Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

This is the second part of a two-part post on Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme. Part One is here.

In the first instalment we looked briefly at the history of gifted education in Saudi Arabia and the references to it in the country’s Ninth National Plan before reviewing three online documents relating to Mawhiba and its parent Foundation.

Part Two takes a closer look at how the structure of Mawhiba has developed, particularly the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, and offers a provisional assessment of progress.

Picture courtesy of S Raj

The Five Strands as Seen by McKinsey

We need to return to the original Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation to get a fuller treatment of the five strands of activity they advocated for the Mawhiba Project itself.

Mawhiba Schools Partnerships are not quantified by the number of schools involved, but McKinsey envisages that they will benefit 550 gifted pupils in 2008, 1,700 in 2009, 4,500 in 2010 and 6,600 in 2011.

Provision in these partner schools should include a common programme for all learners up to Grade 3 and, in Grades 4-12, a blend of separate classes for G&T students and mixed ability classes for all students, with admission of students into the gifted cohort following a selection process undertaken in Grades 4 and 7.

The Foundation is advised that schools need incentive systems to manage the performance of their leadership, and that mechanisms should be in place to ensure that disadvantaged students are not excluded.

Action is therefore required to:

  • develop and administer intelligence and creativity tests to select students;
  • design curricula to nurture giftedness and creativity and support schools in their implementation;
  • train teachers to teach gifted classes and principals to lead Mawhiba schools;
  • set standards for partner schools, select the schools and monitor compliance with the standards;
  • develop a funding model for the schools linked to the student and/or the teacher; and
  • establish a parental support unit to secure continued parental engagement in their children’s education.

The enrichment programmes will be introduced gradually over the full 15-year period. There will be:

  • after-school programmes covering Grades 4-12, with admission on the basis of interest but continuation on the basis of performance;
  • summer programmes, also covering grades 4-12, but open to students from partnership schools and other schools, though eligible students must have passed stage 1 of the Mawhiba selection process. These will be the flagship of the enrichment dimension in the first 5 years; and
  • competitions and awards covering grades 1-12 and university that are entirely open access.

The Young Leadership and Scholarship Programme should be open to all students entering their final year of high school, with selection based on prior academic performance, submitted essays and interviews. It should provide summer internship opportunities at top Saudi and international companies, supported by an online job portal and career guidance sessions.

There should also be: programmes to build language and entrepreneurial skills and offer research seminars with experts in various fields; mentoring provided by academics or industrialists, including regular 1:1 and group meetings; and scholarships to study at top international universities, as well as support with the applications process.

The Creative Work Environment initiatives will share best practice on nurturing creativity in the workplace by raising awareness, developing best practice material and providing training and workshops

The communications strategy involves getting stakeholders to endorse the strategy, building awareness and understanding across society and growing Mawhiba’s reputation as a national strategic organisation.

Outcome targets are defined in terms of numbers participating in each strand. Targets for the end of the initial five year plan are given as:

  • 6, 600 gifted learners in school partnerships
  • 5,000 suitably-qualified participants in enrichment programmes
  • 2,000 eligible students in the young leaders and scholarship programme

so 13,600 beneficiaries in all. (This is broadly similar to the 14,000 cited in the Ninth National Development Plan).

Some fairly dubious assumptions are then deployed to claim that, overall, some 28,000 different students will benefit by the end of this first phase, and that the programme will impact on 10 times as many people in all if one counts the gifted students’ fellow pupils and their families. This helps to give the impression that the programme is bigger than it first appears.

To achieve these outcomes it will be necessary for the Foundation to:

  • undertake concept development – co-ordinating activity across domestic and international partners;
  • commission programme delivery through implementation partners, setting performance targets and managing partners against them;
  • secure funding from sponsors and allocate it between projects; and
  • communicate with and secure buy-in from key stakeholder groups and co-ordinate an awareness-raising campaign.

Picture courtesy of Shabbir Siraj

The structure today

One can find online copies of several tenders for aspects of the Mawhiba programme (though not all of them) but they are not particularly informative, containing only the briefest outline of the programme itself.

