The principalship is tough. Leading an international school outside your home country is tougher. And making the leap into the principalship in Arabia is about tough as it gets. Oftentimes, principals join a school in the region despite the intimidating news reports only to come immediately face to face with massive, seemingly insurmountable challenges of every variety. Here are 3 insights into background dynamics at play in this unique regional context.
1.Where are we?
The Arab world is made up of 4 regions although they are all often lumped together and misnamed the “Middle East”. Each region and country has unique cultural norms and history. As you work and travel in the region, you will begin to recognize their similarities and differences in clothing, language, norms, diet, architecture, environment, and weather.
Arab Gulf (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen)
Middle East (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria)
North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara)
East Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia)
2. Why does it seem like education is still kind of … ?
Each region has attempted to reform their educational institutions at the regional and national level since the 1970s. The adoption of modern education multiplied the number of universities throughout the Arab region from 10 in 1940, to 140 in 2000, to 260 in 2007, and to 398 in 2011 (Romani, 2009; Wilkins, 2011).
Despite these efforts, until recently the Arab countries ranked the lowest in the world, aside from Sub-Saharan Africa, in all knowledge indicators. Furthermore, limited access to elementary education as well as illiteracy amongst Arab women remained widespread. Although the number of schools has increased, educational research remains scarce partly because many qualified professionals elect to emigrate out of the region (UDNP, 2003).
Major government initiatives and investment continues to push education forward most notably UAE’s Vision 2021 plan and Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision. Saudi Arabia, a late but ambitious nation to join in the education of its citizens, had only 8 universities and colleges operating in 2003 but has since established 100 through a $15 billion annual budget for the education of its 23 million citizens in addition to a $10 billion endowment for the recently opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Romani, 2009).
Modern education is a fairly recent phenomenon in Arabia at least in comparison to America which dates back to at least the 1890’s although universities were established as early as 1636 (Harvard). Although, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt was established in 970 long before America was born, it is a remnant from a time long past. However we need to keep in mind that although many of the Arabian cities and rich cultural heritages date back to ancient times, the Arab countries’ borders as we know them today were only established recently from 1920’s onwards by European imperial powers (except for Egypt and Syria which have had similar boundaries dating back to the 1300’s). These are new countries and governments with new national identities and histories that are only beginning to be established.
Incredible progress has been made especially in the UAE on many levels making it a leader in international education in the region. The Arab Gulf currently leads the world in the international schools market with over 1,200 schools educating more than 1 million students. Half of these schools are in the UAE. But in truth, skyscrapers are easier to build than generations of students equipped to run the businesses that operate within them. As international educators, we have a role to play as guests and ambassadors in this important time and place.
If you reflect on the term “best practices” and how they are a foundation for effective learning and teaching in our schools, imagine that they didn’t exist. Best practices come from research and research comes from university institutions. Unfortunately, a lack of research by universities in the region (because most have only recently been formed) exacerbates educators’ attempts to document best practices or pinpoint root causes of the problems faced by schools throughout these regions (Akkary, R. & Rizk, N., 2011).
3. Why are private international schools everywhere?
Public schools throughout the region have failed to meet the expectations of parents and are not typically enrolling foreign (expatriate) students. Furthermore, both local and expatriate parents see the value of learning English as a critical skill in today’s world. Consequently, private schools offering an international (US, UK, IB) curriculum alongside a national curriculum have increasingly become the norm for throughout the region.
The difficult thing about running these private international schools is that most schools are not built on a foundation of knowledge, research, and modern educational practices. Instead, they are following a crude formula of (building+books+students+teachers=school and school=money). It is commonplace to accept that the best businesses in the region for quick cash flow are either hospitals or schools. Because there is enormous wealth directly and indirectly from the oil industry many investors look to multiply their reserves by opening schools. Unfortunately, a private education in the region that would be considered unacceptable elsewhere can run parents up to $5000+ per year (for elementary school students). Investors in other parts of the world rarely consider schools as an option. However, here they are able to get their investment back and begin making profit within a very short time of opening.
Education in the region is definitely improving and moving in the right direct thanks to increased demands by parents, government oversight, and regulations. So I hope the above gives some description and context to the regional context and challenges that many educators unknowingly inherit upon landing and starting work in the region. Education the world over is the only industry still continuing industrial age practices and we have a lot of work to do. International schools, in particular, have huge potential for providing quality education as they enjoy significant flexibility in decision-making and they resources to bring innovation and change to life.
Romani, V. (2009). The Politics of Higher Education in the Middle East: Problems and Prospects. Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Brandeis University, 36, 1-8.
Wilkens, K. (2011). Higher Education Reform in the Arab World. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Saban Center.
Akkary, R. & Rizk, N. (2011). A Profile of School Reform in the Arab World. Arab Thought Foundation.
UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), (2003). The Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society. Regional Bureau for Arab States.