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Executive Summary

Saudi Arabia has achieved universal access to education for a large and geographically dispersed school-age population. With its impressive gains in enrolment, however, Saudi Arabia has stretched the capacity of educators and administrators to deliver and assure high-quality learning. The advances in participation will now need to be matched with equivalent progress in student learning and skills if the Kingdom is to achieve the ambitious development goals outlined in Vision 2030.

To support Saudi Arabia in its on-going education reform, this OECD country review draws upon international research and experience to examine four key policy issues:

  1. 1. Improving school quality through better governance, leadership and support

  2. 2. Strengthening the quality of the teaching profession

  3. 3. Modernising the curriculum and assessment practices

  4. 4. Strengthening the foundations for learning

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Improving school quality through better governance, leadership and support

While Vision 2030 has aligned education actors around key objectives for the education sector, Saudi Arabia’s overarching reform agenda has not yet been translated into a clear vision of quality schooling. The new school evaluation framework has the potential to address this gap and strengthen school accountability and support systems. It also provides a reference for rethinking the role of school leaders, who should be empowered as the most important actors in leading school improvement.

School system governance

Although the national education management structure is decentralised, decision-making authority is centralised within the Ministry of Education (MoE). This contributes to a lack of coherence in the oversight and support provided to schools. The government should clarify the mandates and responsibilities of key actors across the system, including ETEC, with the aim of giving stronger direction to schools as collective agents of change. This would include developing a vision of good schooling and creating a set of associated performance targets focused on key challenges, such as reducing gender and geographical inequities and developing foundational skills. The creation of a delivery unit within the MoE and stronger central research capacity would help to drive change and scale-up good practices.

Reforming school evaluation and quality assurance

Though strict guidelines govern how supervision is carried out, supervisors are not always equipped to evaluate schools or provide meaningful support to them. ETEC’s new school evaluation framework provides an opportunity to rethink school accountability in Saudi Arabia and provide a more consistent focus on teaching and learning quality. A limited set of school evaluation indicators and more granular good practice descriptions should be developed to accompany school evaluation standards. Saudi Arabia will need to build staff capacity and develop resources to assist schools in understanding these new expectations. The planned roll-out of external evaluations rightly focuses on incentives rather than sanctions, but needs to give priority to weaker schools.


Principals and teacher leaders are central to school improvement but these functions are weakly developed and under-supported. To ensure the success of ETEC’s new principal standards, both pre-service and in-service training should be strengthened. Educational leadership programmes with competitive entrance criteria can be established with scholarship programmes that select and train the most qualified potential principals. One way to elevate the profile and skills of schools leaders would be to create a dedicated School Leadership Academy, potentially housed within the National Institute for Professional Educational Development.

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Strengthening the quality of the teaching profession

Saudi Arabia has introduced ambitious initiatives to improve the quality of teaching and the professional status of teachers. These include developing new Teacher Standards and Professional Pathways, a new post-graduate initial teacher preparation (ITP) programme and reconfiguring the role of teacher supervisors. Such efforts have the potential to develop a more skilled, motivated teacher workforce, provided there is sustained follow-through on implementation and genuine engagement of teachers in reform decisions.

Teacher standards

At the time of writing, Saudi Arabia had not implemented professional teacher standards (these were released in 2020). Instead, the main reference for teaching practice were, and still largely are, are the “grids” that teacher supervisors use to evaluate teachers. ETEC’s new standards are promising, but should place more emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge as one of the strongest predictors of student achievement. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia should devise a clear strategy to guide the implementation of the new standards and communicate expectations to teachers.

Priority should be given to certifying teachers at the Practitioner level, with a staggered promotion of Advanced and Expert teachers to guarantee trust, rigour and equitable distribution across the Kingdom. The strategy should also include options to manage out under-performing teachers from the system, for example, through financial incentives (“golden handshakes”). Engaging teachers in the development of a Code of Conduct to accompany the standards would help to create buy-in and ensure fairness.

Initial teacher preparation

The requirement that future teachers have a post-graduate diploma could improve the selectivity and quality of ITP in Saudi Arabia. Several steps will be important to the success of this reform. There is an urgent need to improve manpower planning in order to set the right entry and graduation thresholds. The employment placement system for (Jadarah) also needs to be revised to prioritise ability over seniority in job placements.

Testing subject-matter knowledge on entry to ITP could also help to further raise standards, and if complemented by more generous but selective scholarships, could boost the status and attractiveness of a teaching degree. To ensure the quality of ITP programmes, clear accreditation standards should be developed in accordance with internationally benchmarked practices. A strategic partnership between the MoE, ETEC and education faculties will be critical to the quality of the practicum, which is the lynchpin of effective teacher preparation. Strengthening the existing probation system through greater externality would help to make sure that all graduates are competent to teach before they are fully licensed.

