Bahrain’s education sector benefits from regionally strong and improving student outcomes, rising K-12 and private school enrolment, and an expansive, ongoing reform agenda aimed at improving the quality of teaching and infrastructure across all levels. Investment in the sector is set to soar over the medium term, bolstered by the high-potential pre-school and kindergarten segments, as well as rising demand for private primary and secondary instruction.
Nevertheless, the sector faces flat public spending, a strained public university system, worsening gender disparity at the K-12 level, and a mismatch between post-secondary preferences and labour market needs. Still, education foundations remain solid, with expanded inspection programmes and a potential resurgence of expatriate students expected to support a steady near- and mid-term growth outlook.
Structure & Oversight
The local K-12 education system comprises nine years of basic instruction, split into primary and intermediate education, followed by three years of secondary education of either the unified or vocational track. Basic schooling is compulsory for children aged six to 14 years old.
The “Bahrain Education and Training Annual Report 2018” by the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) reported 211 government schools servicing grades K-12 in the country. Enrolment has risen steadily in recent years, from 136,2814 in the 2015/16 academic year to 138,871 in 2016/17 and 140,620 in 2017/18. The student-to-teacher ratio in public schools is 10:1, with 14,011 teachers employed as of 2018.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) is the sector’s primary oversight body, with a mandate to provide educational opportunities to every citizen in line with international standards. The MoE is in charge of several regulatory bodies operating at the K-12 and post-secondary levels, including the Education and Training Quality Authority (BQA) and the Higher Education Council (HEC). The HEC was formed in 2006 with the responsibility to regulate, promote and monitor the higher education segment; all universities in Bahrain are regulated by the HEC. The council’s threefold mandate focuses on improving universities’ performance, observing and evaluating provision of higher education, and regulating new study programmes. Specific activities include general policymaking for education and scientific research, retooling existing regulations, preparing annual reports on performance and recommending reforms to improve graduate outcomes.
There are three types of private K-12 schools in Bahrain: national private schools, foreign private schools and foreign community schools. National private schools are established and operated by citizens, often in collaboration with non-Bahraini partners. Employing national or MoE-approved curriculum, these schools cater primarily to Bahraini students. Foreign private schools are established, financed and operated by foreign players, awarding certificates from their country of origin and catering primarily to expatriate students. Arabic language and Islamic education courses are taught at all foreign schools accepting Arab and Muslim students. Foreign community schools, meanwhile, are established and financed by foreign communities in Bahrain “for the purpose of educating their children only,” according to the MoE.
Private school enrolment has also been expanding, with the EDB reporting that total students enlisted at private K-12 institutions rose from 60,649 in 2013/14 to 66,725 in 2014/15; 73,389 in 2016/17; and 82,501 in 2017/18. Non-Bahraini students account for the majority of private enrolment, at 35,176 in 2013/14 and growing to 45,455 in 2017/18. The number of Bahraini children attending private institutions, meanwhile, rose from 25,473 to 37,046 over the period.
Although private schools are able to offer their own curricula, study plans, courses and textbooks, all plans and learning materials must be approved by the MoE. The Directorate of Private Education, operating under the MoE, is responsible for overseeing Arabic language, Islamic education and social studies at private schools, with the MoE providing textbooks and specialist supervisors for the administration of these courses.
All private schools must comply with Arabic and Islamic education requirements set out by the MoE, as well as Bahraini history and geography. Foreign private schools must teach six periods of Arabic language per week during the first three grades of primary school, four periods of Arabic during the second cycle of primary education – as well as in intermediate and secondary education – and one period of Islamic instruction each week for Muslim students in the K-12 system.
The sector has undergone a series of reforms since 2005, when the kingdom launched the National Education Reform Project. Education policy is also informed by Bahrain Economic Vision 2030, a long-term development agenda emphasising economic diversification and private sector growth. Vision 2030’s objectives include stimulating and supporting the private sector to transform it into an engine for economic growth, and developing the kingdom’s human capital to make Bahrainis preferred employees. “The introduction of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in higher education will help create a stronger culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,” Ghassan Fouad Aouad, professor and president of Applied Science University (ASU), told OBG. “The importance of STEM has been highlighted in the national research strategy developed by the HEC.”
Most recent education policy has focused on improving student outcomes through an expanding inspection system, and the BQA was established in 2008 as an independent body responsible for overseeing education standards from kindergarten to university. Operating under the BQA, the Directorate of Government Schools Review (DGS) is responsible for conducting quality reviews of all state schools, while the Directorate of Private Schools Review (DPS) monitors and evaluates relevant private K-12 institutions.
The DGS and DPS are tasked with reviewing schools and vocational training providers once every three years, with K-12 and vocational inspections carried out by internationally trained Bahraini reviewers and Bahraini former teachers, while universities are reviewed by international experts. Schools are judged on criteria including teaching, leadership, academic achievement, care and guidance, student development and well-being, curriculum and capacity to improve. They are graded on a four-point scale ranging from one, or outstanding, to four, or inadequate.
