularly strong in Saudi Arabia. Traditional teaching practices focus too much on rote learning than real-understanding based learning (Al Sadaawi, 2010).


2.4. Assessment Practices in Saudi Schools

The academic year in Saudi Arabia is divided into two terms; in each term 40% of the total mark is assessed on students’ work throughout the term and 60% is assessed by the final examination (Al Bedaiwi, 2014). The General Directorate of Assessment (GDA) has set guidelines and certain marking schemes for teachers to follow in testing students (ibid). Al-Seghayer (2015) argues that Saudi EFL teachers are predominantly focusing on achievement rather than performance in examination and as a result more emphasis is laid on grades rather than proficiency or fluency. The grading system for all assessments are as below.

Figure 2: Saudi education system – Grading for all assessments (Source: Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, 2010).

Alsammani (2014) pointed out that the pre-service teacher training in universities seemed to be insufficient in the assessment field and that most of their knowledge in assessment was acquired from their on-the-job training. His evidence is shown from his study in evaluating 50 pre-service EFL teachers in 12 intermediate schools in the Qassim province. Furthermore, he noticed that they use assessment for judging students rather than enhancing their learning.



3. Saudi Educational Strides

The MOE is constantly trying to improve the educational delivery standards and the quality of learning outcomes for students at all levels of education (Sadaawi, 2010). The government initiated some significant public education projects (Tatweer, 2013), encouraged students to further their education in Saudi universities and even pursue opportunities to study abroad (Alrashidi & Phan, 2015) and directed renewed focus towards setting national educational strategies (Tatweer, 2013).


3.1. Saudi Arabian Scholarships

These scholarships provided opportunities for talented students to attend high-ranking international universities. The Saudi Arabian scholarships will prioritize fields that serve national priorities with an emphasis on innovation in advanced technologies. The history of study-abroad scholarships in Saudi Arabia began in 1927, when King Abdulaziz offered scholarships for students to study abroad (Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), (2013). Additionally, the first scholarship began by sending fourteen Saudi students to study in Egyptian universities in a range of studies like Islamic law, education, technical education, agricultural science and medicine (MOHE, 2013).

In 2005, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz had launched the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme for Saudi students in order to establish sustainable human resources in the Kingdom (MOE, 2016). King Abdullah Scholarship Programme has been extended for its third phase of five years to 2020 (MOE, 2016). As a matter of fact, the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme is considered to be the largest scholarship programme in the history of the kingdom (Taibah & Jamjoom, 2013).


3.2. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Project for Developing Public Education (Tatweer)

The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz project for developing public education was formed to ensure that students are receiving high quality standards in public education and to prepare them for the challenges of the 21st century (Tatweer, 2013). This project (Tatweer) is one of the most important reforms in Saudi Arabian education. The Arabic word “Tatweer” means development. The government of Saudi Arabia has set a budget of $2.7 billion for this project (Al Sadaawi, 2010).


3.3. Revised National Educational Strategies

In 2013, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz project for the development of public education designed a national strategy for developing public education in Saudi Arabia, with an objective to fulfil the present and future requirements of Saudi Arabia in terms of educational strategies (Tatweer, 2013). It has been suggested that the implementation of the national strategy will be applied in two stages of five years each. The first five-year implementation plan is taking place between 2013 and 2017 (ibid).


The national strategy for the development of public education has set general goals and policies to be achieved:

  1. Enable schools and educational directorates to administrate and guide the development process.
  2. Improve the educational curriculums, teaching skills and evaluation programmes that will reflect positively on students’ learning.
  3. Provide equal learning opportunities and support systems for all students
  4. Supply kindergarten education for all children
  5. Create a learning environment to meet the learning requirements of the 21st century
  6. Promote students’ health, self-confidence and their self-discipline
  7. Develop positive relationships with parents and local communities to support a professional learning culture
  8. Sustain a professional teaching system in education
  9. Maximize technology efficiency for performance improvement
  10. Develop governance, leadership, incentives and educational policies to sustain the progress of schools (Tatweer, 2013, pp. 17-22)


Although these goals are set to prepare the country’s human capital for a future workforce, educators and researchers feel that implementation of Saudi’s educational goals has always lacked integration and consistency (Al Sadaawi, 2010) and has therefore, led to the shortcomings discussed below. Schools are still not given rights to administrate curriculum development (Alhareth & Dighrir, 2014); Saudi employability is still low in the global job market (Hoetjes, 2013); and according to the Central Department of Statistics, a majority of the Saudi population, the country’s youth, still forms half the unemployed population (Alhamad, 2014).


