The Educational System in Saudi Arabia


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the leading economic powerhouses in the Middle East. The government of this country has been struggling to develop other sectors of the economy in order to reduce overreliance on oil industry. The education sector is one of the areas that the country has given a lot of focus as it tries to diversify its economy. In 1932 when Saudi Arabia became a nation, the local economy relied heavily on foreign labor, especially from the United Kingdom and United States, in addressing technical activities. However, the government realized that the first step towards reducing the reliance on the West was to start by educating the local population.

The government, through the Ministry of education, embarked on a serious process of redefining the education system in this country to meet the local needs. The education system that existed at the time the country was gaining independence was not suitable for the local economy. It was an imported curriculum that worked best in the United Kingdom. The ministry had to come up with a new curriculum that is based on the local factors within the country in order to come up with an education system that is relevant to the country. There has been a series of adjustments in the education system in this country since then, from the examination approaches, to co-curriculum activities at all stages of learning. According to Giorgi and Pellizzari1, the effort that has been made by various stakeholders has bore positive fruits. This scholar notes that the education system of Saudi Arabia is currently one of the best in the region.

Thesis statement

In this paper, the researcher seeks to evaluate the manner in which objectives of the Saudi educational policy are being met in order to ensure that education becomes more efficient.

Main Body

The ministry of education has made a great effort over the years to adjust the education system in Saudi Arabia. Historically, education system in this country was mainly based on Islamic education, reading, and writing. Simple arithmetic was later introduced into the system. Massive policy reforms in the educational system were witnessed in 1953. However, this did very little in increasing the number of enrolments into various levels of education. In 1970, the Ministry of education introduced yet another policy to motivate enrolments into various stages of learning. The policy change was also meant to redefine the quality of education in the country. At this stage, it will be necessary look at the learning stages as defined by the current curriculum in this country.

Pre-primary education

According to Winder and Trail, pre-primary education is not a requirement for one to enroll in primary school as a first grade students.2 In fact, it is not considered as part of the education ladder in this country. However, the government recognizes the importance of preprimary education and has set some funds to finance it. Children who are 3-5 years are encouraged to attend kindergarten in order to prepare them for primary education. There are government institutions that offer pre-primary education to learners within the age bracket defined above. However, most of the pre-primary education institutions are private establishments.

Most of them offer child care for parents who spend most of their time at work, and therefore lack time to care for their children during day time. According to the statistics from the government, about 51,364 boys and 49,350 girls (total of 100,714 learners) were enrolled in kindergarten in the year 2007.3 It is important to note that the performance of a child at kindergarten does not define the ability to join primary education. Unless the parent decides to allow a child to spend an extra year at kindergarten for personal reasons, the system does not consider such performances. What is given importance at this stage is the age of the child.

Primary education

The official education system in Saudi Arabia begins at the primary level. The pre-requisite to join grade one is the age of the learner. Children aged six years are expected to join first grade in the primary schools. According to Giorgi and Pellizzari, all government-run primary schools only offer day school services.4 Although this has raised issues, especially among parents who feel that their jobs require constant movements from one region to the other, the government has yet to restructure this system to include boarding facilities. However, some private institutions have emerged that offer boy day and boarding facilities. At the primary education level, it is important to note that co-educational programs are not offered, especially in public schools. This means that learners at this stage are not expected to participate in co-curriculum activities such as football, music festivals, or athletics in an official capacity.

However, this does not mean that the institutions prohibit participation in such events for leisure. Children in primary schools are allowed to play various games during break time for their own leisure. It is only that they may not organize interschool competition in any of these co-educational activities while they are still at this stage of learning. The final stage of primary education is grade six. The whole course is expected to last for six years before one can proceed to the intermediate level. However, the ability to proceed to the next level of education is defined by performance other than age.

