That isn’t to say that education had previously been unavailable in Saudi Arabia, but limited resources, an insular attitude and the desire to retain the status quo meant that education had been basic and only the brightest pupils went on to higher education, and then only if their families could afford it.
The vast influx of foreigners into this formerly secluded region emphasised the need to ‘catch up’. Saudi Arabia’s government realised that there was a need to provide a well-educated, resourceful local workforce for the future, displacing the continual need for expatriates to undertake even basic maintenance of state utilities. Major programmes for building schools and colleges of higher education were undertaken and continue to this day, and standards of education have been raised significantly. Arab students are now found in the world’s most prestigious universities, particularly in the UK and USA, where their skills equal those of their counterparts from other countries.
There’s a fairly wide choice of schools in Saudi Arabia, although state (i.e. government-funded) schools aren’t usually an option for foreign children. These are attended by local and expatriate Arabs, who share culture, language and religion. The private sector provides for the expatriate communities, and its schools are generally of a reasonable standard, especially for primary education. However, a child’s secondary education is sometimes better provided for in their home country. The Ministry of Education controls standards in the state schools and have some influence over the establishment, legitimacy and running of those in the private sector, in some instances stipulating that school hours and days match those of the state schools.
A key decision for expatriates with school-age children (particularly those at secondary school age) is whether to send them to boarding school in their home country and, if so, at what age? First, do you want to be separated from your child(ren) for months at a time? Do you feel it important that your children are brought up exposed to and aware of their national culture and environment by being educated at home? On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a wonderful environment for children, being safe and clean, with plenty of opportunities for exercise and sports, and with sunshine, sea and beautiful beaches; do you want to deprive them of all this by packing them off to boarding school in a country which may lack these advantages? You’re advised to listen to advice from other expatriates who have made these difficult decisions.
When deciding on the type of education best suited to your child(ren)’s needs, you should also ask yourself the following questions:
- Are Saudi Arabia’s educational system and examination qualifications recognised in your home country, the country in which your child will probably eventually have to make his way?
- When your child returns to your native country, will his education be ahead of or behind that of his peers?
- What is the academic record of the school you propose to select?