The most recent, for the Young Leaders’ Programme , was dated 30 April 2011 (though I found it online a week or so before that date). It describes the five strands as follows:

  • ‘Mawhiba School Partnerships – work with top private and public schools to introduce a special curriculum for gifted students from Grades 4-12. Schools entering the partnership will receive support to upgrade their curriculum and physical infrastructure and to better train their teachers to deliver advanced curriculum to gifted and talented pupils. Key activities include curriculum design, teacher and principal standards and training, school selection and accreditation, student assessment, and parental support.
  • Mawhiba enrichment programs – develop summer and after-school programs and support competitions and awards for school-age students. Components of these programs that the selected partner will have to support include developing program content and policies, selection of training and staff, providing technical support and documentation.
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders Program – develop a program for students in their final year of school to bridge the gap between academic study and professional life. Objectives of the program will be to provide students with internship opportunities, mentorship programs, skill-building programs, and scholarships to top international universities.
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative – Develop and promote creativity in the Saudi workplace by raising awareness and offering creativity diagnostic tools, developing and sharing best-practice materials and conducting trainings and workshops with companies.
  • Mawhiba student selection – Develop and administer tests for selecting students for Mawhiba programs. In addition, develop process for selecting the students and support the process through means such as training of staff and expert advisers.’

The first four are pretty much as designed by McKinsey, but the final strand has emerged from under the wing of the Schools Partnerships and grown in significance, reflecting the separate reference to selection tests in the 2009 Brochure.

It is as if everyone has been committed throughout to a five-fold structure for Mawhiba, but no-one could quite agree what should constitute the fifth and final element!

Incidentally, the tender envisages a pilot for the Young Leaders Programme involving just 100 participants, so a long way short of the 2,000 projected by McKinsey for 2012/2013.

Selection Tests, Enrichment and Research

The growing emphasis on selection tests within these overarching descriptions of Mawhiba seems rather at odds with the ‘human capital’ approach described in Room at the Top:

‘KSA believes that it is most likely to develop this critical mass not through selection of a few students and special programmes or schools, but rather through the high performance approach – through the creation of high expectations in school, coupled with systematic nurturing of the advanced cognitive performance characteristics in students. By introducing advanced cognitive performance from an early age they expect to ensure that those with the capacity to excel will do so.’ (pp 48-49)

It seems that Mawhiba places some importance on building schools’ capacity to provide advanced educational opportunities and encouraging all pupils to achieve them. But there are also selection tests to identify a gifted cohort who are eligible for Mawhiba activities, presumably including scholarships to attend Mawhiba schools.

The emergence of this emphasis on student selection can be tracked back to a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the National Centre for Measurement and Evaluation. The two parties agreed to work together to develop and standardise a new test battery to identify gifted and creative students.

Earlier this year, reports suggested that this would expand into a ‘national project to identify gifted students’, beginning with pupils in Grades 3 to 9 in 16 regional education administrations, but expanding into a comprehensive national database of all gifted students in the Kingdom.

According to one report this project will use ‘the NAGC standards of identification’ as the basis for developing generic identification tools and procedures and related training for staff who use them. But the references on the Mawhiba site appear to suggest that identification will be confined to science and technology

Meanwhile there are various newspaper reports outlining the continuing expansion of the enrichment programme, especially the summer schools component.

In 2010, there were 27 domestic summer schools in science and technology, all of 2-4 weeks’ duration, provided by 22 different universities, colleges and research centres. They were attended by 1,369 students drawn mostly from Grades 5 and 6 and Grades 9-11.

Sixty were based at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), which offered courses in computer programming, mechanics and maths taught by university lecturers.

A further 83 students attended international summer schools held at venues such as Cambridge, Johns Hopkins (CTY), MIT and Oxford.

McKinsey forecast 5,000 participants by 2012/2013. It is not clear whether other smaller-scale enrichment activities have put Mawhiba within reasonable striking distance of this projection.

The Mawhiba website suggests there has been some progress towards the second specific objective identified in the Ninth National Development Plan. The research and policy unit will include among its responsibilities:

  • Developing and maintaining a database of information about gifted education in the Kingdom, including quantitative data about the performance and progress of gifted students;

  • Developing written policies for all aspects of the programme; and

  • Undertaking evaluation of different initiatives, defining performance indicators where necessary

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Development of School Partnerships

As far as I can establish, the Mawhiba Schools Partnership (MSP) began with 19 schools, increased by 17 in 2010 to 36 schools and is expected to reach 60 schools by June 2013. All Partnership schools are currently located in Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam.

