The public education system of Bahrain is poised to mark its centenary in 2019, but the main focus in the country’s schools and universities is further in the future. New institutions are being built and opened in both the public and private sectors to serve young people from nursery age through to postgraduate study. According to international indices, Bahrain’s schools are outperforming many in the region, and results are improving, but there is still some way to go if they are to match the best in the world.

There are already excellent courses in its universities, but Bahrain is looking to do more to create and nurture a culture of innovative research that could, in turn, create new employment opportunities for the kingdom’s residents in a variety of enterprises. Government agencies and vocational institutions are also striving to improve the prospects for Bahrain’s young citizens by helping them to learn new skills that are in demand in the workplace.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: Boys in Bahrain were first offered a state education in 1919 when the Al Hidaya Al Khalifa School for Boys was established, which was followed in 1928 by the first public school for girls. Almost 40 years would pass before tertiary education was available, with the founding of the Teachers’ College in 1966 and Gulf Technical College (later Bahrain Polytechnic) in 1968. Prior to that, any Bahraini wishing to attend university had to travel abroad. In the following decade, the College of Health Sciences opened in 1976, and then the College of Arts, Science and Education and Arabian Gulf University both opened their doors in 1979. The University of Bahrain was created by royal decree in 1986, through the merger of Bahrain Polytechnic and the College of Arts, Science and Education. In 2008 a new Bahrain Polytechnic was established as a public body. It was established alongside 12 private tertiary schools that were opened during the decade, following the national action charter of 2001.

LEGAL FOUNDATION: The citizen’s right to education and cultural services is enshrined in the Bahraini constitution. Bahrain Education Law No. 27 of 2005 stipulates that free education is available in primary and secondary government schools from grades one to nine. This applies to both citizens and non-citizens. In February 2017 a member of parliament, Jalal Kadhim, suggested expatriate families should pay to send their children to state schools, asserting that as many as 16,000 non-Bahraini pupils were being educated at the government’s expense. However, Majid bin Ali Al Nuaimi, the minister of education, told the local media a month later that fees would not be imposed, pointing out that as many as 4000 of the children may have a Bahraini mother and a non-Bahraini father. Education is compulsory for children aged six to 14 in Bahrain, and as a result, it is a policy concern for the kingdom.

SCHOOL SYSTEM: The Ministry of Education (MoE) is responsible for directing policy, and schools in both the public and private sector are required to adhere to some of its curricular demands. The MoE provides the syllabus for the Arabic language and approves the textbooks used in Arabic and Islamic studies, as well as the geography and history of Bahrain. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of study in state schools, while students take English as a compulsory subject starting from the first year of primary school. Private schools in Bahrain conduct classes in wither English, French or Arabic.

In 2015 the ministry decided that a citizenship curriculum introduced for Bahraini and Arab students in 2006 should apply to all pupils in the country. In Bahrain, pre-primary education is provided by the private sector in nurseries up to the age of three, and subsequently in both fee-paying MoE-supervised and private school kindergartens for children aged three to five. Both public and private schools cater for children from grades one through 12. Primary education, from the age of six to 11, covers grades one to six, at which point pupils spend grades seven to nine at the intermediate stage. The first nine years of schooling are referred to as basic education by the ministry, and pupils wishing to progress to secondary education for grades 10 to 12 must complete the intermediate stage. In state schools boys and girls are educated separately.

SECONDARY SCHOOL CHOICES: At state secondary schools in Bahrain, pupils have a broad choice of subjects and courses offered on a credit-hour basis. This enables students to pursue science, literary, commercial or technical tracks. Students must complete 156 credit hours in each curriculum, with the exception of the technical track which is based on 210 credit hours. Each unit is assessed both internally and externally, with 30% of the mark is based on classroom performance, 20% on internal tests and 50% on external examinations. Successful students are awarded a secondary school certificate.

According to the most recent data from the MoE 5392 boys were being educated at private secondary schools in the 2014/15 academic year, compared to 4463 girls. However, girls still outnumbered boys overall at secondary schools in both spheres, with 20,020 girls constituting 58% of the 34,708 pupils in secondary school. A significantly higher number of boys chose vocational or technical secondary schools than girls: 5983 compared to 683. There were also three religious institutes for boys in 2014/15. In the same year, 14,899 students were enrolled in what the MoE describes as non-tertiary post-secondary education, and of this total, almost two-thirds, or some 9064, were male.

PUPIL NUMBERS: According to data supplied to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement by the MoE, there were just under 200,000 students in K-12 education in Bahrain in January 2016, approximately one-third of whom were being educated at private schools, partially reflecting the high number of expatriate pupils living in the kingdom. At that point 75 private schools were educating 66,725 boys and girls in grades one to 12. There were 58 state primary schools for boys with 30,929 pupils, and 55 for girls with 32,466 students, giving a total of 113 government primary schools collectively teaching approximately 64,000 children. Boys outnumbered girls at intermediate state schools, with 21,755 boys attending 30 schools and 42,049 girls being taught at 28 institutions. However, just 10,038 boys attended government secondary schools that year, compared to 16,348 girls – over 60% more – from a total of 26,386 state secondary school pupils. There were 12 state secondary schools for boys and 19 for girls in January 2016. There were also some 18,678 children aged three to five year in 137 kindergartens supervised by the MoE, and 17,062 attending kindergarten at 64 private education facilities at the same time.