At grade six, learners take an end-year exam in order to earn Elementary Education Certificate. Only those who pass this exam are allowed to proceed to the next level of education. Those who fail are forced to repeat grade six in order to pass the exams before proceeding to the next level. Prokop notes that the ministry of education has come up with a new policy that requires that a learner should not repeat the sixth grade more than twice.5

This means that when a leaner fails to pass the sixth grade exam in the third attempt, he or she is allowed to proceed to the next level on the basis of age other than academic capacity. This scholar observes that the records taken by the end of the year 2007 shows that about 1,255,117 boys and 1,187,365 girls were registered to be in primary schools in this country with a total of about 217,555 teachers, most of whom are female. In the same year, the gross enrolment for all students was estimated to be 98.1 percent, with that of boys being 99.9 percent, while that of girls was 96.3 percent. This was a massive improvement in the enrolment of both boys and girls compared to the statistics of the previous years.

Intermediate education

The intermediate education in Saudi Arabia is a stage of learning between primary education and secondary education. A student is expected to take three years at the intermediate level. Although learners who join intermediate education are expected to be 13 or 14 years, sometimes they may join at an older age, especially when they were forced to repeat their sixth grade more than once because of dismal performance. Other factors such as sickness may also force a learner to join intermediate education at an advanced stage. It is at this level that the system allows the learners to start engaging in competitive co-educational programs such as athletics, music or drama events. Learners at this stage are not expected to specialize on any subject. Just like the primary level education, learners at this stage are expected to undergo general education where they take all the subjects.

At the end of the three years at the intermediate school, a learner is expected to proceed to secondary school or vocational training institutions based on their performances, and sometimes personal preferences. Those who pass proceed to secondary schools. Those who fail to meet the set grades go to vocational training institutions. However, a student who has passed the intermediate exams may prefer going to vocational training institutions for personal reasons. The government does not have restrictions against such decisions. Similarly, a student who fails to get the required grade may also decide to repeat the final year at the intermediate school in so as to pass the exams in order to proceed to a secondary school instead of vocational training colleges. In the year 2007, it was estimated that about 1,144,548 students were in the intermediate schools in this country with about 108,065 teachers to take care of them.

Secondary education

Secondary education is the third stage of learning which lasts for three years. Secondary education in this country is classified into two categories. A learner may decide to take a general education, especially those who excelled in the intermediate exams. Alternatively, a leaner may decide to go to technical secondary institutions for a specialized training, especially in technical fields such as commerce, agriculture or industry. There is no specific age for a learner who joins secondary schools. However, most of them are always expected to be 17 years. It is at this stage that students are highly encouraged to engage in co-curriculum activities. The government has clearly structured a series of co-curricular activities to help the learners discover their special talents. Some learners may see a future in sports, music, or acting industries. It is at this stage that they are expected to discover this special talent.

The reason why the education ministry pushed these activities to this advanced stage of learning was to allow learners to take time and get formal education without interruptions that always come with these events. At this stage, one is approaching adulthood and is in the best position to choose what may be appropriate for his or her future. The government sponsors competitive athletics from school level to the national level. Football is one of the most popular sports in this country. Music and drama festivals are also sponsored by the government at all the stages till national level.

University and other tertiary learning institutions

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, university education marks the completion of the education system that was adopted by the ministry of education. In this system, students are expected to take four years in humanity courses, and five years in fields such as engineering, architecture and medicine. According to Rugh, the government has established 24 universities and about 150 vocational training centers in the country.6

Most of the colleges offer two-year training for diplomas in education, business management, communication among numerous other courses. Many of these mid-level colleges are owned by the government. However, there are other private colleges offering similar courses. King Saud University was established in 1957, becoming the first university in the Arab world of Persian Gulf.7 Today, the institution hosts over 40,000 learners, with many others opting for online learning at the institution. Other major universities that were developed in the recent past include Taibah University, Taif University, and Qassim University.