There were originally 250 scholars spread between the initial 19 schools. The 36 schools currently involved are said to serve 600-700 pupils, depending on the source. These are presumably those Mawhiba Scholars who have successfully passed the selection tests identifying the top 3%. Thiis dimension of the project is therefore undershooting significantly the numerical projections proposed by McKinsey in 2007.

We have extensive information about the process for selecting MSPs because the ‘School Selection Handbook 2009/10’ is available online.

It begins by setting out the objectives underpinning MSPs, which are to:

  • Select the schools capable of joining the Partnership and willing to ‘fulfil the vision’;

  • Support to improve these schools’ effectiveness at developing their students’ creativity and giftedness, so securing high performance;

  • Support the introduction of an ‘advanced supplementary curriculum and assessment framework’ designed to develop advanced learners, future leaders and creative entrepreneurs;

  • Introduce a contemporary pedagogy to develop the skills necessary for high performance and entry to world-class universities;

  • Offer professional development and support provided by international and local experts and through collaboration between member schools;

  • Select gifted and creative students who will receive scholarships to attend a member school; and

  • Ensure that parents are involved as partners in their child’s education.

Three different levels of membership are described: member, partner and advanced partner. All schools join as members but can then apply for accreditation as partners or advanced partners.

Much of the handbook is taken up with a Standard for Selection based on ‘international research into the characteristics of effective schools’ because:

‘providing a world class education system leading to high performance for the most able students requires integrated provision not just a bespoke programme for a minority of students’.

The standard has been informed by the work of Sammons and McGilchrist, two UK researchers, and benchmarked against international standards including ‘Ofsted UK, Investors in People UK, Professional Standards for Teachers in the USA and Australia and the Quality Standards for Gifted and Talented Education DfES, UK‘.

Selection depends on schools meeting eight standards: Student Achievement, Leadership and Management, School Ethos, Teaching and Learning, Classroom Management, Student Personal Development; Parental Involvement and Commitment. Each is assessed on a four-point scale:

1 – excellent

2 – good

3 – developing

4 – limited

Member schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘3 – developing’ on every standard except Commitment, for which they need to be rated ‘2 – good’.

Schools are invited to express interest, then submit a self-evaluation form. An external evaluator visits the school and the leadership team is expected to offer a presentation that demonstrates their commitment. There is also: observation of classroom teaching; discussions with the leadership team, teachers, students and parents; and analysis of students’ work and assessments.

These external evaluations are moderated before successful schools are selected by a ‘Mawhiba Strategy Group’. They must sign a formal Agreement, while unsuccessful schools receive feedback on how to improve. The handbook says the Panel will also take into account the balance between boys’ and girls’ schools, the geographical location and the ‘required number of places for Mawhiba scholars’.

Partner schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘2 – good’ on every standard. They must submit a further application and self-evaluation form for this purpose providing evidence of progression since the school became a member.

The evaluation also draws on other evidence including: orientation of Mawhiba Scholars, implementation of the advanced supplementary curriculum, feedback from consultants and co-ordinators, lead professional weekly reports, parents’ forums and the outcomes of an annual evaluation review. There is a further site visit followed by moderation and final judgement.

Advanced partner schools must already be partner schools, actively engaged in training other schools and achieve ‘4- excellent’ in Leadership and Management, Teaching and Learning and at least two further standards.

Applicants must supply, alongside a further self-evaluation: a case study exemplifying in-school training and development; evidence of professional development through networking; and an outline of how they plan to support and challenge other schools.

The site visit includes a formal interview with the leadership team and analysis of the two Standards that the school has nominated as excellent. There is again moderation before the Strategy Group take a final decision.

Progression through these tiers is slow since, other than in exceptional cases, member schools cannot apply to become partners until the have been in the project for two years – and must wait a further two years to apply for advanced partner status. Moreover, the status achieved must be re-accredited every three years.

Schools are requested to apply annually to become members. The handbook refers to ‘a range of incentives’ to encourage them but does not spell these out, referring readers instead to the Mawhiba website.

To a UK reader this comes across as excessively bureaucratic, heavily structured and top-down, suggesting that the team is not confident of schools’ capacity to self-evaluate. The process requires extensive evidence and, so a heavy investment of time and effort by the school. The demands on assessors’ time will also be significant.

