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

Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

This two-part post is intended to draw together the information available online about Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme.

Compiling the post has not been an easy task.

The Mawhiba website is oddly constructed. There are actually two parallel sites – one for Mawhiba and one for the Foundation that preceded and created it – though the latter frequently tips one back into the former. Several of the most significant pages on the Mawhiba side are still ‘under construction’.

The online architecture reflects the puzzling real-life relationship between the organisation overseeing Mawhiba (its full name is the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity) and Mawhiba itself.

Sometimes they are treated as quite distinct; sometimes as two sides of the same coin. Just occasionally the Foundation is also called Mawhiba. This can make it hard to interpret parts of the online narrative, particularly when they are generated by third parties whose relationship with either entity is unclear.

This third party material is also rather fragmented. Much of it has to be dredged up through exhaustive keyword searches. Significant chunks are in Arabic. While online translation tools struggle purposefully with the websites, they are not nearly so reliable when invited to tackle the PDFs that typically carry the important factual detail.

So preparing this material has required more detective work than usual. It has felt like piecing together a jigsaw with several missing pieces. I have drawn on all the material I could find at May 2011. If further documentation is published, or if readers have access to additional information that they can make publicly available, I cordially invite them to add it to the record in whatever way they prefer.

This is all rather surprising given the extensive involvement of international contractors in the design and delivery of Mawhiba, most of them working in English so presumably needing to have their work translated into Arabic.

It also shows up the limited depth and penetration of Mawhiba’s communications and awareness-raising strand, at least as far as the international audience is concerned.

The dearth of reliable information means that it is all too easy to underestimate or, conversely, to over-estimate the significance of what has been called:

‘the most comprehensive educational approach in the world to nurturing high performance and creativity’ (Room at the Top, page 48).

The real purpose of this post is to help us get Mawhiba properly into perspective.

Saudi Arabia and its Education System

We should begin with a short context-setting preface, to help those unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia and its education system to get their bearings.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest country in the Arabian peninsula and the 14th largest by area in the world. It covers a land mass similar in size to Western Europe, although over 95% is either desert or semi-desert.

Courtesy of NormanEinstein


The national population is about 26 million, but over 20% of them do not have Saudi nationality, including a huge influx of visiting workers. The capital city, Riyadh, has a population of 4.7 million. Other large cities such as Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Dammam have populations upward of 1 million apiece.

KSA is governed as a hereditary monarchy: since 2005 the King and Prime Minister has been Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Saud. (The Foundation that oversees Mawhiba was established by the King before he ascended the throne and he retained the role subsequently).

The country itself is named after the ruling family, which first assumed power in the 18th Century, although the Kingdom was founded as recently as 1932.

The education system comprises:

  • Kindergarten (ages 3-5) – non-compulsory and attended by about 11% of the relevant population;
  • Primary (ages 6-11 covering Grades 1-6). Children take the General Elementary School Certificate at the end of Grade 6;
  • Intermediate (ages 12-14 covering Grades 7-9). Pupils take the Intermediate School Certificate at the end of Grade 9; and
  • Secondary (ages 15-18 covering Grades 10-12). Students may attend a general, a religious or a technical secondary school. Those in general schools choose in their second year between three tracks: administration and social science, natural science, and shariah and Arabic studies. Technical schools may focus on industrial, commercial or agricultural studies.

Schools are segregated by gender but males and females follow the same curriculum and take the same examinations.

University students typically take a bachelor’s degree after four years of study. A master’s degree requires two further years and a doctorate three years more. Technical colleges and institutes offer courses leading to certificates and diplomas of up to three years’ duration.

The higher education sector has recently undergone rapid expansion and includes 24 public universities, 8 private universities and 45 technological colleges and technical institutes. There are 4,885 secondary schools, 7,826 intermediate schools and 13,626 primary schools. These serve some 450,000 teachers and around 4.6 million pupils.

(These figures are almost certainly already out of date but they serve as reasonable indicators of the relative size of the system.)

This US Embassy briefing provides additional accessible background material on education in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is engaged in a major and many-stranded education reform process, also instigated by the King. This is called Tatweer (meaning ‘Development’) and has its own website in English.

This recent press report describes vividly some of the shortcomings of the Saudi education system that Tatweer is designed to address, its limited impact to date and the huge obstacles that it needs to overcome. It suggests that some of these reforms will take a decade or even a generation to come to fruition, and there is real scepticism over the prospects of success.

The other Western news articles here and here and the Saudi take here provide more background on the purpose and scope of Tatweer. There is also a detailed delivery plan available online, dating from 2009.

