Dr. Saud bin Hussein al Zahrani, director general of school curricula and educational development at the Saudi Ministry of Education revealed the ministry”s plans to introduce new curricula for girls, under the name of female education and female health education. This will take into consideration the position of women in Saudi society and form an equivalent to the physical education subject for boys.
In an interview with Asharq al Awsat, Dr. al Zahrani said, “The change in education curricula has not come as a result of outside pressure or the September 11 attacks. It was decided a long time prior to these events. Everyone came under pressure from a number of sides. However, under no circumstance will this lead us to change our values and customs.”
Reforms will be implemented according to a new approach with the Ministry taking equalitative steps to ensure that students enjoy their lessons. Instead of being passive listeners, students will become active participants, Dr. al Zahrani said. Concepts such as human rights, development and economics will be incorporated in the curricula while making sure the number of subjects remains the same.
“A number of subjects such as geography, history and citizenship will be combined into one subject, which is national and social education. The five Arabic subjects will also merge into one, Quran and recitation, the biography of Prophet Mohammad and the study of Hadith.”
The interview went as follows:
Q: Did the Saudi Ministry of Education wait until the September 11 attacks to change the curricula?
A: Since its inception, the Ministry has always sought to develop school curricula but the quality of education depends on the time the reforms occur. So far, changes have occurred one at a time. In other words, comments by experts and specialists are referred to specialist committees who consider whether curricula need to be reformed.
With the establishment of the Ministry of Education, curricula began to be prepared in Saudi Arabia instead of being imported from other countries. Education in the Kingdom has benefited from international expertise. Our sons who traveled abroad to continue their studies brought back outstanding ideas and started to implement them.
The process of change is ongoing and education is the base for change in any country. This is why my predecessors, at the agency for development, deemed it was necessary to bring about a qualitative change and reform school curricula. They visited several countries to learn from their experience and authored a number of reports on the subject. Field research started in 1995, a long time before September 2001!
A number of nationwide studies were conducted pursuant to a Royal decree on the necessity of reforming the education sector. The process actually began in 1999. The Kingdom did not wait until September 2001 to start developing its curricula.
Q: What about external pressure applied on the Kingdom?
A: Pressure was exerted on the entire world. At a certain time, in the past, Europe endured greater pressure than Saudi Arabia. Usually, pressure is caused by external sides setting themselves a number of goals. However, do we respond to this pressure?
I believe the answer was provided by King Abdullah himself who said: We do not submit to what is dictated to us. We decide our own fate based on our vision, on the needs of our society and on what is stipulated in Islamic Shariaa (Islamic law). We do not want to be a backward society; we want to develop ourselves and continue to do so.
When individuals accuse the Kingdom’s school curricula, we take notice of their statements and find what is useful to us in them and disregard what contradicts our customs and values.
Q: Will new subjects be added to Saudi school curricula next year?
A: A complete education plan will be implemented in public schools, starting from kindergarten all the way to secondary school. The Ministry is in the process of writing the new curricula.
As for secondary school, we have selected 42 public and private schools where the new curricula will be tested this year.
The Arabic language is no longer five separate subjects but one and social topics have been combined into one subject that includes education, social studies and citizenship. Islamic subjects have also been integrated, including studying the Quran, recitation, Islamic jurisprudence and conduct, Hadith and the life of Prophet Mohammad.
English is now studied in the sixth grade and the Ministry is currently considering whether to add it to the fourth grade curricula.
Q: Will these reforms be implemented in all schools as of next year?
A: This will be put into practice gradually. The comprehensive plan is made up of several stages. As was published in the report on education reform, in the first stage, from 1999 to 2001 we conducted a study. In 2005-2006, the curricula will be written.
I am certain Saudi Arabia will enjoy interesting education curricula and every student will have their own student book and activity book for each subject. We want students to be creative and productive not passive.
Q: In light of developments in society at large, will human rights be added to the curricula?
A: Human rights will not feature as an independent subject but will be included in the new curricula. The concept of Human rights will be integrated into the school curricula, in addition to several programs relating to international agreements which conform to the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights in Cairo, also known as the Cairo Declaration.
Q: On the subject of women and education, what subjects does the Ministry intend to add to the curricula in this regard?
A: In our curricula, we respect the special qualities of women in our society and have introduced a number of related subjects. For example, women’s education is now taught in elementary school and female health is now taught in middle school, as an equivalent to physical education for boys. The Ministry is continuing its development of reforming curricula for girls.
Q: What about the traditional image of Saudi women in education texts and curricula?
A: Saudi Arabia views women according to Islamic Shariaa. They are responsible for producing a new generation that follow noble Islamic principles. Women in the Kingdom defend themselves. We will not respond to anyone one who calls for the so-called freedom of women.
Q: Some schools teach additional curricula. How is that so?
A: We are concerned with all experience and ideals that stem from the field and which we believe will benefit students. These are presented to special committees to be examined. They are complementary subjects and are carefully monitored. Such material help students and support what is contained in the official curricula.
Q: Why do some schools teach these subjects in English?
A: No schools teach additional curricula in English
Q: I have a book with me used at a private model school, the King Faisal School, which is affiliated to the Ministry. The book teaches science and sex education in English.
A: I beg your pardon, the book which was being taught in English at the King Faisal School and Dar al Fikr is no longer in use. A decision has already been made in this regard. Obviously, sciences and math are taught Arabic in Saudi Arabia. We do not object to the use of reference books in English but they are strictly optional.
Q: But I was told by a student at the school that they are taught from this book in English?
A: No. Some schools are still at the experimental stage. We do not end an experiment abruptly but gradually. It will definitely be cancelled.
Q: To return to the issue of including new subjects to the curricula, how does the Ministry accomplish this?
A: We compile a list of topics and consider the latest developments in the Kingdom, such as the issue of human rights, development and economics and incorporate it into school curricula in a careful and scientific manner.
Q: How will the Ministry ensure the new curricula are free from the boring repetition currently found in the national curricula?
A: We always strive to avoid repetition as much as possible. If I show you a sample of the new curricula, you will see how we have tried to avoid all forms of repetition.
Education curricula are seldom free from mistakes. I can show you a number of examples from around the world. Our work continues to achieve the best.