Most of the students in these universities (about 70%) are taking courses in the fields of social sciences and humanities.8 This scholar says that about 636,245 students are enrolled in various universities in this country for Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate programs in various courses in the year 2008. Another 94,000 were taking diploma courses in various colleges during the same year. The government also offers a wide range of scholarship to students who wish to study abroad. Most of these students go to countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Australia either for Bachelor programs or higher degrees. Other students sponsor themselves to study abroad. Some of the local universities have exchange program with international universities that facilitates sending of the local learners to these universities abroad for a given period.

Quality of Education in the Current System in Saudi Arabia

Quality of education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an issue that has raised concern over the past few years as the country seeks to ensure that learners leave colleges when they are fully prepared for their work life. When looking at the quality of education in this country, Prokop says that issues such as class size, teacher to student ratio, and the facilities always emerge.9 It will be necessary to look at these issues and how they affect education quality in this country.

Class Size

Class size is a very critical issue when looking for quality learning. A section of the society believe that with the invention of assistive technologies, class size may not be an issue in determining the quality of learning. However, others strongly believe that class size is an important factor that cannot be ignored when looking at the issue of quality education. This belief has increasingly become very relevant in the recent past because of the rapid development of technology in the sector of education. At this stage, the researcher will review the two arguments about the issue of class size at various stages of education.

Arguments for Small Classes

There is a massive support for small class-sizes as a way of improving the quality of education. A section of the stakeholders strongly believe that having small class sizes is the only way of maintaining high standards of education in the country. In Saudi Arabia, the government has been working very closely with the relevant stakeholders to ensure that the sizes of the classes are reduced as much as possible. In many schools, the administrations are always encouraged to find a way of trimming down their classes in order to eliminate or reduce congestions, especially at the lower levels of education. In order to understand the benefits of small class sizes, it will be necessary to look at the specific stakeholders who stand to benefit from such a strategy.

According to Rugh, learners benefit a lot from small class sizes.10 Different learners have different abilities to grasp concepts they are taught in class. When they are congested in a class, they may not get the attention of their teachers. This means that they cannot request for an additional attention from the teacher because of the workload that the teacher has to deal with at a given time. This has a direct impact of a lower ability to grasp the concept that is taught in class. When the classes are crowded, learners are forced to share the facilities such as books and even the chairs. This reduces the ability of such a learner to use these resources effectively for his or her own benefits. Such crowded rooms are not good for the health of the learners. In this region, temperatures can sometimes be very high, especially during the daytime. When learners are forces to sit is a class of over fifty people, spreading of the communicable diseases can be unavoidable. Other than spreading of the communicable diseases, such a stuffy environment may not be conducive for a learning process. This clearly demonstrates the relevance of having small classes in the Saudi schools.

Teachers always suffer when they are subjected to large classes of more than forty students. According to Al-Sadan, sometimes a teacher may be forced to attend to a class of sixty or even more students.11 This can be very frustrating. Every teacher is always interested in getting the results from their students. The joy of a teacher is to see his or her students excel in the examination. This means that every teacher will make an effort to ensure that his or her learners grasp the concepts being taught.

However, this may not be possible when a teacher has to handle more than fifty students. In such a large class, a teacher may not be able to understand the types of students, and the best approach that is necessary to ensure that they get the concepts right every time the teacher is in class. Some students are slow learners but with a unique ability to retain a concept learnt for a very long time. Other students grasp such concepts very fast, but they have a problem of retaining them. Other genius students grasp the concepts very fast and can retain them for a very long time.

Students in each of these categories require a different approach of teaching in order to achieve the desired results. However, the teacher may not understand how the individual learners in such large classes fall into any of these categories. Even if the teacher is able to classify these learners, giving every learner a specialized attention is not easy. This is the complete opposite if the situation when the learners are few in a given classroom. Small class sizes are easily manageable, making it easy for the teacher to deliver quality education. This explains why the government of Saudi Arabia, through the ministry of education, has embarked on a comprehensive project of building new class rooms in all the public schools to eliminate congestions.

