Reform of the educational system is an important component of Economic Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s long-term development plan, and has thus been a focus of the government for a considerable period of time. In tandem with the Economic Development Board (EDB) and other local and international organisations, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has undertaken significant steps to improve the public school system. These efforts have centred largely on the School Improvement Programme (SIP) and, more recently, on extending the school day and developing a new national curriculum.

NEW METHODS: Launched in September 2008, SIP is an umbrella programme that encompasses a series of MoE projects designed to upgrade government schools and improve the quality of teaching. Initially, SIP was rolled out at 10 schools, two from each of the country’s five governorates, to ensure a representative sample of local educational institutions.

Each project under SIP has focused on a different element of the education system. For example, as part of the leadership for outcomes project, administrators were encouraged to focus on instruction quality at their schools rather than administrative matters. The MoE further supported this programme by agreeing to hire new assistant principles to handle paperwork. Another project, known as partnership for performance, provided school leaders with day-to-day informatics about their institutions, such as the number of absentees and the incidence of misbehaviour. Having this data available enables local administrators to make better decisions, stated Sheikha Lulwa bint Khalifa Al Khalifa, the MoE’s assistant undersecretary for curricula and educational supervision. The idea is to make schools more independent, she told OBG, adding that this is consistent with the ministry’s broader emphasis on decentralisation of the education system.

PEDAGOGY: It is pedagogy, however, that is at the heart of the SIP reforms. The teaching for learning project provided workshops and training programmes for teachers so that they could learn to engage and motivate students and improve independent learning skills. SIP also improved the assessment structure for educators as part of what is known as the performance management system project. This includes an element of self-assessment whereby teachers work with mentors to identify the goals they want to meet and to review their performance with respect to these objectives. Teachers also have the option of enrolling in additional training workshops, and participating teachers are eligible for quicker promotion.

Throughout schools, the new educational techniques implemented by SIP will encourage students to be more engaged in the learning process. The new methods are to replace a system that was largely textbook-centric and primarily oriented towards memorisation of materials that would appear on end-of-the-semester exams. While local students may have done well on these tests, they tended to perform poorly in international comparative studies, such as Trends in International Mathematics and Sciences Study (TIMSS), a test developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement that is conducted every four years. It is still too early to tell whether or not Bahrain’s TIMSS performance will improve as the result of SIP, but the pilot schools have already done better on national exams, encouraging authorities to expand SIP to 40 and then 100 schools. By September 2012, all schools will be part of the programme.

LONGER SCHOOL DAY: While new teaching methods may improve educational outcomes, they also require more time, which is itself a particular challenge given that the Bahraini school day is quite short, running from 7.00am to 13.30pm. The academic year also has a small number of school days relative to other countries. Taking into account both of these factors, local students have 635 hours of instruction per year, well below the average in OECD countries (920) and the recommended mark set by UNESCO (1000).

Beginning with the second semester of the 2011/12 academic year, the MoE has accordingly decided to lengthen the school day by 45 minutes at all secondary schools, providing an additional three hours and 45 minutes of instruction per week.

The schedule has also been rearranged by reducing the number of lessons each day from seven to six and increasing the length of each lesson from 45 minutes to one hour. The ministry first implemented the extended school day initiative on a pilot basis at the Muharraq Secondary Girls’ School in September 2009. The experiment was deemed a success, with a survey showing that some 89% of the students at the school were satisfied with the extended day.

PREPARATORY WORK: Despite the demonstrated potential gains in student performance, there have been some teething problems. Nonetheless, the authorities are determined to carry out the programme and spent the first half of the 2011/12 school year preparing teachers for the new schedule. Sheikha Lulwa told OBG that the ministry has been working with teachers to help them design lesson plans that are appropriate for longer class periods. She also noted that the ministry has spent significant funds on upgrading school facilities to make them suitable for extended days, such as improving air conditioning, because longer days mean working into the warmer hours of the afternoon.

More broadly, the MoE has shown a willingness to invest the funds necessary to carry out SIP and its related programmes. For example, the teaching for learning project – just one SIP initiative – has a budget of BD100,000 ($264,000) per year. She added that it would not be possible to provide training programmes for teachers without these additional funds.

CURRICULUM: While the centre of reform efforts to date has largely been on teaching methods, the focus is now shifting to teaching materials, which includes modifying the national curriculum. In January 2012 the minister of education, Majid bin Ali Al Nuaimi, announced that he was calling for the formation of a commission to review all school curricula. International assistance for this initiative will be provided by organisations such as UNESCO and leading foreign educational institutions. According to a statement by the minister, the aim is to examine all school courses and to ensure that they adequately develop students’ critical thinking, dialogue, problem-solving and tolerance capabilities.

This announcement provides deeper insight into the ministry’s future goals and underscores the government’s commitment to improving the educational system, even though curriculum development has been in the works for some time. The MoE developed a National Numeracy strategy in 2011 and is at present working on an Arabic literacy strategy, both of which will be used by the ministry as the basis for the development of a new national curriculum.

The MoE is currently preparing a draft national curriculum document, which could be available to the public as early as September 2012, but the actual curriculum will likely not be introduced for another two to three years. The development process of a new scholastic structure will focus first on mathematics and science and then target Arabic and English language instruction. The improvements will go beyond merely revamping textbooks and will also establish new standards and goals. In grade-6 English, for example, the objective will be to bring the students to the “flyers” level on the Cambridge Young Learners Scale.

NEW SUBJECTS: In addition to the core subjects like mathematics and Arabic, the curriculum will include new subjects, such as civic education. In early January 2012, the minister of education told a group of secondary school principals that the ministry intends to “intensify articles on the principles of human rights, tolerance, coexistence and respect for other’s opinions in light of current developments”. A week later, the National Commission in charge of implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations announced that it was calling on the government to develop educational programmes that would promote political and religious tolerance. One potential example is civic education, which could be enhanced in a variety of ways, and not just through a new curriculum. For example, more discussion in the classroom would reinforce the concept of democracy, as would the establishment of activities such as student elections.

While it may take some time for a new curriculum to be introduced in the Bahraini school system, the Kingdom has already made substantial progress in terms of improving teaching methods, and its decision to lengthen the school day will likely give teachers the additional time necessary to utilise these new techniques.

Taken together, these educational reform efforts should ultimately help to make Bahrainis more competitive in the workplace, as well as provide additional employment opportunities. International research suggests that an improved educational system could mean more Bahrainis in middle-rank professional occupations, such as accounting, particularly for those falling within the income band of BD300-1000 ($800-2600) per month. At present, there are approximately 57,000 expatriate workers in these positions – jobs that could otherwise be filled by qualified Bahraini nationals.