4. Saudi Educational Shortcomings

Given that more than a quarter of the Saudi budget is spent on educational developments (Sadaawi, 2010), one might expect that there will only be remarkable feats in this regard. Much contrary to expectations, the Saudi education system has many failings and is considered to be ineffective in driving a palpable difference to the quality of learning.


4.1. Low-Performing Saudi Students

In spite of the high expenditure on education, the academic performance of Saudi students is extremely low.  As reported by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2011 (TIMSS), Saudi Arabia ranked 45th on the mathematics achievement in TIMSS 2011 at the fourth grade against 50 other countries and 37th at the eighth grade against 42 countries (TIMSS, 2011a). Moreover, Saudi Arabia ranked 42nd on the science achievement in TIMSS 2011 at the fourth grade and 31st at the eighth grade (TIMSS, 2011b).


4.2. Inadequacy of EFL Teaching

The Ministry of Education has prioritised continuous developments in teaching English, realising the importance of the language. However, Alsolami (2013) argues that students graduating from Saudi secondary schools are still facing difficulties with the current growing demands of the English language in Saudi universities because of their low proficiency in English. Even Alhamdan (2014) indicates that English in secondary schools is taught and learnt as a subject rather than a skill. That is to say, it is more of rote learning, than strengthening the basics of English, on which further knowledge can be built.


4.3. Failure of Policy Reforms

Efforts to reform or improve the education system have put emphasis on different sciences and skills to cope with the modern world (MOE, 2016). It is apparent that there have been many Saudi policy reforms and initiatives that aim to link education with business to produce employable graduates locally and globally (Taibah & Jamjoom, 2013). In spite of the potential objectives of the education system and policy reforms, it did not achieve significant improvements in the competitiveness of Saudi graduates against international competitors. In fact, education is not providing students with the practical requirements of contemporary careers. Business managers are arguing that the GCC educational systems and their infrastructure services are insufficient in equipping students with the required skillsets for the current workplace (Maroun et al, 2010). Similarly, Taibah & Jamjoom (2013) claim that a lot of Saudi students are graduating from schools and universities lacking essential skills to face the marketplace competition with expatriate employees, even for low-skill demanding roles. Taibah & Jamjoom (2013) emphasize on an increasing need for vocational training to restrict the excessive number of Saudi dropouts from jobs, as reported by their employers.


4.4. Growing Unemployment

The unemployment rate among Saudi nationals in 2008 was 10% of the total labour force; the male unemployment rate was 6.8%, while the female unemployment rate was 26.9% (Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2016c). The main reasons behind unemployment of GCC nationals as stated by Maroun et al (2010) are the lack of qualifications, low inspiration to work and high expectations of salaries.

In 2009, the Saudi Employment Strategy was announced by Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers to reach full employment of Saudi nationals and increase the productivity of the workforce within a three-phase framework (Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2016b). The Saudi Employment Strategy covers a period of 25 years divided into: a short term (the first two years), a medium term (the following three years) and a long term (the remaining twenty years) (Ministry of Labor, 2016).

However, In 2013, the Saudi employment in the private sector was about 1,180,000 of Saudi males bringing the total number to 111% more than it was in 2009 and opposed to 31% increase of expatriates within the same period (Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2016b).  Moreover, the number of Saudi females employed in the private sector grew from only 48,000 in 2009 to 203,000 in 2013 (ibid).


Distribution of Saudis and Non Saudis population in the labour force in Figure 4 highlights an interesting comparison between Saudis and non-Saudis in the labour force in Saudi Arabia. As shown from the chart, the majority of the labour market in Saudi Arabia are foreign workers comprising more than 53% of the whole workforce. The Saudi female participation in the workforce in 2015 is an extremely low percentage with only 10.10% of the total employees in Saudi Arabia (General Authority for Statistics, 2016).


