Dear Minister for Education,
Honorable minister, allow me to indulge you into the challenges experienced in our schools. These challenges are showing inadequacies in the quality of education in the country. In 2006, King Abdullah bin Aziz launched tatweer referring to the $2.4 billion education reform project. Saudi Arabia (KSA) is one of the biggest countries in the Middle East. Its population is around 30 million. It is among the largest oil exporters in the world. Around 35% of the Saudi oil income is dedicated to the ministry of education to improve the educational process. In 2015, the budget of the ministry of education was almost 70 billion dollars. Unfortunately, the investment has not been felt by majority of the citizens and the pupils of Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Ahmed, our nation KSA has a large proportion of youth, with 70 percent of the population aged 30 years and below. The economy of KSA has been largely dependent on oil revenues that are decreasing. 90 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product is as a result of the sale of oil. Thus, improving quality of education will not only boost our economic growth but also diversify sources of national revenue (Maroun et al., 2008). A skilled and diversified workforce will enable such diversification of revenue sources. Consequently, it will lead to increased income, cause social mobility and alleviate poverty. Besides, education improves quality of life by decreasing infant mortality and increasing life expectancy. However, socio-economic development can only occur as a result of quality education that leads to enhances cognitive skills and critical thinkers. The government of KSA has been investing more than 30 percent of GDP in education but the outputs are not as anticipated.
Basic education especially, primary education continues to experience many challenges relating to access and equity. Lack of modern, adequate and suitable school buildings remains a major problem to education development in KSA. The two types of schools which include government built schools and rental schools have problems with equipment as well as architectural planning. Some of the rental schools lack facilities for learning and basic amenities. Besides, the combined capacity for these schools is not enough to cater for the high population of students. Due to lack of enough classes teachers have to attend to overcrowded classes that cause high teacher to student ration. Overcrowding in schools is among the challenges faced especially those in densely populated areas. There is an abnormally high pupil to teacher ratio (PTRS). In an Arab News editorial, overcrowding has been cited to be hampering teaching and learning in some schools. The government has not built enough public schools causing government to rent buildings for schools. This occurs despite setting of capacity of classes at 30 and 20 students for government built schools and rental school classes respectively. However, some regions have over 40 students per class.
The teacher-pupil relationship is of considerable importance in successful classroom management. The 45 minutes allocated for lessons are not enough to assess learning of all students. Teachers are unable to assist the slow learners. Additionally, the environment challenges teachers in monitoring the students. Besides, the crowded environment does not allow teacher student interaction. It is also unhygienic, de-motivating and distracting to study in an overcrowded environment. The lack of fine school buildings causes other issues. A school climate should be encouraging to the learner and also supportive of the learning process. It should be hygienic, comfortable and also allowing experimentation with ideas and concepts. Through adequate teaching staff, learners are able to engage in discussions unlike lectures carried out in overcrowded classes. Also, group work and projects can be easily supervised when teachers are enough to assess their progress. Such teachers should be professionals with skills on how to nurture and develop various skills in students. Research has shown that the environment of a class determines control of behavior, student participation, achievement, social and psychological development thus promoting learning in schools.
A report by an NGO called European Saudi organization for Human Rights indicate that schools in Saudi Arabia do not conform to the basic requirements of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Since education rights are guarded by the government, Saudi Arabia authorities should intervene to correct the shortcomings in school buildings. Many school buildings do not meet the minimum standards and lack education materials and resources. Such conditions are against the third article of Convention on Rights of the Child that Saudi Arabia is a party to. In 2014, the ministry of education reported that about 49 percent of schools for girls were in rental buildings and 35 percent for boys. This is despite a large budgetary allocation by the government for building schools. The rental school buildings lack basic amenities and are located in unsuitable environments for learning.
A teacher with a strong relationship with the pupils makes them more ready to accept any rules and regulations resulting from behavioral violations. A research carried out among 68 pupils indicated that 84% of pupils claimed that behavioral problems in classroom could be prevented by a comfortable teacher-pupil ratio. It also creates better relationship between teacher and students. Bad relationship between teacher and student is caused by behavioural problems. Constant punishment implies lack of mutual acceptable relationship between the teacher and student. A we versus them mentality creates conflicting relationship. The teacher must dominate as a leader of the class as well as allow dialogue with students. It is vital because the teacher’s interaction with the student gives cues of concern to students.