National Development Plans

Since 1970, the Saudi Government has set out in a series of detailed five-year plans how it expects to reform and improve every aspect of national performance.

The most recent plans, available in English on the website of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, show how thoroughly the Kingdom has dedicated itself to the development path of a knowledge-based economy (KBE). They also position the national investment in gifted education within that broader context.

The current Plan, the Ninth, covers 2009-2013. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the country’s development as a KBE:

‘A knowledge-based economy is defined as “an economy that is capable of knowledge production, dissemination and use; where knowledge is a key factor in growth, wealth creation and employment, and where human capital is the driver of creativity, innovation and generation of new ideas, with reliance on information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler”. Moreover, there is a positive correlation and mutual interaction between the “knowledge society” and the “knowledge–based economy”. In addition, “knowledge” has become a critical requirement for enhancing competitiveness of countries in the twenty first century.

Theory, experience and present international practices affirm that contemporary global drivers of economic growth are different than in the past. More than ever before in human history, the economy is now dependent on the knowledge factor for growth. To respond positively to these developments and ensure enhancement of competitive capacities of the national economy, it is essential for economic policies to pay attention to knowledge….

The Eighth Development Plan focussed on fundamental developments that laid the basis for heading towards a knowledge-based economy. These included starting implementation of the first five-year plan of the Science and Technology National Policy; adopting the National ICT Plan, the National Industrial Strategy, and the Strategy and Plan for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation; establishing the Knowledge City in Medina, and the technical zone of the Saudi Organization for Industrial Estates and Technology Zones in Dammam; proceeding with preparation of a new strategy for higher education (AFAQ); and advancing privatization.

The Ninth Development Plan adopts the drive towards a knowledge-based economy through focussing on education, which disseminates knowledge, paving the way for knowledge transfer and accumulation and thereafter knowledge generation, and utilisation of knowledge in various economic and social sectors, particularly in production and service activities. Through these endeavours, the Plan seeks to enhance the comparative advantages of the economy, add to it new competitive advantages, diversify it, and increase its productivity and competitiveness, as well as create appropriate employment opportunities for citizens.’

It continues:

‘A knowledge-based economy is based on utilisation of the outputs of the knowledge system to create new products and services through innovation. Although, according to the Global Innovation Index, innovation in the Kingdom is still a significant challenge, a springboard for development of innovation has been put in place. For example, national industries have developed significantly over the past three decades, and now have strong bases of knowledge upon which to build towards the new economy, particularly with the adoption of the National Industrial Strategy, and its implementation mechanism that espouses knowledge-based economy, and the Strategy for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation.’

The remainder of the Chapter identifies a series of challenges that need to be overcome, one of which is:

‘Giftedness, creativity and innovation: Growing interest in developing talent, creativity and innovation has been manifested in the adoption of a National Strategy for Fostering Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation, the establishment of the King Abdul-Aziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, and the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to enhance the thrust of the drive towards a knowledge-based economy, and achieve excellence in universities and higher-education institutes, as well as of scientists, technologists and innovators.’

The plan includes two targets specifically relating to gifted education:

‘Increasing the number of (male and female) students who benefit from “giftedness and creativity” initiatives, to reach around 14 thousand annually by the end of the Plan.’

and, in the chapter on education:

‘Establishing a research unit for the gifted and qualifying existing centres to enable them to design, develop and implement special programmes for the gifted’.

There is also a descriptive piece on Mawhiba in Chapter 21, on Science, Technology and Innovation.

A Brief and Approximate History of Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia

One source suggests that there have been three distinct stages in the history of Saudi gifted education:

  • development of the National Project for Identifying and Servicing the Gifted;
  • implementation of that National Project; and
  • establishing the King Abdul Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity.

Elsewhere, we learn that the ‘General Document of Educational Policy’, produced in 1970, included the following provision:

‘It is very important to discover and identify the gifted learners among all Saudi young children and youth, nurture them by all means to unveil their potentials, and pay extra attention and efforts to provide them with special programs and appropriate opportunities that can be integrated easily into the Country’s Public Educational System.’ (Rule 57)

This led to the introduction of academic competitions and exhibitions, annual awards and scholarships and small-scale research.

More concerted efforts were made from 1991 when researchers from King Saud University and officials from the Ministry of Education and the General Presidency for Girls’ Education secured funding from the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for a five-year programme to develop identification tests and enrichment activities in maths and science.

During this period a Bachelor of Education Degree in Gifted Education was also established in the Faculty of Education at King Saud University.