4.5. Teacher Quality

Another shortcoming of the Saudi education system is the quality of teachers’ performance. According to Alnahdi’s (2014) study on Saudi Arabia’s educational transformation, teachers are the cornerstone of the whole educational process; they need to be appropriately trained and have a degree of accountability to make the education system progress in the right direction. However, Alnahdi (2014) states that the low quality of teachers is caused by the fact that the teaching profession in Saudi Arabia no longer has the same social recognition and respect like it had in the past. Alnahdi (2014) further asserts that some Saudis go for the teaching profession only because of the job security it offers, and therefore, this potentially attracts individuals who have no passion for teaching.


5.1. End-oriented Teaching and Assessment

Any kind of educational assessment in Saudi Arabia endeavours to measure the curriculum’s outcome (Al-Sadan, 2000). Saudi teachers only teach to test (Alhareth & Dighrir, 2014). This is an end-oriented approach or summative approach. The focus of such a teaching and assessment approach is merely passing an examination, rather than gaining actual understanding of the subject (Al Kadri, et al., 2011). Abdelwahab (2002) relates students’ low performance in EFL classes to these insufficient practices of teaching and assessment. He sets a recommendation of using self-assessment portfolios based on his study of investigating students’ and teachers’ perceptions on self-assessment portfolio in three EFL classes in an intermediate school in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he asserts that self-assessment portfolios could help students improve their learning and encourage critical thinking instead of memorising information for tests. Such an approach is essentially formative in nature as it forms knowledge incrementally and it is an approach that the Saudi education system majorly lacks.


5.2. Lack of Written Corrective Feedback

Alshahrani and Storch (2014) conducted a study examining the practices of written corrective feedback (WCF) of 3 EFL teachers in a Saudi university, their beliefs about WCF and the students’ preferences. The authors found that students highly valued teachers’ WCF and believed in its importance in identifying their errors and improving their writing. The study pointed out that although most of the students were aware that they received indirect WCF (that is, the guidelines of the institution), the majority preferred to receive direct WCF from their teachers. Furthermore, the study elaborated that those minority who preferred to receive indirect written corrective feedback justified their preference to its significant role in promoting their learning autonomy. However, going by the majority, it is apparent that the Saudi education system lacks direct WCF, which most students would prefer.

Like Alshahrani and Storch (2014), Alkhatib (2015) also found in her study that students valued WCF from teachers and considered it very important to learning. Similar thoughts were reflected in Alqurashi’s (2015) study of 86 Saudi EFL students. Alqurashi (2015) observed that the students took interest in the teachers’ WCF and acknowledged its importance in giving them confidence and willingness to improve English language proficiency. However, assessment and feedback only forms part of the unit-end in the Saudi education system (Al-Sadan, 2000) and are provided only after an examination (Al Sadaawi, 2010). This is definitely a good reason for the educational failings in Saudi Arabia.


5.3. Centrally-controlled Curriculum

Another shortcoming of the Saudi educational system lies in its rigidity — the curriculum is centrally set and controlled by the MOE, teachers are not allowed to be involved and they only teach prescribed content to students (Alhareth and Dighrir, 2014).  This limits their teaching freedom and they are unable to develop or amend the curriculum (Alhareth and Dighrir, 2014) although they are considered critical to driving positive learning outcomes (Alnahdi, 2014).


6. Saudi Vision 2030

The failings notwithstanding, the Saudi government continues with its commitment to improving its education system by releasing the Saudi 2030 vision in April 2016, recognizing the importance of quality education to a growing economy (Saudi Vision 2030, 2016). The Saudi Vision 2030 has been set out around three main themes: “a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation” (Saudi Vision 2030, 2016, p.13). A thriving economy requires coordinated efforts to ensure that the education system is aligned with market needs so that students who graduate become highly employable (ibid). The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will continue investment in education and training that aims to reform the education system so that it can prepare graduates for the jobs of the future (ibid).

The government commits to invest in early childhood education, refine the national curriculum and provide sufficient training for teachers (ibid). It also looks forward to providing all Saudi children with high quality and multi-faceted education. Moreover, the government plans to develop effective vocational training to equip the citizens with skills and abilities that will improve the economic growth of the country (ibid). The rest remains to be tested in time.


7. References

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