Administration also benefits from such small class sizes. It is the responsibility of the administration to offer learning resources required in each class. When the class size is small, then it means that the resources such as books, laboratory apparatus and consumables will meet the needs. In such it is easy to assign every learner resources such as books. The learner will be responsible for caring for the resources, and any damage or misplacement would mean that the learner will have to replace the resource. This makes it easy for the administration to handle these resources. The administration is also responsible for the management of students’ performance and discipline. When each class has numerous learners, it is difficult to manage their behavior and even their performance. However, in small class sizes, the administration- through the class teachers- can give individualized attention to each learner. This makes it easy to monitor their behavior and academic performance.

Parents have become active in the management of their children’s performance. According to Chabotar, the Saudi parents were rarely involved in the issues concerning the education of their children, especially when it comes to policy formulation.12 However, this is gradually changing. Parents are getting more concerned about the well-being and the performance of their children than ever before. The relationship between the parents and class teachers is getting warmer than it ever was. A parent will maintain regular communication with these teachers to ensure that their children are okay. However, the problem sets in when the teacher has over sixty students to handle.

It may not be possible to understand the behavior of individual learners in such a big class size. This means that the parent may not get the desired information from their teachers. This can be frustrating, especially to the parents who want to be constantly informed about the well-being and academic performance of their children. This is especially the case because of the belief in this country that teachers are in a better position to understand these children than are the teachers.

Arguments against Small Classes

The discussion above has revealed a number of benefits that small class sizes do offer to various stakeholders. However, some scholars and stakeholders have argued that small class sizes have a number of short comings. In order to understand these shortcomings, it will be necessary to look at them from the perspective of the stakeholders discussed above. The first stakeholder is the learner. According to Al-Sadan, some learners thrive in large class sizes.13 In such large classes, there are a variety of talents in various fields. Allowing such learners to be in the same class makes it easy for them to share their different talents. A section of the learners also understand various concepts better when they are taught by their fellow students than when taught by their teacher. This may be because of an unexplained fear towards the teacher. It may also be because of the mentality that if a fellow student has understood the concept, then the other student feels that he or she has a personal commitment to understand it too.

Sometimes a teacher may benefit from large class sizes, especially during revisions. Cramming a concept is not a very good approach of learning. Allowing the students to understand the concepts and to express them in their own words is one of the best ways of learning. To do this, a teacher will need to allow the learners to express their own unique understanding of a given concept. Such unique approaches may be easy to understand for some learners who found it challenging to understand these concepts as taught by the teacher. Such forums work best in relatively large classes because of the desire to get different opinions from various stakeholders. Large class sizes may also eliminate the need for a teacher to hope from one class to another in very tight schedule because the teacher will be meeting with them in one setting. This creates more time to try different strategies of teaching a given concept.

To the schools administrations, there are cases where large class sizes are more beneficial than having small but numerous classes. This is especially the case when it comes to sharing of the resources. The large but few classes make it easy to plan for the resources, especially the teaching staff. The administration may not struggle much when allocating subjects to the teachers in such contexts. To the parents, such large classes create a good environment for the children to understand the diversity in the society. The parent may also rely on the help of one child to monitor the behavior of another child when they are in the same class.

It is important to note that despite the above arguments supporting the need for large class sizes, there is a general agreement among the stakeholders that when the classes are too large, then the quality of education may be affected. Similarly, there is an agreement that when the size is significantly brought down, then it may not be economically viable in terms of cost of the needed resources such as teachers and classrooms. This is why the ministry of education in Saudi Arabia came up with the concept of rightsizing other than downsizing when it comes to managing the population of the learners at different learning institutions.

Student teacher ratio

According to Chabotar, the Saudi’s ministry of education came up with the concept of teacher to student ratio in the year 2005 as a way of rightsizing the classes at different levels of education.14 This was after a research that was commissioned by the ministry found out that consistent downsizing of the classes may not be the best option when it comes to managing student population.15 According to the research, it was evident that different stages of learning require different teacher to student ratio. This comprehensive research looked at the right ratios from the pre-primary stage of learning to the later stages of education. It was found that at the pre-primary level, large classes of between 35 to 50 learners offered the best environment.

