The schools in Saudi Arabia

Before I came to Saudi Arabia, one of my curiosities concerning the country was about the Saudi schools. In my searches about the country, I found out that they have many international schools and a big interest in to hire English speaker teachers. I came to Riyadh and I saw a mix of many different schools, with different curriculum and languages. This makes me feel that Saudi schools in Arabic language are the minority. And how is that? Well, if you are an educator, the answer is very simple. The education system doesn’t work well and, the international schools became a very profitable business in a country with around 60% of foreigners.

I think I have here subjects for more than one article, but today I will start describing the pre-schools and schools.

Starting with kindergarten, the children aged 3-5 yrs are divided into KG1 and KG2 classes/groups. Boys and girls in this stage are placed in the same class and, the teachers are all women. The attendance is not mandatory, and kindergartens are not part of the official education ladder. Usually the Saudi families have nannies and most of the children who are in the kindergarten are foreigners or children whose parents want them to learn English.

For Saudis, the gender segregation starts at primary school. They are divided into boys’ and girls’ schools, most of the time also in different campuses. The school for boys only hire male teachers and female teachers for the girls. The dress code for women teachers is most of the time the abaya, or a long dress with long sleeves. The female students can take off their abayas only inside of the school.

At the beginning, the girls don’t have to wear abaya, until their body starts to change and, this is around 10 years old. After certain age, the girls are required to wear a niqab too, which is a piece of fabric that cover their faces. Outside of school or universities, women must follow the rules of the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam and dress decently, what  means all covered.

The children start the school at the age of 6 on the first grade and, the duration of primary education is six years. The Primary education through to high school is offered to all citizens for free. A traditional school is all in Arabic language and that includes a memorization and recitation of the Koran. The study of Islam dominates the educational system. For this reason, they have been heavily criticized by the western world.

Maybe this particular point can affect the quality of the education because in fact, as I mentioned above, the traditional schools are minority in Saudi Arabia. Wealthy families desire to give a better education for their children but the religion is still important for them. So, they have the English Saudi schools.

The English Saudi schools are very common. The private international schools are required to follow Saudi regulations, including those related to gender segregation. Sometimes in the same building you will find two different entrances for boys and girls. They usually have Islamic studies and Arabic language in their curriculum, but the main curriculum is foreign and language must be in English. The girls are allowed to take off their abayas only inside the school. There are Saudi and foreign teachers, but the dress code is still a long dress with long sleeves. Unfortunately most of girl’s school don’t have PE or any sports, because it is very difficult to find a female instructors for that.

The international schools, which are defined by the International Schools Consultancy (ISC), must be delivering a curriculum wholly or partly outside of an English-speaking country. They are defined as  international also because of their orientation.

These schools are beyond the Islamic law, so they can act in a western way. They do not have the gender segregation, and boys and girls can be in the same classroom wearing their normal clothes. They can offer PE and sports because teachers are men and women and, they interact with all classes. These schools are usually owned by communities of foreign nationals.

According to ISC January 2015, Saudi Arabia has about 203 international schools. Those are not just in English, but also in other languages and many times strategically placed next to or within the Compounds. In Riyadh, we have not only schools in English, but in German, French, etc. Usually the expatriate’s company pays for the children’s school or they can split the fee. So, taking  in account, the large number of expat families, the schools have became a good business over the years in Saudi Arabia.

The internationals schools really invest in their staff paying good salaries for their teachers. However, the fee can be very expensive especially if the expat families need to pay for theirselves. Many families struggle to pay the cost of their children’s education. All depends of the expat’s contract.

However, today the international schools have better education quality. The Saudis are aware of that and they are trying to develop programs to improve the quality of education in the country. The budget of the King Abdullah Project for General Education Development, that is to be implemented over the next six years, is about US$2.4B. They intend to train  teachers for the new program.

The Saudis are interested in Finland too, as is the rest of world regarding education. They had been visiting the Finnish schools, interested in the modern architecture and pedagogical system. According to the news, they want to emphasize extracurricular activities for developing intellectual, creative and communicative skills.

We can see many changes in society lately in all sectors. Saudi Arabia is walking forward and trying to be more open and international. Maybe when you are reading this article, abayas are no longer required by the schools.

I’m glad to see all these efforts and changes related to education and I really believe they will reach their goal. I’m happy to be here as a teacher and, maybe be part of this process.


“Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Education”. 2005.


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