Strategic goals for the post-secondary segment are encapsulated in the Bahrain Higher Education Strategy (BHES), covering the 2014-24 period. The BHES highlights several important objectives for the sector, including increased enrolment and graduation rates across different post-secondary pathways, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields and graduate programmes; boosting foreign student enrolment; increasing the number of professionally certified teaching staff at higher education institutions; increasing non-traditional participation in higher education; and promoting the effective use of technology in higher education.
The kingdom is in the process of rolling out a national university accreditation system, a collaboration between the HEC and the British Accreditation Council (BAC). The first pilot inspections of local universities were held in December 2015. The University of Bahrain, Bahrain Polytechnic and the Royal University for Women were the first to receive preliminary accreditation under the new system. In 2018 ASU, AMA International University and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland – Bahrain were recipients of the first official round of accreditation visits. The BAC spent multiple days on each campus with HEC observers, assessing the schools against 233 standards and 218 indicators.
Public Spending & FDI
The MoE’s budgetary allocation for 2017/18 was BD324.69m ($860.3m), per the EDB, while spending at the University of Bahrain (UB) – the country’s largest public university – was BD49.33m ($130.7m). Outlays to the Bahrain Teachers College (BTC) stood at BD3.86m ($10.2m), while the Bahrain Training Institute (BTI) received BD6.19m ($16.4m). Bahrain Polytechnic’s budget was BD11.49m ($30.4m) in 2017. Staff salaries accounted for the bulk of education spending in 2017, ranging from 73% of total spending at BTC to 98% at BTI.
Education spending as a share of total public expenditure has stayed between 2% and 3% in recent times, according to the World Bank. It trended downwards from 2.87% in 2006 to 2.58% in 2007 and 2.5% in 2008, and recovered to 2.65% in 2012 before dipping to 2.48% in 2013 and 2.47% in 2014. Spending rose to 2.67% in 2015 and 2.66% in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector, meanwhile, rose from BD20.61m ($54.6m) in 2016 to BD20.9m ($55.4m) in 2017.
With public expenditure remaining relatively flat, FDI is set to play an increasingly important role in the education sector’s expansion. The pre-school and kindergarten segment, in particular, is expected to attract a significant portion of new investment, with the EDB reporting that demand for private instruction at this level is expanding rapidly. The total number of Bahraini students enrolled in 130 private nurseries and kindergartens rose from 6873 in 2012/13 to 7251 in 2013/14 and 7913 in 2015/16, before soaring to 17,705 in 2016/17. Non-Bahraini enrolment had trended similarly until recently, rising from 5860 in 2012/13 to 6831 and 7388 in 2013/14 and 2014/15, respectively. Enrolment then jumped to 9148 in 2015/16, but fell significantly in the 2016/17 academic year to just 1598 students. Although the EDB did not give a reason for this drop, one hypothesis is the exit of expatriates and their families in 2016 due to the environment of depressed global oil prices.
Nevertheless, the number of children aged four to six years attending both private kindergartens and the kindergarten level of private primary schools rose by 52% between 2012 and 2017, and by 13.6% in 2017 alone, to reach 33,362. This should underpin broader private K-12 growth, with the Boston Consulting Group predicting that the private education sector in Bahrain will nearly double in value between 2017 and 2023, rising from $400m to $700m.
Basic instruction in Bahrain is divided into primary and intermediate stages. Primary school students are enrolled for six years, from ages six to 11, with compulsory courses including Islamic education, Arabic, English, science and technology, mathematics, social studies, physical education, family education, art and music. For the first three years, a single teacher teaches all subjects except English, science, music and physical education. Classes in the second cycle of primary are delivered by teachers who have specialised in specific disciplines and obtained additional academic qualifications in their area of expertise. The third and final cycle of basic education is the intermediate stage for students aged 12 to 14. Specialised instructors at this level teach compulsory subjects including Islamic education, English, science and technology, mathematics, social studies, handicrafts and physical education.
Although primary school enrolment has levelled off in recent years, student numbers at the intermediate stage have shown modest growth. According to EDB data, primary school attendance rose from 70,510 students in the 2015/16 school year to 71,161 in 2016/17, before falling by 0.5% to 70,997 in 2017/18. Intermediate enrolment rose from 34,429 in academic year 2015/16 to 35,770 in 2016/17, and then increased by 3.1% in 2017/18 to 36,906 students.
There were 112 public primary schools operating in the kingdom as of 2018, including 57 boys’ schools with 35,190 students and 55 girls’ schools with 35,807 students. An additional 37 schools cater to the primary and intermediate levels, including 20 girls’ schools with 8251 students and 17 boys’ schools with 5797 attendees. A further 20 schools with 26,437 students serve the intermediate level only: 12 boys’ schools with 12,108 students and eight girls’ schools with 14,329 students.
