9 minute read

Saudi Arabia

Educational System—overview

Saudi Arabia's first monarch, King Ibn Saud, regarded education as a means to foster national unity and to enlighten the Saudi people. In 1925, public education did not exist. There were only four private elementary schools in the entire country. Therefore, a centralized educational policy was entrusted to the newly established Directorate of Education. Although compulsory education was mandated for a six-year elementary education followed by a five-year secondary cycle, enforcement was difficult without an adequate number of schools. Saudi Arabia's first educational system was modeled on Egypt's system, which, in turn, was heavily influenced by the French educational model. Saudi Arabia's educational system was designed to observe the teachings of Islam, disseminate knowledge, and construct schools. The 1930s witnessed many changes in education: the first Religious Sciences School (1933); the issuance of rules for private schools (1934); and the first secondary school, Tahdeer Al-Baathat School, to prepare graduates for a university education (1935). In 1938, the General Directorate of Education was given full control over all education except for the military. Saudi Arabia's first technical secondary school and school of higher learning, the College of Sharia (now, Umm Al Qura University), were founded in 1949. During the decade of the 1950s, three more colleges were granted charters, the Teachers' College (1952), the College of Sharia in Riyadh (1953), and the College of Arabic Language in Riyadh (1954).

In 1952, the United Nations reported that Saudi Arabia had 306 elementary schools, but illiteracy was between 92 and 95 percent. To combat such dire statistics, a Ministry of Education was established in 1953 with Prince (later King) Fahd as the first minister of education entrusted with the task of expanding and modernizing educational resources. The kingdom was divided into school districts, each governed by a superintendent assisted by a technical staff. Within the Ministry of Education, a special department, Popular Culture, was created to combat adult illiteracy. In 1958, the Saudi kingdom adopted a uniform educational policy in cooperation with other Arab states that provided for a six-year compulsory elementary education, a three-year optional intermediate education, and a three-year optional secondary education for men only. In 1961, education for women was mandated, with the responsibility given to the newly created General Directorate of Girls Education. There was considerable resistance to female education within the kingdom, but it abated and during its first decade, 16 primary schools for girls were built with 148 staff members educating 5,200 females.

As relations with Egypt deteriorated during the 1960s, the Saudi government abandoned the Egyptian model, and proceeded to develop its own educational system. Under the leadership of Kings Faisal (1964-1975) and Khalid (1975-1982), Saudi Arabia established two five-year plans that promoted education to develop the needs of the people as a human resource through education and training and to facilitate the nation's economic infrastructure. The educational system was redesigned to accommodate an increasing number of elementary and intermediate school students. Only 50 percent of the students were permitted to enter into a general secondary education leading to a university degree. The other students were placed in teacher training and vocational and technical education programs. Girls' education enrollments were projected to reach 95 percent of the eligible population.

Under the rule of King Fahd (1982-), major changes occurred within the educational system. A Directorate General for Educational Technology was created consisting of the Departments of Design and Production. These departments are responsible for the development of educational materials, supplying classroom educational technology, and training senior staff at the Ministry of Education in educational technology. Standards for teacher certification were made more rigorous, while the examination system for elementary and intermediate schools was transferred from the central government to the individual schools. Programs of study were upgraded at the 17 teachers' colleges, which grant a bachelor's degree with the completion of 149 credit hours in academic study. A special education program developed for students with special needs included the construction of special educational facilities and a special education degree in teacher training granted by King Saud University.

Seeking knowledge is mandatory for each Muslim. Islam is both integral to and the essence of education. The principles of education formulated by the Higher Committee of Educational Policy include the responsibility to: (1) strengthen faith in God and Islam and in Mohammed; (2) foster a holistic, Islamic concept of the universe; (3) emphasize that life is a stage of work and production to invests full understanding of and faith in eternal life; (4) proclaim the message of Mohammed; (5) instill Islamic ideals; (6) engender faith in human dignity; (7) reinforce the duty of each Muslim to see education and the duty of the state to provide education in it various stages within the state's capacity and resources; (8) incorporate religious education and maintain Islamic culture at all educational levels; (9) integrate Islamic orientation in sciences and knowledge in the curricula and teaching; (10) stimulate human knowledge through Islam to raise the nation's standard of living; (11) foster fundamental beliefs; and (12) teach the importance of Saudi history and the preservation of the Islamic religion.

Education in Saudi Arabia has four special characteristics: an emphasis on Islam, a centralized educational system, separate education for men and women, and state financial support. Islam is the core of each Muslim's curriculum, with time each week devoted to the study of the Muslim sacred text, the Qur'an, Islamic tradition, jurisprudence, and theology from primary through higher education. Religion is not separate from but is a part of the disciplines of education, economics, sociology, psychology, medicine, and law. It is expected that the Qur'an will be memorized, interpreted, and applied to all aspects of daily life.