The Ministry of Education subsequently commissioned members of the same team to establish a ‘Gifted Identification and Fostering Programme’ in selected schools in some of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. The male students’ programme started in 1997 and the female students’ programme a year later.

These programmes included teacher training, the administration of identification tests, the introduction and evaluation of enrichment activities, and efforts to raise parental and public awareness.

The Ministry established its own directorate for male gifted education in 1999/2000 and, two years later, a parallel directorate for female students. The director of the former is accountable to the Minister of Education (who is also deputy head of the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation).

The directorate for male gifted education includes separate units responsible for Nurturing and Enrichment Programmes, Planning and Training and Discovering and Identification. It brokers a series of enrichment activities and ‘gifted Nurturing Centers’. The female equivalent presumably has a similar structure.

The Origins of the Foundation

To support these efforts, the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity was founded in 1999, an independent non-profit organisation based in Riyadh and dedicated to identifying and supporting young gifted and talented Saudis. The King himself (then the Crown Prince) assumed the Presidency.

The Foundation was funded by King Fahad, the Crown Prince and other princes and businessmen. One source says that the total value of the Foundation is £50 million and that it also receives from the Government an annual running costs budget of about £2.5 million.

This record, reporting the first meeting of the Foundation, says that the King, the Crown Prince and Prince Sultan together donated 69 million Saudi Riyals (about £11.4m), 30 million was donated by the King, plus an annual one million Riyal contribution to ‘the King Abdul Aziz Organisation for the Care of Gifted Students’. The Crown Prince gave 29 million plus an annual grant of 500,000 Riyals and Prince Sultan a further 10 million Riyals.

Its original goals were to:

  • facilitate and foster giftedness, invention and creativity;
  • create professional pathways in medicine, environmental science, communication, education, the arts, telecommunication, engineering sciences and technology;
  • support and provide enrichment activities;
  • educate the population (parents, teachers and employers) about methods of nurturing gifts and talents; and
  • assist educational and professional institutions across the Kingdom to develop G&T education programmes.

Today the Foundation describes its mission thus:

‘To support the establishment and development of a creative environment and society so the talented and gifted individuals can harness and exploit their talents to serve the nation.’

And it identifies three main strategic goals: to nurture giftedness and creativity in both males and females; to support national abilities in generating innovative ideas; and to foster young, gifted and creative leaders in the field of science and technology.

Picture courtesy of FlickrJunkie

The Mawhiba Strategic Plan

Mawhiba, which literally means ‘gift’, ‘talent’ or ‘favour’ (and can be used as a name for either a boy or a girl) is essentially the Foundation’s 15-year strategic plan, launched in 2008 but prepared the previous year following an extensive consultancy by McKinsey and Company.

One used to be able to find online a Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation which appears to summarise the McKinsey work for the Foundation (but it seems to have been taken down since I first published this post).

The underpinning aspiration for the Project is expressed in terms of developing the infrastructure to support giftedness, creativity and innovation throughout the human life cycle. This initial ‘lifelong learning’ focus is almost immediately scaled back to focus on schooling, higher education and early working life.

The McKinsey team undertook extensive international benchmarking, a literature review and a domestic situation analysis. The benchmarking activity included a review of practice in 20 countries and 90 organisations as well as in-depth analysis of over 20 unnamed institutions in Finland, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK.

The situational analysis identified four key developments in the Kingdom:

  • increasing emphasis on knowledge-based industries, so increasing the demand for innovation;
  • a growing youth population leading to higher levels of youth unemployment;
  • (rather curiously) the admission of the USA to the World Trade Organisation in January 2005, leading to increased competition; and
  • more general international competition for highly-skilled workers, leading to a domestic shortage in KSA.

The presentation goes on to list several initiatives already introduced as a response to this scenario, explaining that Mawhiba will complement these by feeding the pipeline that supplies young gifted and talented leaders.

The long term vision, set 15 years ahead in 2022 is:

‘To be 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.’

This vision is to be realised through three consecutive five-year plans, the first completed in 2012-13 (so broadly aligned with the Kingdom’s national 5-year plans).

During the initial 5-year phase, five priority initiatives are recommended:

  • Mawhiba school partnerships covering both the primary and secondary sectors;
  • Mawhiba enrichment programmes, involving summer schools and after-school activity for the primary and secondary sectors, plus competitions and awards that also extend into the HE sector;
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders and Scholarship Programme, designed for those in tertiary/higher education and the initial stages of employment;
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative for those in the early stages of emplyment; and
  • an overarching awareness and communications initiative spanning the full age range apart from pre-school provision.