Secondary schools in Bahrain consist of two tracks: unified and vocational. The unified track is divided into three specialisations of science, literacy and commercial, while the vocational track is split into applied and technical education. As with the intermediate level, secondary school enrolment has trended upwards recently, rising from 31,545 students in the 2015/16 academic year to 31,940 in 2016/17 and 32,717 in 2017/18.
There were 30 secondary schools operating in the kingdom as of 2018, including 11 boys’ schools teaching 9571 students and 19 girls’ schools with 16,237 students enrolled. There were also four technical schools – all boys’ institutions – with 5392 students, as well as three boys’ religious schools with 1876 attendees.
Although expatriate enrolment has dropped off at all levels of education in the past few years, this category of students could see a resurgence in the medium term. The Ministry of Oil announced in April 2018 that Bahrain had made a major hydrocarbons discovery of up to 80bn barrels of tight oil and between 10trn and 20trn cu feet of natural gas off the kingdom’s west coast, which may serve to attract educated foreigners and their families back to the country. This phenomenon could play an important role in supporting private enrolment, in particular, at all levels of education.
Areas for Improvement
According to an October 2017 report titled “Analytical View of Bahrain’s Government Schools’ Performance: A Quality Perspective”, published by BQA researchers, gender and secondary track disparity is worsening. As in other regional and global markets, technical and commercial education are forming an increasingly critical component of Bahrain’s education system, with the BQA reporting that they play an important role in service sector transformation, as well as development of a knowledge-based economy.
However, the BQA report found that students in the unified track specialising in commercial education outperformed peers on the technical track, even as commercial track students showed weaknesses in basic English skills and mathematics. Students on the technical track did not meet desired outcomes in theoretical lessons, especially those for English, but performed better in practical lessons, according to the report. With English and theoretical knowledge considered fundamental for both commercial and technical tracks, BQA researchers concluded it will be important for authorities to reconsider the use of diagnostic tests and offer greater support based on students’ abilities.
There is also increasing gender disparity in student provision and outcomes. In 2018 the average BQA grade at a boys’ K-12 school was 3.52 out of 4, where 1 is considered best, against 2.37 for girls’ schools. The proportion of boys being taught at schools deemed “good” or “outstanding” is just 5.4%, compared to 48% of girls. “One of the greatest problems across the whole of the Gulf in education is boys’ education – it is significantly inferior to girls’ and you can see this in the numbers,” Geoff Hancock, director of education at the EDB, told OBG. “More than 10% of schools in Bahrain are now graded as outstanding, however, they are either all-girls schools or boys’ schools with female administration.”
There are 11 private universities operating in the kingdom, with enrolment at these institutions standing at 14,410 students in 2018: 6999 female and 7411 male. Bahrainis account for the majority of enrolment, at 12,358 students, and undergraduates comprise 13,515 of the total, according to the EDB. Private university enrolment has declined by 3% since 2012, dipping from 14,848 that year to 13,362 in 2015 and rising back to 14,410 in 2017.
Four public universities exist in Bahrain – Arabian Gulf University, Bahrain Polytechnic, the College of Health Sciences and UB, while BTI and BTC also receive government support. Public university enrolment has risen significantly in recent years, demonstrated by student numbers at Bahrain Polytechnic rising by 17.7% between 2013 and 2017, from 1880 students to 2213, and UB seeing enrolment rise from 15,665 students in 2012 to 26,803 in 2017, a 71% increase.
As the EDB states, “this growth has, however, come at a cost”, with UB’s operating budget falling in real terms over the same period, pushing expenditure per capita to a historic low of BD1840 ($4875) and placing the institution near the bottom of the world’s university funding tables. The student-to-teacher ratio at UB has also risen to 45:1, and graduation rates are sinking as a result, with the EDB reporting that less than 60% of students who begin a degree programme at the university complete it, and the average graduation period is now in excess of 6.5 years.
Students at Bahrain Polytechnic perform better, as over 90% of its graduates find employment within the first year after graduation, against 37% at UB. This has once again highlighted the rising importance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in the kingdom, with multiple public and private stakeholders calling for improved promotion of TVET to secondary school graduates to better meet future human resource demands and improve graduate employability.
“Around 90% of university students in our country study business and management because they want to be managers, but we do not need that many managers”, Suzanne White, managing director of Oasis Training Center, told OBG. “One of the most popular programmes at all of our universities and polytechnic is a BA in business or business administration. More work needs to be done to align academic programmes with labour market requirements,” she added.
With private school enrolment on the rise and investment in the segment set to soar, education in Bahrain continues to hold enormous potential to become a significant economic growth driver, as well as a crucial support mechanism for long-term development and diversification.
Although gender disparity, continued strain on the public university system and suppressed uptake of TVET represent challenges, the sector remains well positioned to record a strong performance in the near term. This will be supported by double-digit enrolment growth at the kindergarten level, supportive state policies that encourage the elevation of student outcomes and a large potential new pool of expatriate students.