In-service appraisal and teacher professional growth

While Saudi Arabia has a well-established system for appraising in-service teachers, its administration by external supervisors renders its formative value relatively weak and difficult to co-ordinate in a large country. Regular teacher appraisal should be redefined as a process of professional growth and principals should be trained to help teachers develop. The role of current teacher supervisors can be redefined to provide professional development support after implementation of the new teacher standards. To build trust in the new system, Saudi Arabia could select also and train respected educators to be competent and impartial assessors.

A combination of Qifayat and regular appraisal can then be used to inform the content and delivery of targeted professional development. Online professional development can be offered to expand access to training opportunities. Teacher-leaders could be deployed in other parts of the education system to allow for idea exchanges and encourage deeper professional learning.

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Modernising the curriculum and assessment practices

Historically, Saudi Arabia has relied on textbooks to determine what to teach and assess. Recently, it has developed a national curriculum framework that focuses on skills and competences and a National Assessment Programme that assesses student learning against these new learning expectations.

Intended curriculum

The new curriculum framework that ETEC has developed is broadly aligned with standards for teachers and schools. It has the potential to align subject curricula around common goals and direct the development of learning materials. The new curriculum framework, however, lacks some internal coherence and might be difficult for users to understand. The education resources that Tatweer has developed might also be insufficient given the variation in teacher capacity.

To address these issues, the new curriculum framework should be reviewed and made more internally coherent before its release. To ensure the success of its implementation, teachers should be consulted extensively on the new curriculum and on the development of effective classroom instructional materials. Over time, the curriculum should also be subject to periodic review to reflect the latest developments in education and evolving skills needs.

Implemented curriculum

Despite efforts to modernise teaching and learning, teachers continue to rely heavily on the resources they are given – especially textbooks – to plan their lessons with little adaptation of materials to students’ needs. This is largely due to the current teacher appraisal structures, which evaluate teachers on how much of the curriculum they have covered.

To address this, teacher appraisal processes that are aligned with the new curriculum’s pedagogical expectations should be developed. The reformed, school-based regular appraisal should be designed to reinforce instructional practices outlined in the new curriculum. Similarly, teacher continuous professional development should be aligned with the new curriculum and its emphasis on modern teaching and learning.

Assessed curriculum

The absence of a national assessment framework has meant that both the MoE and ETEC set assessment policy, and their activities are not co-ordinated. To create a common, coherent vision for student assessment, a national assessment framework should be created that clarifies the purpose, methods and relationships between classroom assessments, national assessments and examinations.

Classroom assessment

At the level of the classroom, teacher assessment is predominantly summative and assessment materials strongly feature memorisation and closed-ended item types. Teacher professional development does not strongly emphasise improving assessment practice, and teachers’ assessment judgement lacks accuracy and reliability, with no moderation practices in place.

To strengthen classroom assessments, teacher appraisal and school evaluation should be used to promote more diverse – especially formative – assessment practices. To reduce the amount of testing that occurs, the time that students spend on tests should be studied and adjustments made based upon the results of that study. A diagnostic assessment could be created, and the stage assessments administered by supervisors could be eliminated.

New teacher standards could set clear expectations for the assessment literacy of teachers at different levels of the professional pathways. These should support the assessment of complex and higher-order skills. Moderation programmes could be created to improve teachers’ assessment judgements, and targeted pre- and in-service development could be provided to enhance teachers’ assessment capacity.

National standardised assessments

At the national assessment level, ETEC has created a sample-based National Assessment Programme (NAP) intended to monitor student attainment nationally. Concurrently, the MoE developed a census-based assessment for school accountability purposes. The MoE’s supervisor assessments similarly serve a Directorate-level monitoring function.

To reconcile the two national assessment systems in Saudi Arabia, NAP could be extended to a census-based assessment to provide schools and teachers with reliable information on how well their students perform with respect to the curriculum’s expected learning outcomes. The assessment should be aligned with the new curriculum and reporting on the assessment could be used to build understanding of the new curriculum’s standards. As the national testing agency, ETEC should be responsible for developing and overseeing the expanded NAP, but it needs to receive adequate, sustained support.

National examinations

Saudi Arabia currently has two national examinations that are administered at the end of upper secondary school to help determine entrance into tertiary institutions. These, however, are not fully aligned with the curriculum, which prevents the examination system from supporting the implementation of the curriculum. The items on the exams test a limited range of skills and are sometimes internally incoherent. The exams also generally have very high success rates, which might prevent them from motivating students to apply themselves.