The centralized educational system for men is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education; and for women, under the General Presidency of Girls' Education. All schools at all levels utilize the same methods of instruction, textbooks, evaluation techniques, curricula, and educational policy. As stated in Article 155 of the Educational Policy of Saudi Arabia, there is strict separation of the sexes at all levels of education with the exception of kindergarten, nursery, and some private elementary schools, and in some medical schools. The separation of the sexes is related to the respected social status of women accorded them by Islam. With the exceptions of physical education and home economics, the curricula are the same. The Saudi government is committed to the development of education at all costs and maintains exclusive control. Education is free but not compulsory beyond the elementary level. The government provides free tuition, stipends, subsidies, and bonuses to students entering certain fields of study and to those continuing their education outside the country. Free transportation is provided for female students.


Educational Organization: There are four agencies given the responsibility for educational policy: the Ministry of Education, the General Presidency of Girls' Education, the Ministry of Higher Education, and the General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training. The Ministry of Education, founded in 1953, replaced the Directorate of Education. Its responsibilities include policy-making, planning, and budgetary staff to provide physical and teaching materials and supplies to elementary, intermediate, and male secondary schools. Adult and special education, teacher training programs, curriculum and teaching methods, the library system, and museums and archaeological research are departments within the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education represents the kingdom in international organizations and promotes cultural and foreign exchanges. Saudi Arabia is divided into school districts, which implement the policies adopted by the Ministry of Education while school principals administer the schools on a daily basis. Recent school reorganization has passed more policy authority to the local schools.

The General Presidency of Girls' Education, organized in 1960, is the educational counterpart to the Ministry of Education, but for women. Elementary education for girls was started in 1961, and by 1963 girls' education was available at both the intermediate and secondary levels. The General Presidency of Girls' Education is divided into the Directorate General for General Education for elementary, intermediate, and secondary education and the Deputy General of Girls' Colleges which oversees junior college, undergraduate and postgraduate levels and specialized training institutes and technical schools in the fields of nursing, teacher training, tailoring, and adult education.

The General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training (GOTEVT) was created in 1980, to accommodate the kingdom's increasing needs for specialized technical training. The educational department is divided into the Directorate General for Technical Education for industrial, commercial, and agricultural education and the Directorate General for Vocational Training for supervised vocational and on-the-job training programs, curricula development, program evaluation, trainee affairs, instructor training, and audio-visual aids. There are three levels of vocational training: prevocational training centers, vocational and commercial secondary schools and higher (postsecondary) technical institutes.

The Ministry of Higher Education, established in 1975, provides support for Saudi Arabia's seven universities and 78 colleges. It coordinates, supervises, and follows-up postsecondary programs with national development programs in a variety of fields. It reviews requests for study abroad and oversees 27 educational and cultural missions in other countries. The Minister of Higher Education heads the University Council for each university. The sole exception is the Islamic University headed by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, The King. Educational ministries exist separately for the military. They include the King Khalid Military College for National Guard training, the King Fahd Security College for security training, Staff Military Academy, three military academies, and four civil aviation junior colleges.


Specialized Education: Saudi Arabia offers educational opportunities for students with special needs. There are schools within the kingdom for special education, the blind, the deaf, the mentally retarded, and those needing physical therapy and training. Training for special education teachers is offered at King Saud University in the College of Education and at the College of Applied Medicine for the speech and hearing impaired. Additional special education teacher training needs are satisfied by study abroad at accredited institutions of higher learning. The Ministry of Education and the General Presidency of Girls' Education offer adult education programs that focus on the mastery reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic skills. Graduates receive a Literacy Certificate. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offers special training programs through the Institute of Public Administration in the fields of banking, electronic data processing, hospital administration, library science, personnel studies, secretary studies, and store administration. Each branch of the military has it own training academy or college—the King Abdulaziz Military Academy in Riyadh (Army), King Fahd Naval College in Dammam, the King Faisal Air Force Academy in Riyadh, and the King Khalid Military Academy for the National Guard. Each military academy awards a bachelor of military Science degree. Additional specialized institutes include health care institutes and nursing schools to train nursing, x-ray, and laboratory technicians, health supervisors, surgical operations assistants, assistant pharmacists, assistant statisticians, and nutritional assistants. Three intermediate nursing schools offer women a three-year program of study for a Certificate of Technical Nursing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs administers the Institute of Diplomatic Studies (1979) whose responsibility is to raise the work standards for members of the Foreign Ministry; to conduct research and studies on international, Arab, and Islamic issues; and to organize conferences and seminars on diplomatic, political, and international affairs.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSaudi Arabia - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education