Innovative solutions: A knowledge-based economy will require an updated school system

With a transformation agenda backed by a budget of SR210bn ($56bn) in 2014, the education sector in Saudi Arabia holds significant investment potential for the private sector. The government is seeking partners that can help transform both the physical environment of facilities and improve educational standards across the Kingdom’s school system. With more than 7m pupils in schools or universities, Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest education market in the GCC.

THE DEVELOPMENT AGENDA: The government is on a mission to build an economy based on knowledge rather than one solely reliant on oil by 2025. However, the authorities recognise that educational practices must change if children’s performance in subjects like maths and science is to be near the top of global rankings and to ensure they leave school with appropriate skills to join a diversified labour market.

Education ministers have acknowledged that chalkand-talk classes and rote learning must be replaced by more stimulating and thought-provoking interactions with inspiring teachers able to draw on a suite of electronic information sources, and equipped with the latest technological aides to encourage children to find answers and produce innovative solutions to intellectual and practical problems.

BUILDING BLOCKS: One of the issues that needs to be addressed in a country where many schools are in rented buildings is the physical learning environment. Authorities are aiming to create schools that resemble mini campuses equipped with technology and arranged around IT suites and laboratories, and for students to come to school carrying a tablet rather than a rucksack full of textbooks. The 2014 budget includes projects for 465 new buildings worth SR3bn ($799.8m). This is an addition to the 1544 school buildings currently under construction and more than 494 schools that were completed in 2013. The US construction giant Aecom won a SR78.76m ($21m) three-year contract to project manage construction schemes at 21,000 educational facilities across 13 provinces in July 2013.

FUNDING CHANGES: The Aecom contract was negotiated with Tatweer Educational Holding Company, an umbrella company that has subsidiaries dealing with student transport, school supplies and educational facilities. Tatweer (development in Arabic) is the acronym used for the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Project for Developing Public Education, which has a SR11.8bn ($3.1bn) fund to improve standards over five years. The fund has been further subdivided with SR4.2bn ($1.1bn) targeted at general improvement of public education, SR3.5bn ($933.1m) to develop extra-curricular activities, SR2.94bn ($783.8m) to train and retrain teachers, and SR980m ($261.3m) to develop curricula.

Although physical building works are a part of Tatweer’s remit, the emphasis of the fund is on improving the soft skills development of both pupils and teachers. In January 2014 Pearson Middle East announced that it had won a contract to provide a Maths and Science Teacher Training Programme to 500 Saudi educators that will enable them to develop a science and maths network to support the teaching of these subjects throughout the country. In February 2014 the company announced it had also won a contract with a focus on improving the quality of English-language teaching in the Kingdom.

TAKAMOL: TakaMoL is a holding company owned by the government, which works alongside the parastatal Human Resources Development Fund to develop public-private partnerships (PPPs) that focus on the provision of practical and vocational training. Khaled Al Ghoneim, the CEO and chairman of TakaMoL, explained that its approach to PPPs is to provide the buildings and the students’ fees, while a private training provider supplies staff and curricula, with results measured on the subsequent employment of trainees. TakaMoL is currently working with training providers from the US, Canada and Europe and is planning new initiatives including 22 new colleges in 2014.

NEW RESOURCES: Communication, creativity and critical thinking are also seen as crucial skills for today’s students. Many businesses expect young people to have excellent written and verbal skills in both English and Arabic, and yet many bright young graduates find it a challenge to communicate professionally in a business environment. One initiative aimed at improving these skills has involved translating teaching materials produced by McGraw-Hill into Arabic and adjusting these versions to provide examples and illustrations that more closely reflect Saudi society.

Other innovations are afoot to help tailor teaching materials to today’s learners. As a highly tech-savvy populace (see IT chapter), the use of apps and other online resources is seen as a key way to engage youth with learning. One example of this is the partnership between Numa Al Elmia, which works with international publishers and educational establishments in Saudi Arabia, and a Finnish firm that created a maths app called 10monkeys. The deal was struck in Riyadh in February 2014 following the International Education and Forum for Education and demonstrates the potential Saudi education businesses see for e-learning products and apps that could be utilised in schools to help teachers and policymakers transform the way subjects are taught.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS: While the authorities may be spending billions of riyals in overhauling state schools, statistics from the Central Department for Statistics and Information show that 11% of parents are opting to send their children to private facilities. Among the private sector institutions, there are a number of international schools either offering an internationally accredited syllabus or the syllabus from their home country. The National Committee for Private Education says it has had interest from investors in China and in other parts of the Gulf in its plans to establish a joint stock company called Saudi Skills that would manage investments in the sector. In a separate development Itqan Capital, a Saudi-based investment firm is planning to launch a private equity fund that will focus solely on the education sector in the GCC, a market that it values at $40bn.

CAMPUS CONSTRUCTION: At the tertiary level, Saudi Arabia is making major investments in the facilities of its universities. The national budget statement revealed plans for rehabilitation of women’s colleges and the construction of eight new college buildings at universities. One of these projects alone is worth SR3bn ($799.8m). Jazan University is constructing four medical colleges, a college of business administration and more than a dozen smaller buildings. In addition to bricks and mortar improvements, Saudi universities have embarked on twinning programmes with international universities to bolster their global recognition. Although partnerships at this level may be focused on staff exchanges, there are also opportunities for collaborations on research and development.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest education market in the Gulf and its current focus on transforming the Kingdom into a knowledge-based economy ensures education remains as a high priority in the government’s spending plans. State-owned companies and agencies are thus geared up to form PPPs with education businesses that can add value and expertise to the sector.

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The Report: Saudi Arabia 2014

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Saudi Arabia 2014

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