This is not of itself a scalable and sustainable model and one might reasonably expect that ‘advanced partner schools’, once they come on stream, might take on some of the responsibilities currently undertaken by external consultants.

Outstanding Mawhiba Teachers and Leaders

There are separate and parallel accreditation processes for individual teachers and school leaders, known as the Outstanding Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTA) and the Outstanding Leadership Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTLA).

According to the 2010-11 Handbook for these,staff in MSP schools can benefit from:

  • Professional development including courses accredited towards a Masters Degree by the London University, Institute of Education (The London Centre for Leadership in Learning confirms in its Prospectus that it is engaged in designing and leading these programmes);

  • Specialised courses for science, maths, ICT and English teachers provided by international experts;

  • ongoing in-school support for all staff and parents by Mawhiba City Co-ordinators (MCCs) including training and support for nurturing giftedness and creativity in the context of whole school improvement;

  • training in the effective use of the advanced supplementary curriculum (ASC) ‘authored by World Class Arena (WCA) international curriculum development experts’; and

  • the OMTA and OMTLA, each based on a defined standard.

The OMTA Standard:

‘defines what an individual teacher needs to do in order to achieve the world class standards of education which Mawhiba Schools aspire to achieve’.

It too is based on international research – the work of Hattie and England’s TDA’s Professional Standards (currently under review) are particularly cited. It signifies that:

‘a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher within a Mawhiba school and has consistently fostered high levels of performance in students through use of a range of effective, contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The OMLTA signifies:

‘that a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher, as outlined above, but has also shown skills and expertise in leading others – within and across schools – to develop their practice in fostering high performance through use of the most effective contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The standards appear to be very demanding, as a Blog kept by a newly-appointed assessor reveals:

‘Last year only 3 out of 30 candidates won this award as they have to meet international standards. Thank goodness the final OMTA decisions are made back in the UK as I have to work with the Dammam teachers after the fact.’

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Advanced Supplementary Curriculum (ASC)

We also have information about the ASC. A ‘white paper’ dated April 2009 is available online called ‘Designing a Programme for Giftedness and Creativity in Mawhiba Partnership Schools‘.

The preface says this: ‘brings together the best international practice and three decades of experience from leading work in this area in the United Kingdom’.

It suggests five underpinning principles for curriculum development:

  • High quality educational opportunities help to enabling gifted and creative students to demonstrate high performance.

  • While gifted students do not possess ‘unique learning strategies’, they are more creative and draw to a greater extent on a repertoire of intellectual skills. They deploy metacognition, strategy flexibility, strategy planning, hypothesis, preference for complexity, extensive webbing of knowledge about facts and processes.

  • We should aim to create autonomous and empowered learners who demonstrate extensive: subject knowledge and understanding, skills, values, attitudes and attributes.

  • Curriculum is supported through assessment for learning that monitors student progression enabling students to plan next steps with their teachers in the light of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

  • Provision must lead to qualifications that enable students to progress to leading universities.

It indicates that the ASC will be designed to help students develop expertise in maths, science, ICT and English, but also to generate the:

‘learning behaviours that will enable them to develop the high level knowledge, skills and concepts associated with expert performance in these specific subject domains and more generically’.

Students in Grades 4-10 will undertake the supplementary curriculum alongside their normal curriculum; those in Grades 11-12 will follow courses leading to internationally recognised qualifications.

This will be undertaken through a series of curriculum materials, supported by age-related ‘curriculum progression standards’ (Other material online suggests that Mawhiba Scholars need to achieve in line with these standards each year in order to stay on the programme.)

Learning activities will provide challenge through high expectation and enquiry based approaches that develop analytical, critical and creative thinking skills. Assessment will monitor the overall effectiveness of the programme as well as the progress made by students.

The broad approach to curriculum is illustrated by a table which is also published separately as a poster on the World Class Arena website.

The timetable for the publication of the materials is phased, so that those for Grades 4, 7 and 10 are produced first, followed presumably by Grades 5, 8 and 11 in the second year and then Grades 6, 9 and 12 in the third. All the curriculum materials published to date (Grades 4, 7 and 10 only at the time of writing) are available here including the Teachers’ Guides.