Research carried out in Eastern province of the KSA by Alsubaie (2014), indicated that noise levels in classes were higher than recommended by World Health Organization (WHO). From the research carried out in 144 classrooms, it was found that the mean levels of noise were between 68 to 74 decibels. The noise is high above WHO recommended 35 decibels. WHO warns that such levels of noise reduce mental performance, causes aggressiveness and creates discomfort. For young pupils, learning new words and developing speech can be negatively affected by noise in classroom (Sanz, 1993). School or class environment determine the performance, health and behavior of student. A learning environment refers to the environment in which the interaction between the teacher and the pupils occurs without psychological or physical stressors (Alsubaie, 2014). It also includes the safety of the pupils and the organization of the classroom taking into account environmental factors such as light, heat and ventilation. Air quality has also been found to be poor in schools especially in urban centers. A study carried out in Damman City schools indicated that air is highly polluted inside classrooms (El-Sharkawy, 2014). High levels of CO2 due to poor ventilation and was also observed. Besides, uncomfortable atmospheric temperatures were also witnesses. Dusty atmosphere and gases such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide were also found to be abnormally high.
Since shortage of school buildings has led to overcrowded classrooms, it is urgent that the government need to build more schools. Moreover, such schools should have trained teachers and enough resources to aid learning. According to Mahdi (2014), the government schools were 25,000 out of which only 9000 were government built and the rest operated in rented buildings. Such rental buildings are located in living estates, lacking social amenities such as recreational space. Besides, there are no libraries for students to research and increase their knowledge. Quality of school structures contributes in creating an encouraging climate for learners and teachers. Poor school facilities can as well discourage school attendance. For example, a class that is overcrowded can be de-motivating to learners. It is the realization of the importance of quality buildings that led to international conventions in 1957 and 1964 at Geneva and Bagdad which emphasized on quality buildings for schools. Also, good lighting is essential for learning both for good learning and healthy eyes. Thus, the government should ensure that funds are available to build modern schools.
Another issue is on the safety of our schools. There is no safety culture in schools and this endangers the pupils learning in the schools. Emergency action procedures and trainings in evacuation lack in schools and this has led to fatalities such as the accident of 2015, on 7th September. The schools were blamed for lack of safety preparedness that led to death of 15 girls. There are problems with reliable electricity and insufficient air conditioning in classes. For example, in Aharazat district, some schools have broken air conditioners and inadequate sanitary facilities which are unhealthy for learners. Additionally, research by Faour (2012) indicates that most student do not feel safe in school. Nonetheless, the elements of safety in the research were associated with behavior of peers in schools. Harassment and theft were a concern to low graders. The safety issue was probably an effect of lacking enough teachers to monitor pupils’ behavior. Also, architectural designs of most Arab countries are characterized by small windows and fences characteristic of prison environment. This has been caused by poor locations of schools necessitating for enclosure from external environment. Girls are especially highly shielded from intruders and thus schools resemble isolated prisons. Such schools need to be relocated to areas where buildings can be built without worries of external disturbances.
Adoption of technology is essential for learning. Among the objectives of KSA education is to produce a student who can compete internationally. Understanding technologies especially information technology is essential in connecting to global knowledge. Nowadays, the internet has become a library with all information. Some teachers initiated technology programs such as electronic supervision but were not supported by the ministry. As the government provides computers to students, there is need to integrate it into learning. One of the challenges has been unwillingness by the government as well as lack of ICT knowledge by the teachers. Although smartboards are in use, computers will provide individual use of the gadget for learning. Teachers training need to include ICT subjects in order to prepare them to apply the programs in school. Use of ICT improves learning experience and outcomes and would aid teachers in delivering the curriculum (Alsauidi, 2015). At secondary level, students would be able to research on their own on the internet.
As the government continues to build more schools, a challenge of acquiring land has also been observed. With the country experiencing a relatively high population growth of about 2 percent, more land will be required for building schools. Already, there is scarcity for land in an environment suitable for a school. A school should have an area for playing and other physical sports. Physical exercises are part of physical development. Also, it improves intellectual capacity by relieving the body from mental stress (Alsauidi, 2015). Besides, pupils are able to interact and gain social skills. In a city such as Mecca where about a hundred thousand pupils study from rented schools, land is very scarce. Close to a 6 billion Riyals have been spent on acquiring land for the last decade. Some of the land meant for school has been grabbed by private developers for example in Riyadh. Due to the demand for school land, prices of land have gone high. If the government continues to purchase land for schools, the financing will not be sustainable. The government has to be careful and look for ways of stabilizing land prices and also regaining ownership of public land. It is a process that will lead to litigations but with government willingness, the cases can be prioritized (Mahdi, 2010).