There is also reference to a research and policy unit that will offer cross-cutting support.

There is no explanation as to why none of the five initiatives address the pre-school phase: this is presumably set aside until the second five-year plan. A note confirms that there is no automatic transition between the four student-focused elements, each of which has separate selection criteria.

The presentation includes positive comments from several international experts consulted on the draft plan, but they counsel staged implementation, recommending the Saudis to draw initially on international expertise but to concentrate on building domestic capacity in the medium to long term.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2007 Edition)

One can trace the influence of this work on a Brochure subtitled ‘Special Issue for King Abdullah University for Science and Technology Inauguration 21 October 2007’.

It confirms that a ‘Strategy and Action Plan for Fostering Giftedness and Creativity’ has been developed by the Foundation in collaboration with McKinsey which prioritises the development of science, technology and leadership, but also personal and social skills.

It refers to five main components, but these are different to those described in the McKinsey publication. Instead we have reference to the Foundation’s existing portfolio of activities:

Programmes and services:

  • Mawhiba Summer Programmes – enrichment events of four weeks’ duration based in domestic and international universities. The summer schools will develop students’ cognitive abilities as well as personal, social and emotional skills. The initial series comprised 16 events catering for 550 students.
  • The ‘Imagine Service’ which aims to develop innovation in middle and high school students by encouraging them to develop their ideas with online feedback and support from experts in the relevant fields.
  • The ‘Shawer Service’ (I’m unclear why it is called this) which provides advice and counselling for gifted students, their parents and educators through an online service, a telephone helpline and face-to-face counselling.

Conferences and exhibitions: in 2006 the Foundation organised the ‘Scientific Regional Conference for Giftedness’ an international event to raise awareness of gifted education in the Kingdom and in the wider Arab world. In March 2008 it organised with Aramco the first Saudi Innovation Exhibition.

Competitions and awards. There is an annual award for scientific creativity designed for male and female innovators up to the age of 25 and two competitions in robotics.

The National Portal for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation for young people, their parents, teachers and educators. This is described as ‘an electronic oasis’ and is not expected to be in place until March 2008.

Finally there is a Customer Service Centre providing support for all those engaged in delivering the services above.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2009 Edition)

By 2009, the Brochure has undergone substantive revision, but there are still two competing sets of priorities. The five identified by McKinsey are stated very briefly but the second half of the Brochure is an updated version of the 2007 edition, once again outlining the existing Foundation work programme.

This perhaps suggests that the integration of the McKinsey plan into the existing work of the Foundation took some considerable time and no little effort to bring about.

In this version, the Foundation’s three fundamental objectives are essentially: improving and expanding the education offer for gifted learners; promoting society’s awareness of gifted education and creativity; and supporting the Kingdom’s sustainable development.

The document goes on to state several guiding principles that are said to emerge from these objectives:

  • (as per McKinsey) focusing on all phases of the education system and beyond into employment;
  • ‘nourishing the ambition of reaching a shortlist which includes the best 3% of all Saudi students’;
  • building and developing creativity, leadership, critical thinking and innovation and developing advanced skills maths, science and IT;
  • working in collaboration with any organisation or institution (public or private) that supports the vision;
  • the importance of admitting candidates from different backgrounds and from all sectors and categories of Saudi society; and
  • the need to raise awareness of Foundation programmes as well as wider issues relating to giftedness and creativity

There is still material about programmes and services, conferences and exhibitions, competitions and awards. The online portal has become the ‘National Electronic Gate for Giftedness and Creativity’

‘ It aims to provide the users with quality interactive services that enable them to communicate through educational games, a multi-media library, special forums, and chat groups’.

The fifth priority is changed to ‘education and enlightenment’ but there is no text to describe what it entails. Maybe this is McKinsey’s awareness-raising and communication strand.

The Brochure also explains that, in collaboration with the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) the Foundation has established a parallel unified Arab strategy for giftedness with a vision for 2025. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed and the strategy approved at a Tunisia conference in December 2008.

This involves:

  • Approving national strategies for the sponsorship of giftedness and creativity;
  • Assigning national agencies and institutions to undertake them;
  • Improving existing opportunities for educating gifted people and promoting society’s awareness of the importance of giftedness and creativity; and
  • contributing to targeted sustainable development in the Arab countries

I have found no subsequent update on this parallel pan-Arab strategy, which may or may not be proceeding.


May 2011.