TERTIARY: In 2006 the Higher Education Council (HEC) was formed under the chairmanship of the minister of education with responsibility for regulation, promotion and monitoring of both public and private higher education providers in Bahrain. It has three directorates with responsibility for accreditation and licensing, evaluation and follow-up, and research. The most recent data provided by the HEC is for the academic year 2013/14. At that time there were 38,113 students attending universities in Bahrain, 24,315 at public colleges and 13,798 at private higher education institutions.

There were marginally more women than men in private tertiary education, but two female students to every male student in public universities. Bahrain Polytechnic has more than 2000 students studying for bachelor’s degrees in six disciplines: business international logistics management, engineering technology, information and communications technology, visual design, and web media. The College of Health Sciences (CS) was a standalone institution until November 2011, when it was merged with the University of Bahrain (UoB). CHS has offered a bachelor’s of science in nursing since 2003, and it also offers bachelor’s qualifications in pharmacy, medical laboratory services, diagnostic radiotherapy and public health. It is one of 10 colleges at UoB, which had 24,949 students in January 2017, including 2625 international students from 35 countries. Business administration, arts and engineering were the three most popular areas of study, with 5406 students, 5072 and 4537, respectively.

In the 2015/16 academic year UoB admitted 6300 students, 87.5% of them Bahraini, and saw 1808 graduate, 91% of whom were nationals. In the same academic year, 1235 students dropped out, 86% of them Bahraini. The university employed 776 faculty members, two-thirds of them Bahraini nationals. Arabian Gulf University, which was founded to serve GCC member countries in 1980, offers a doctor of medicine and master of science courses in medical specialities, while a private university also offers courses for potential doctors. The Royal College of Surgeons In Ireland has a school in Bahrain offering a bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery and bachelor of obstetrics paths, in addition to a bachelor of science in nursing.

In the 2013/14 academic year there were 38,113 students enrolled at universities in Bahrain across all levels of study, according to the MoE. Of those, 60% were taking business, law or social science, 15% were studying engineering, manufacturing or construction, 12% were pursuing arts and humanities degrees, and 10% were seeking a health care qualification. Across all disciplines, 3795 students were taking master’s courses and 135 studying for a PhD.

BUDGET FOR EDUCATION: The Bahraini government supports the education sector through budgets for recurring and project expenditures, and through subsidies for the UoB, Bahrain Teachers’ College and Bahrain Polytechnic. Educational services received a funding allocation of BD324.7m ($861m) to cover recurring expenses in 2018, 15% of the total budget for current expenditure in government departments, as well as subsidies of BD58m ($153.8m), or 9% of all government subsidy allocations. Approximately BD11.7m ($31m) was allocated for capital projects in 2018, 3.6% of the government’s total project funding application.

The share of total funding directed to education in 2018 was in line with the allocations for the previous year. There had been a spike in 2016, when the MoE was allocated BD327m ($867m) for operations, with an additional BD10.4m ($27.6m) intended for capital projects. Manpower costs accounted for the bulk of recurring expenses, at BD289m ($766.4m).

STANDARDS: Since 2008 an independent body reporting to the Cabinet has been established to oversee standards in education from kindergarten to university. The Education and Training Quality Authority (BQA) was created as part of the government’s National Education Reform Project, one of the initiatives of Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030. In 2012 the BQA’s function was expanded to include the development of a National Qualifications Framework. The BQA has set performance standards for all education and training institutions in the kingdom, while also focusing on improving standards in state schools, where it has evaluated student performance in national examinations in Arabic, English, mathematics and science in grades three, six and nine, as well as an additional Arabic exam and problem-solving assessment in grade 12. Private schools are assessed in this way on a voluntary basis.

The BQA operates through six directorates with four responsible for reviewing government schools, kindergartens, vocational training and higher education. There is also a directorate of National Examinations and a General Directorate of Qualifications. Performance indicators for all six directorates are summarised in the BQA’s annual report, which also includes feedback from assessment and standards workshops it organises in the kingdom.

QUALITY ASSURANCE: In its reports for kindergartens and schools, the BQA grades institutions as outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate. Inspectors visit a number of education providers in each cycle of an ongoing process. The collective results of each directorate’s reports give a view of the overall standard of provision, while also identifying shortcomings and areas where improvement is required. Follow-up visits are arranged for schools, nurseries or colleges falling below expectations, and the inspectors’ reports are published on the BQA website. In July 2016 the Directorate of Vocational Reviews published its findings on 27 training centres, 23 of which are licensed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Development, and four by the MoE. The directorate rated the performances at 59% of the schools as good, while 33% received a satisfactory rating and 7% achieved an outstanding review. The directorate also noted a general improvement when compared to the previous cycle of assessment. In May 2016 the Directorate of Government Schools Review summarised its review of 50 government schools out of the 206 schools it intends to assess during its third review cycle. It found that 20% of the government schools it reviewed were outstanding, 16% good, 34% satisfactory and 30% inadequate. At the lower school levels, the directorate found that 18% of primary schools and 67% of intermediate schools were inadequate, while all secondary schools were judged satisfactory, good or outstanding.