To strengthen national examinations, Saudi Arabia should aim, in the medium-term, to develop an examination that is aligned with the curriculum and both certifies completion from upper secondary school and selects students for entrance into tertiary education. While this is being developed, a range of assessment experts could undertake a thorough review of the GAT and Scholastic Achievement Admission Test (SAAT) tests and make adjustments accordingly.

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Strengthening the foundations for learning

While Saudi Arabia has seen a rapid expansion of educational access in primary and secondary school, enrolment in early childhood education lags behind international benchmarks. In response, it is now investing heavily in the sector, and the importance of early childhood education is recognised in national strategic documents. The Kingdom has created the Saudi Early Learning Standards, is constructing new facilities and is expanding the early education cycle to include what is now Grades 1 through 3 of primary education.

Sector governance and leadership

While early education governance has become integrated in the MoE under the Early Childhood General Department, responsibilities are still split depending on whether facilities are publicly or privately managed. Sub-national entities also have significant autonomy, which can lead to variations in service provision. Formal strategies related to early childhood education are also not always the central reference points for policy-making.

To strengthen the status of the sector, a formal central strategy for early childhood education should be developed and launched for ages 0 to 8. National goals on enrolment and outcomes in literacy should be established that reflect the new strategy’s aims. To fund the expansion of quality early learning, more funding should be earmarked for early childhood education. To use data to strategically allocate resources, regulatory materials and procedures would need to be updated to collect more accurate data.

The General Department of Kindergartens could also be elevated to the level of Deputy Ministry to create an adequate governance platform that gives early childhood education sufficient focus. Within Directorates, the Departments for Early Childhood could also be elevated to the level of Assistant Directorship with mandated multi-year plans.

Quality assurance

No central set of standards exist that define basic minimum requirements for early childhood institutions in Saudi Arabia. There are instead several reference points, including pieces of legislation and the organisational manual for kindergartens and nurseries. As a result, licensing and monitoring of kindergartens is not comprehensive or integrated.

To enforce quality assurance, Saudi Arabia could develop a single set of standards for different types of early childhood education settings in the public and private sectors. Based on these standards, an inspection framework can be created that covers all types of settings and focuses heavily on the private sector. Inspections would consist of both regular self-evaluation and external inspection. System-level monitoring responsibility can be shared between the General Department of Kindergartens and ETEC.

Curriculum and the workforce

To guide improvements in learning outcomes, the Saudi Early Learning Standards (SELS) have been developed. It is still unclear how SELS will relate to the new curriculum standards being developed by ETEC. Saudi Arabia should carefully monitor the implementation of SELS to understand their impact on teacher practice and student learning.

Many teachers in Saudi Arabia lack the effective instructional resources to teach young children. Existing resources on literacy do not guide teachers to develop literacy in an integrated manner, nor do they help teachers assess student progress. Teachers’ approach to literacy is oriented more towards learning linguistic mechanics and grammar than reading for meaning and understanding.

To strengthen the early years workforce, the learning resources available to kindergarten and early years primary teachers should be improved, especially those intended to develop literacy. Assessment materials that help teachers determine student literacy levels should be provided – in accordance with SELS – and their use reinforced in classrooms through the inspection framework. To strengthen school readiness, the MoE should also provide general curricular expectations that are informed by SELS and vary by type of setting.

Workforce competencies

Saudi Arabia is well placed to train qualified teachers. Universities provide competent education for early childhood staff. Dedicated training centres also have concentrated expertise and can provide effective professional development. The expansion of early childhood education, however, has led to a decrease in the quality of early childhood education staff, and the training capacity cannot meet the country’s professional development needs.

To address this divide, partnerships can be established with universities to expand the pool of training resources, and work with the “leadership academy” to deliver targeted training to kindergarten principals. Digital training options can also be mobilised to extend the reach of kindergarten training centres. To alleviate some of the strain on teachers, teacher assistant positions can be developed and qualified candidates trained to fill the role.

Home learning environment

National and sub-national initiatives to incorporate parents more strongly into their children’s education have been launched, but overall engagement remains low. With initiatives mostly concentrated in kindergartens, there are few interventions targeting families outside of the system.

To highlight the importance of the home learning environment to a child’s development, initial and in-service staff preparation should include trainings on how to engage parents effectively in their children’s education. Kindergartens, primary schools and other communal areas can also serve as community centres to provide resources to families. For the families that cannot be reached through these physical centres, home visits can be conducted.


This work is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

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