This is so because at this stage, the learner is more involved in the social than academic learning. At this stage, the learner gets to understand the immediate environment and the relevance of a school. The presence of numerous colleagues of the same age acts as an encouragement to the learners at this stage. They get to understand the life at school and the need to develop friendship. They even get to understand the relevance of teamwork.

The research found that having a learner to teacher ratio of 40:1 was the most appropriate. However, this trend changes when one gets into primary schools. From the first to sixth grade of primary education, this ratio reduces consistently. At the sixth grade, the recommended ratio is 28:1. This reduced further when one gets to intermediate and high school. At high school, the ratio was found to be 25:1. As the need for a more specialize learning process increased, this ratio reduced. This is so because of the need for a more personal attention for the students. The recent initiative of the ministry of education to increase the number of high school teachers in a five-year program must have been informed by this research. According to Kieron, the country is yet to achieve these desirable ratios, especially in the intermediate, secondary, and at tertiary levels of education.16 However, the trends are positive and show that this can be achieved in the near future.

Emerging Trends in the Education System in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, one of the emerging issues in the education system is the issue of girl-child boy-child education. According to Gorski, there was a problem of low enrolment of girls into learning institutions in the previous years.17 Some parents were accused of ignoring the need to take their daughters to school. The government, stakeholders in the education sector, and non-governmental bodies operating within this country initiated a massive campaign in order to increase enrolment of girls into schools. The free primary and secondary education program was one of the initiatives started by the government to motivate the parents to take their daughters to school. Then there emerged a new issue of favoritism and discrimination at school. Teachers were seen to discriminate against the female students. This was specifically the case when it came to choosing courses.

Girls were prepared to be primary school teachers or nurses even if they qualified for better courses like medicine and engineering. This explains why the number of female primary school teachers in Saudi Arabia is higher than that of male teachers. It took time for this issue to be addressed adequately, and as Kieron notes, such favoritisms and discriminations have been eliminated.18 However, a new problem is emerging that may need the attention of the stakeholders once again. The rate of enrolment of girls into primary, intermediate, and secondary schools has been increasing over the last once decade while that of buys is consistently dropping. Currently, more girls than boys get admitted into schools at these levels. Although the stakeholders are yet to come up with ways of addressing this new problem, it is evident that they are considered, and are considering ways through which the issue can be addressed.

According to Coram, one of the emerging trends that have raised heated public debate is the downsizing program in some of the universities.19 The scholar notes that some colleges are reducing the number of their learners in order to deal with the tough financial times. This was witnessed in some of the institutions during the recent global economic recession. The concern among the public is that some of these universities and colleges are understaffed. It, therefore, beats the logic to downsize the staff at a time when the institutions are expected to increase the number of their staff.

Gorski says that some institutions have been hiding their true financial position for various reasons.20 Corruption index in this country is relatively low. However, some public colleges and universities have started private programs that earn them additional income besides what is assigned to them by the treasury. It is expected that such institutions would reveal their earnings from such programs so that the government can reduce the allocations to the tune of what these institutions get from their private business. However, this is yet to be made clear despite the heated debate it has raised.

According to Hacsi, the issue of religion and its role in the education system in this country has also raised some controversies.21 The government of Saudi Arabia, through the ministry of education, introduced Islamic Religion as one of the core subjects at all levels of education. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is majorly comprised on Muslims. Although there had been disquiet among the few population of Christians, Hindus and other religious groups, the issue was ignored by the relevant authorities till the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States.

The education system in this country was largely criticized for having anti-west sentiments. In fact, the entire education system was accused of extremism and intolerance towards other religious groups. This pressure from the international community forced the government of Saudi Arabia to review the curriculum with the view of reducing the significance that was placed in Islamic Religious Education. These reforms have led to a new system where Islamic religion as a subject is optional. At the lower levels of education, the content of the Islamic religion as a subject has been reviewed to eliminate any element of extremism. This was necessary to help the government to dissociate itself with the ongoing terrorism around the world.