There was a significant difference noted between the performance of schools for boys and girls. Nine out of 10 schools judged outstanding were for girls, and the only boys’ school in this category also employed female teachers. Of the 15 schools judged to be inadequate, 13 were for boys. The reasons cited for weaker performance included poor teaching and learning strategies for evaluation and classroom management, as well as high staff turnover among teachers and administrators. The directorate also carried out 43 monitoring visits to schools judged to be inadequate in the previous cycle and found that 13 of those remained inadequate.

MAKING THE GRADE: The Directorate of Private Schools and Kindergartens Review reported that six out of the 18 schools it visited were inadequate, and described improving performance in the sector as a major challenge. In contrast, 11% were judged to be outstanding, 11% good and 44% were rated as satisfactory. Inspectors noted that just seven out of 23 kindergartens had improved their performance between review cycles. Grade 12 national examinations were taken in March 2016. These were compulsory for all 36 state secondary schools, which entered 9831 candidates, and optional for private schools, with a small sample of 141 students from six fee-paying schools sitting the exams. The pass rates in state schools were 37% in Arabic, 16% in English and 12% in problem solving. The private school pupils achieved pass rates of 69% in English, 60% for problem solving in English, 19% for problem solving in Arabic and 56% in Arabic. The BQA cautions against drawing a simple contrast between the performances of state and fee-paying pupils, because so few private school pupils were tested.

INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS: A sense of how students in Bahrain are performing against international benchmarks can be derived from the performance of pupils in the equivalent of the US’ grade four and eight Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests. TIMSS results for 2015 were published in late 2016 and showed the performance of students in Bahrain had improved since the previous round of tests in 2011, and that their results compared favourably to most other GCC countries, albeit remaining below international averages. In Grade four science, pupils in Bahrain out-performed those in other GCC countries, while they came second to the UAE in grade eight science and in maths at both grades four and eight.

The TIMSS scale centre point score for each test is 500, corresponding to the mean of overall achievement distribution, with 100-point standard deviation. The scale ranks students’ performance on hundreds of test items designed to measure the breadth of mathematics content and cognitive function of the students. The average score achieved by Bahraini pupils in each of the four assessments was 466 in grade eight science, 459 in grade eight mathematics, 454 in grade four science and 451 in grade four maths. The biggest improvement was in the grade four mathematics scores, which were up sharply from 409 points in 2011.

HIGHER EDUCATION PERFORMANCE: The BQA also assesses the performance of universities and other tertiary education providers, but drills down to the individual programme level. Each degree is judged against four indicators covering teaching and learning, programme efficiency, standards of quality management and the academic standards of graduates. At the end of the review inspectors report, confidence, limited confidence or no confidence in each programme. Between 2011/12 and 2015/16 the BQA assessed 74 programmes in the fields of medicine and health sciences, computer science and IT, business administration, law and engineering. Of the 74 programmes, 51 received a confidence judgement, nine had limited confidence and 14 were given no confidence.

During the review period from 2011 to 2016, some programmes were reviewed twice: seven improved, 11 remained the same and two declined. This result indicates that the system at large is moving in a positive direction, despite some setbacks. “Higher education across the Middle East is still at an embryonic stage,” Ghassan Fouad Aouad, president of Applied Science University, told OBG. “To keep pace with the future, it is important to dedicate spending to research and development. Countries in the region do not spend enough money on research.”

GENDER DIVIDE: Official data on educational performance and employment shows female pupils outperform male counterparts in state secondary schools and universities, but remain outnumbered in many areas of the workplace. In January 2016 there were 16,348 girls in the 11- to 18-year-old group, compared to 10,038 boys, making the student body 62% female. The divide widened at public university. According to UoB, 65% of its 2016/17 students were female; just 10.5% of the student body come from other countries. Employment data collected by the Labour Market Regulatory Authority shows a disparity between the education attainment levels of Bahraini men and women working in the private sector. There were 60,446 men employed in March 2017 compared to 29,745 women, yet 40% of women in the private sector are graduates, or have another qualification, compared to 28% of male colleagues.

TARGETS: The UoB’s 2016 Strategic Plan seeks to improve its reputation, academic standards and research culture. UoB also wants to raise its Quacquarelli Symonds higher education rating in the Arab world from 33 to 15; grow postgraduate enrolment from 490 to 1250 students; raise the proportion of students graduating in fewer than six years from 38% to 55%; increase the percentage of faculty members with PhDs from 60% to 80%; and raise the value of external research grants to BD1m ($2.65m).

OUTLOOK: While inspection reports and international tests demonstrate examples of excellence, there are discrepancies between institutions. Improving the performance of kindergartens, schools and universities, while motivating male students to improve their results, will be essential to diversifying the kingdom’s economy. Ultimately, the kingdom is on the path to better using local talent to attract investment and generate employment.