A decision by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education to extend school hours for the coming academic year has prompted a national debate over the future of education in the emirate. The questions being raised are especially significant given that the World Bank expects a 23 percent increase in the population of 15- to 24-year-olds over the next 15 years.
The Kuwait Teachers Association (KTA) has been a vocal critic of the proposal, saying that “the education minister [Moudhi Humoud] has failed to reason according to documented historical and scientific evidence against extending school hours. We wonder if the minister really understands the extent of destruction to the standard of education, based on her failure to make the right decisions.”
Despite such opposition, the move is likely to be welcomed by the development community. In July 2009 the World Bank warned that if the government cannot reform the education system, international academic institutions may cease to recognize Kuwaiti high school certificates. The bank’s chief concern was the number of school days: the state system averaged just 528 teaching hours in 2005/06, well below the OECD average of 800 hours of primary-level education per year.
As in many other Gulf States, the quality of Kuwait’s educational system is a sensitive subject. Despite the fact that a commitment to education has always been a significant component of the comprehensive welfare system, indicators suggest that the emirate could perform better. The most recent World Bank data available (2006) also shows that Kuwait’s expenditure per student as a percentage of GDP per capita has reached 11.1 percent, 14.6 percent and 82.8 percent respectively at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels.
However, a KD30 billion ($104 billion) development plan released in February 2010 has bolstered the country’s basic economic indicators, while literacy rates are high and enrolment levels are climbing steadily.
The plan designated a significant amount for education, in addition to the KD1.23 billion ($4.3 billion) allocated to the sector in the 2009/10 budget.
According to a survey by the World Bank, in 2008 gross primary enrolment was at 95.5 percent, a rise of nearly 5 percentage points on the previous year. The country ranks in the middle of education levels for the region above Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria and Lebanon but below the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan.
While spending on education may be increasing, questions over the quality of teaching have been raised by international surveys. In the 2007 Trends in Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), which measures countries against international education benchmarks, Kuwait’s 8th graders averaged a score of 354. This was the fifth lowest score in the 8th grade section of the survey and the third lowest in the region, above only Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It was also well below the international median level of 500. It was this poor performance that initiated the present period of debate as to the most effective way to reform the ailing education system.
This debate is critical, given the prevailing demographic conditions. According to the most recent census, conducted in 2005, the school-age population of Kuwaiti nationals represents 40 percent of the total population, or 426,000 people. This is well above the average for OECD countries such as France or Germany, where the percentage of the school age population stood at 21 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
The burgeoning school-age population might burden the educational system, but it also presents an opportunity for human capital development and economic growth. The outcome of the school hours debate may prove particularly significant in determining whether eventually there are enough competent graduates to meet the demands of the local and international labor markets.