Saudi Arabia has begun to revamp its education system to better prepare its school children for the economic and political impact of global changes. But concrete reforms, such as rewriting textbooks and re-training teachers, are still largely in the planning stages, and will take years to implement. During a recent visit to the oil-rich kingdom, Correspondent Laurie Kassman talked to parents, educators and politicians about what changes are needed and how they can be implemented.
Talk to a young Saudi mother about the school her children attend, and the chances are she will respond with a stream of complaints and criticism. One mother says she has put her children in a more liberal private high school, or has sent them abroad to complete their education.
She acknowledges math and science classes in Saudi schools that require learning by rote and memorization are top quality. But she complains that Saudi schools do not teach youngsters how to think creatively, appreciate fully the responsibility of the democratic reforms now being promoted by the government, or adapt to the global changes around them.
College Professor Khalil el Khalil agrees. He is a member of a newly formed commission charged with overhauling the education system, from top to bottom. "Everyone knows it's a national recognition, that the Saudi education system is handicapped. It doesn't produce what the nation deserves. The outcome of the Saudi education system does not meet the requirements of economic needs, and doesn't meet the challenge of globalization," he says.
Mr. Khalil talks excitedly about incorporating group activities outside the classroom to teach Saudi children leadership, cooperation and other skills needed for the workplace.
One American wife of a Saudi businessman says most Saudi children, including her own, have grown up in the affluence of an oil-rich economy, and have relied on maids and servants. Self-reliance has not been a trait ingrained in Saudi children.
Today, after an eight-year study of the education system, Saudi Arabia's mostly consultative parliament, the Majlis ash Shura, has ordered several committees to scrutinize and revamp everything from curriculum and textbooks to teacher training methods.
Abdulmuhsin al Akkas, a Majlis member, says the committees are making an in-depth examination of the entire educational structure. "It included recommendations on the structure of the schools, about the ratio of students to teachers, where distributed, transport, teacher training and continuing education of teachers," he says.
Existing schools are overcrowded, unable to accommodate a population that has quadrupled in three decades to more than 24 million. A downturn in the economy makes it more difficult for the government to finance study-abroad programs, as it did in the early days of the oil boom.
Educator Khalil talks of the need to expand women's education, too. And he stresses the growing need for more technical classes in schools to meet changing market demands. "Environment needs structural change, so girls can be part of the national asset and part of the sustainable development of Saudi Arabia," he says.
That is beginning to happen, but there are still many challenges facing women seeking education and a place in the working world.
Fourth-year medical student Amal Sowayan is confident she will fulfill her dream. "Being a famous surgeon, female surgeon, a famous Saudi, female surgeon," she says.
Medicine, like education, is a field that is relatively open to women. Communications and computer technology are just starting to open up. Other fields, like political science and engineering, are still out of reach.
Women must still attend separate schools, and male teachers can only lecture female students from a separate room using a remote TV hook-up.
Special committees have been set up to scrutinize textbooks for phrases showing intolerance toward other religions and cultures that critics say fostered extremist views like those of Saudi-born terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
King Saud University Professor Alabdul Hai says changing textbooks is only a first step. "It's not enough to change the curriculum. You have to change the mentality of the teachers themselves. You have to create new teachers and principals that could enforce this change. Otherwise, the change will not come by just changing the books," he says.
Reformed Muslim radical Mansour Nogaidan wants to see more study of Western democratic thinkers, something that was missing from his public education. "A lot of people are talking about democracy, but actually you need to create a liberal culture before talking about democracy," he says.
University Professor Hai says it will take another generation to see results. "The education process takes 10 to 20 years. It's not something like boiling an egg," he says.
Reformers say the momentum for change may be bolstered by a generation of Western-educated Saudi professionals who have now moved into positions of influence across Saudi society.