The education system in Saudi Arabia has undergone a massive transformation over the years in an effort to conform to the changing environmental forces. When the country gained independence, the government started to review the education policies to make learning relevant to the local Saudi environmental forces. Currently, the country use education system. This means that a learner is expected to take six years in primary school, three years in the intermediate school, another three years in secondary school, and four years in the university.

One of the main changes was the introduction of Islamic Religious Education as one of the core subjects in the primary, secondary, and even tertiary education. The events in the international community have brought about further changes in the education system, such as changing the content taught in the Islamic Religious Education. Other issues such as class sizes and student to teacher ratio have also been addressed in order to enhance quality of education in this country.


Al-Sadan, Ahmed. “Educational Assessment in Saudi Arabian Schools.” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 10 (2010): 143-155. Web.

Chabotar, John. “How to communicate in a difficulty economy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 55.23 (2009): 1. Web.

Coram, Timothy. “Research on Ratios, Group Size and Staff Qualifications and Training in Early Years and Childcare Settings.” Research Report 489.7 (2013): 1- 236. Web.

Giorgi, George and Moses Pellizzari. “Class Size and Class Heterogeneity.” Journal of the European Economic Association 10.4 (2012): 795-830. Web.

Gorski, Paul. “Building a pedagogy of engagement for students in poverty.” Journal of Educational Studies, 95.1 (2013): 48-52. Web.

Hacsi, Thomas. Children As Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Web.

Kieron, Bernard. “Staffing the Secondary School.” Oxford Review of Education 11.1 (2004): 19-31. Web.

Prokop, Michaela. “The Politics of Education.” International Affairs 79.1 (2003):77-89. Web.

Rugh, William. “Education in Saudi Arabia: Choices and Constraints.” Middle East Policy 9.2 (2002): 40. Web.

Winder, Bayly and George Trail. “Modern Education in Saudi Arabia”. History of Education Journal 1.3 (1950): 121-123. Web.


1 George Giorgi and Moses Pellizzari, “Class Size and Class Heterogeneity.” Journal of the European Economic Association 10.4 (2012): 810.

2 Bayly Winder and George Trail, “Modern Education in Saudi Arabia”. History of Education Journal 1.3 (1950): 122.

3 Bayly and Trail, “Modern Education,” 123.

4 Giorgi and Pellizzari, “Class Size,” 812.

5 Michaela Prokop, “The Politics of Education.” International Affairs 79.1 (2003):88.

6 William Rugh, “Education in Saudi Arabia: Choices and Constraints.” Middle East Policy 9.2 (2002): 40.

7 Thomas Hacsi, Children As Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 87.

8 Prokop, “Politics of Education,” 79.

9 Prokop, “Politics of Education,” 78.

10 Rugh, “Education in Saudi Arabia,” 40.

11 Ahmed Al-Sadan,. “Educational Assessment in Saudi Arabian Schools.” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 10 (2010): 150.

12 John Chabotar, “How to communicate in a difficulty economy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 55.23 (2009): 1.

13 Al-Sadan “Educational Assessment,” 149.

14 Chabotar, “How to communicate,” 1.

15 Timothy Coram, “Research on Ratios, Group Size and Staff Qualifications and Training in Early Years and Childcare Settings.” Research Report 489.7 (2013): 202.

16 Bernard Kieron, “Staffing the Secondary School.” Oxford Review of Education 11.1 (2004): 25.

17 Paul Gorski, “Building a pedagogy of engagement for students in poverty.” Journal of Educational Studies, 95.1 (2013): 51.

18 Kieron, “Staffing the Secondary School,” 23.

19 Coram, “Research on Ratios,” 180.

20 Gorski, “Building a pedagogy ,” 52.

21 Hacsi, Children As Pawns, 78.