Interview: Khaled Al Sabti

The education sector is currently undergoing major changes. Could you elaborate on this transformation and the rationale behind it?

KHALED AL SABTI: Saudi Arabia is embarking on a journey to improve its education system, and provide students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to succeed. Our journey is guided by a new Education Development Strategy that puts students and schools at the centre of our investment and development efforts.

Student learning drives everything that we do. We have major programmes to build the skills of teachers; strengthen the leadership capabilities of our managers; use technology to expand learning opportunities; and introduce modern skills across curricula. Restructuring the Ministry of Education (MoE) provides the conditions for these efforts to succeed. Through restructuring, we are expanding the roles and responsibilities of the schools and districts, enabling them to better serve their students. We are also refocusing the role of the MoE on core functions, such as policy, regulation and curriculum. With schools and districts enabled to be active agents in education delivery, and a leaner, more agile MoE in a regulatory and supportive role, we will be in a better position to serve the needs of our students and respond to the rapid changes ahead of us.

What is the envisioned role of the private sector in the new restructured education system?

AL SABTI: With the role of the MoE being refocused, the private sector becomes more important in supporting it. The government-owned Tatweer Education Holding was established to help the MoE deliver high-quality services efficiently in both core and supporting functions. Subsidiaries have been created in transportation, school buildings and education quality improvement, and more will follow. With these assigned to the private sector, the burden on the MoE will be alleviated, allowing it to focus on what it does best: policy, financing, regulation, curriculum and system-wide innovation. It is important to note, however, that the purpose of Tatweer and its subsidiaries is not to crowd out private firms, but to act as a catalyst for the emergence of an education services industry capable of competing locally, regionally and internationally.

As well as increasing the private sector’s role, how is community involvement being strengthened?

AL SABTI: In the past, schools operated as islands, separated from the community where they operated. The MoE is committed to changing that, and is implementing major initiatives to open schools to the community. For instance, schools’ sports infrastructure, in which we are investing substantially, is being used by members of the community for exercise and fitness. Serving as community centres, schools will be an attractive space for people to access first-rate facilities. We are considering the public-private partnership model to manage these centres in order to scale up the initiative country-wide. We are also rapidly expanding the establishment of pre-schools to offer childcare and education that gives children the foundation to learn, grow and succeed. In 2011 the Kingdom saw one preschool established every day on average, and in 2012 the average rate has been more than two per day.

What action is the MoE taking to ease students’ transition into the labour market?

AL SABTI: Our strategy includes many lines of action, including integrating 21st century skills across the curriculum and strengthening institutional linkages with the labour market. In 2012 we launched an entrepreneurial skills development project called Bidar to provide secondary schools with the capabilities to engage in entrepreneurial activities. In partnership with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship in New York, we have begun preparing trainers who will coach schoolchildren. The reaction of both the teachers and the students has been very encouraging. We are committed to scaling up initiatives such as these, so that students have the skills required to join the labour market.