Neighbors / Pushing the Saudi Education Envelope

From live broadcasts of classes on the Web to attempts to get girls active in sports, the Saudis are trying to broaden their school system

Mohammed al-Harati, a teacher at an elementary school in Jeddah, installed a video system that broadcasts classroom events to a website in real time. Parents can hear the teacher's comments, see how their children behave and find out if they really did do their homework. And of course, parents can hear if the teachers are discussing material that is unacceptable for moral or religious reasons or deviates from the state curriculum.

Meanwhile, students who were absent can view a recording of the lesson, which can be used in the future if a teacher is absent. The director of Jeddah's education department, Abd Allah al-Thaqfi, says the method will also encourage competition among students, because now parents can be active participants in what goes on at school.

The Saudi education system has recently been sharply criticized by teachers and journalists demanding more talented teachers teaching non-extremist material. "There are teachers with their own agenda, some who support terrorism or question the religious integrity of public figures or institutions - content they disseminate among students," says Harati. "This video system will let education supervisors review ... these teachers."

Students, on the other hand, are less happy with the new system. One student said she was worried that from now on she will sit in class like "a top model who smiles all the time" and not be able to concentrate on her studies, knowing that the camera is watching. One parent suggests that only parents and teachers have access to the site to avoid embarrassing students who are having a hard time or do not participate in class for fear they will fail and be made fun of.

Saudi high school students in Riyadh taking a test

"After all, we are familiar with our Arabic society, which likes to pick on those who fail," says a parent. "It even enjoys making the successful ones stumble."

Lots of funding

The Saudi Education Ministry has been working for several years to neutralize offensive content in schoolbooks or lessons, but success has only been partial. Still, education investment is a key component in the state budget; in the 2010-2014 five-year plan, the state intends to invest 25 percent of the total development budget, around $18 billion, in education.

Saudi Arabia, which this year recorded an unprecedented budget surplus, will allocate around $50 billion to development programs in the country. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a trustee of King Faisal University, said the kingdom plans to expand cooperation with leading universities abroad; he noted collaboration between Faisal University, Harvard and MIT.

Hence the master's degree in business administration that opened this month, to be overseen by Harvard's Michael Porter, an expert on competitive strategy. But even in Saudi Arabia they admit that declarations and good intentions are not enough to bridge the huge knowledge gap. For many more years, Saudi Arabia will be dependent on expertise imported from the West.

Girls in sports

Developing the education system, especially higher education, may ensure better academic achievements in the coming years, but it's not changing conservative practices that are inhibiting students.

For example, the Saudi Education Ministry launched an investigation into a girls-only sports competition in Jeddah. Around 200 female students from six high schools competed in sports such as basketball and swimming.

"There are no rules here that allow sports competition for girls," Ahmed al-Zahrani, the director of the girls' education department in Jeddah, told the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News.

In Saudi Arabia, physical education classes for girls are not part of the curriculum. So are the female students or the school principals more likely to be punished? "The fact that one official in the Education Ministry thinks the competitions are not okay doesn't mean the entire ministry feels this way," said Lina al-Me'ina, a female basketball captain in Jeddah. "This investigation is merely a formality."

She says school principals are well aware of what is permissible and why they invite the press to cover an event. They know what the public longs for, compared to what the law allows.

It turns out that to avoid an investigation and preempt measures meant to embarrass the principals and students, the authorities made clear that the schools involved were private schools and girls were allowed to engage in sports there.

Private schools are under government supervision and are obligated to uphold the curriculum approved by the authorities, but it seems that in the end, the government won't be able to prevent the change at private schools from seeping into government schools.