Provisional Conclusions

It has not been easy to gather together the information for this post. Given the wide variety of sources (some more reliable than others) and the tendency for key facts to be ‘lost in translation’, I hesitate to offer any meaningful assessment of either the scope of Mawhiba or the progress that has been made.

It is important to remember that we are only in the fourth year of a 15-year plan. It will take considerable further effort to realise the ultimate ambition of:

‘A creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly educated, and well trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

However, the early stages seem to be progressing at a slower pace than envisaged in McKinsey’s five-year plan and the numbers of beneficiaries are also significantly lower.

There is a huge gap to bridge between 700 pupils in 36 Mawhiba School Partnership schools and a national programme that directly benefits 3% of the Saudi school population – around 140,000 pupils spread across some 26,000 schools – and indirectly benefits all of their fellow learners.

The design is hugely ambitious but the practical delivery to date does not yet begin to match it. The 14,000 participant target in the Ninth Development Plan looks a ‘big ask’. The subsequent roll-out process will be critical and very demanding, and it will depend heavily on the urgent development of sufficient homegrown Saudi capacity to support it.

There has clearly been enormous investment in the design of support systems for schools but, even if we assume that all pupils benefit, not just the identified 3%, the current unit cost per pupil must be unsustainable even for a country as rich as Saudi Arabia.

It is surprising that Mawhiba seems to remain entirely separate from the wider Tatweer education reform strategy. One might anticipate that a siloed gifted education programme is much less likely to succeed. Surely Tatweer and Mawhiba need to be brought into a closer relationship than is apparent at present.

I could trace no formal evaluation of the Foundation’s performance or of the progress to date on Mawhiba. Evidently it is not customary for Saudis to appear critical of any initiative which carries the name of their King.

Only one commentator is prepared to offer a public critique of Saudi progress on gifted education more generally.

In a presentation called ‘The Benchmarks of Gifted and Talented Education in Saudi Arabia’ given to an international conference in Abu Dhabi in October 2010, Dr Maajeeny, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at King Abdul Aziz University (KAU), says most parents, professionals and other stakeholders are not satisfied with progress to date because:

  • only a few gifted students are identified and less than half of those can access provision;

  • testing is of questionable quality and there is too much small scale practice rather than ‘systematic scientific services’;

  • there are too few qualified teachers concentrated in a small number of schools and too few researchers with expertise in the field;

  • there is limited funding available, limited training and few incentives to encourage staff to engage with gifted programmes;

  • attention is confined almost exclusively to STEM subjects; older students and adults are not properly served and pre-school services are not yet available;

  • public awareness is limited, while officials and administrators lack enthusiasm and some are reluctant to accept changes to accommodate the needs of gifted learners; and

  • effective co-ordination between service providers is ‘still random and primitive’.

This view an expert may be contrasted with the picture painted in the article I referenced earlier about educational progress in Saudi Arabia more generally.

This suggests that wider education reforms are facing active resistance from powerful conservative religious interests and that they are at risk of being sidelined as a consequence of changes in national leadership.

Final thoughts

While progress may be perceived as too slow by those who understand and support the initiative – and by the gifted learners who stand to benefit – the conservative faction in Saudi society will have the opposite view.

Which is why effective communication, consultation and awareness-raising are going to be so critical to the success of Mawhiba.

Will the Kingdom be able to introduce a full national programme for gifted and creative education, or will it always be a supplementary pathway, confined to relatively few forward-thinking schools?

The international competition is fierce. The Ninth National Plan reports that:

‘Efforts to foster talent, creativity, and innovation culminated with the Kingdom ranking 32 among 130 nations covered by the 2008 Global Innovation Index produced by the Business School for the World (INSEAD)’.

This is quite true, but the 2009-10 INSEAD rankings place the Kingdom 54th of 132 nations, a sizeable fall of 22 places. This position is retained in the 2010-11 rankings, with no deterioration, but no improvement either. Saudi Arabia is headed by neighbours like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. If this is a reliable yardstick, then the Kingdom faces an uphill struggle to improve its relative international competitiveness.

Will Saudi Arabia successfully make the transition to a successful KBE, following in the footsteps of countries like Singapore and South Korea, or is it destined to remain with one foot in the present and the other anchored firmly in the past?

It is simply too early to say.


May 2011

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