Libraries are a crucial facility that every learning institution should have. It is the source of information to both teachers and student enabling acquisition of more knowledge and research. It is a requirement of the UNESCO for a school to have a library with appropriate learning materials and personnel. The other issue affecting education reforms is the curriculum and textbooks used in KSA. Curriculum should be a reflection of the socio-economic goals set by a nation. It shows the purpose of education. It is contained in text-books and the objectives set by the policy makers in education. Thus, it should change with other changes including technology, modernization and culture. Singapore has a curriculum that has served the country since 1960, and which has helped to grow economically as well as keep in pace with technological changes. Saudi Arabia has a curriculum that has been seen as serving the purpose of maintaining cultural authenticity, loyalty to the state and national identity. Islamic based curriculum has dominated pre-tertiary education.
Quality of teachers is essential for effective learning. According to a UNESCO report (2010), majority of teachers are untrained in the Arab nations, KSA among them despite availability of funds. Teachers deliver the curriculum to the students. Nonetheless, teaching involves influencing learning by using professional methods of teaching. It is the management of a classroom that determines the learning environment. Thus, the ability of the teacher to carry out this responsibility determines the outcome of a lesson. With experience, teachers are more efficient and deliver the content in successful ways. Also, they create positive relations with students and enable change of behavior. They also act as role models and the link between school, parents and the society. Effective classroom management results in more academic involvement and in classroom management entails ‘‘The actions teachers take to create an environment that supports and facilitates both academic and social-emotional learning” (Evertson & Weinstein, 2006. p4). Pupils always value their teachers’ attention. Teachers can use acts such as informal dialogues, calling students by their names, welcoming students to class and talking to them outside classroom setting creates the attention. Effective control of the class ensures a good relationship with students. Thus, classroom management reinforces good morals on top of enhancing an effective learning environment.
Teachers will need to be retrained so that they can help students to become critical thinkers and not passive learners. Twateer project include a budgetary allocation of $784 million for teacher training. The importance of professional development for teachers has been realized in developed countries. Reforms have set up two training modes for teachers. They include pre-training stage carried out in universities and in-service training. As reforms in teacher training take place, the teaching profession needs to be elevated to a noble class. In Saudi Arabia, a teacher is not highly regarded compared to other professions. The process of training teachers as funded by the twateer project need to be supported in order to benefit the teachers. According to Sywelem & Witte (2013), the schedule should consider in-service teachers. Moreover, concerns have been raised over the content provided. Some have termed it as inadequate for teachers to learn classroom management. Others fault it in lack of technological education yet the teachers are required to apply the technology in teaching. A gap between theory of education curriculum and practice has also been observed. It could be a waste of resources if the ministry of education does not engage teachers in developing the training programs. Also, the content to be learned should be detailed, with a focus on pedagogy and application of technology. For such professional development to be effective, it needs to enhance self-esteem and self-image of the teacher. In addition, it should motivate teachers, increase consciousness and cognition of the job as well as plans for the future.
As I conclude honourable minister, I would say that concentration on social and economic issues should take priority in education. Classrooms are the industries of our human capital. Thus, failure to ensure suitable learning environment is under-utilization of the human capital. Consequently, our nation will have to depend on foreign labour. An education focusing on math and sciences will enable innovations and boost the economy. It will enable our economy to grow sustainably and depend less on oil. Laboratories are discovery centres and young people’s desire is to discover why things exist the way they do. The most esteemed laboratory is the computer laboratory. In conditions of shortage of teachers, computers can be used to deliver content. It will enable a liberalized society that is free to discuss and research issues from a global perspective. Critical thinking cannot occur within a rigid framework of education. Thus, as reforms take place a review of the curriculum is essential. Then, education infrastructure and human capital, that is, the teachers need to be developed before any other plans. The ministry realizes the need for practical approaches to education that improve creativity. It is clear that KSA has great and ambitious policies in education, but are there are issues that need to be addressed through systematic and uniform implementation of the policies.
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