Parents wait to pick up their children as boys head out of the gates of a primary school in the western village of Karzakan, Bahrain, on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. As of Oct. 31, according to the U.N. Population Fund, there will be 7 billion people sharing Earth's land and resources. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Learning curve: some argue that any changes could undermine schools’ primary role of teaching basic life skills © AP

As Bahrain attempts to overcome difficult fiscal challenges, education is providing a glimmer of hope for the small Gulf kingdom.

The country has been a pioneer in the region, with the first state school opening in 1919. But it has recently found itself lagging behind some of its neighbours, which are implementing plans to move their economies away from a dependence on oil revenues.

Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030, the long-term strategy announced by the government in 2008, called for the delivery of “quality training to our people in the applied and advanced skills required for global competitiveness and [to] attract new industries to Bahrain”. An independent body was then set up to assess education establishments’ performance. But many employers still complain of a mismatch between the skills they need and the abilities of the young people who have come through Bahrain’s education system.

While unemployment hovers below 5 per cent, the island’s labour market is dominated by foreigners, who make up about four-fifths of the workforce. The government’s main goal, experts say, is to create jobs for the growing local population. “They are not particularly concerned about migrants doing unskilled jobs,” says Omar al-Ubaydli, an economist. “What they want to do is to make sure that Bahrainis have jobs and the kind of jobs which are culturally and economically desirable.”

However, focusing on reorienting the education system to fit the needs of employers in the private sector is causing worries among many who feel this could come at the expense of schools’ primary role as places where young people learn basic life skills.

Ali Fakhro, who served as minister of education from 1982 to 1995, says the top priority for schools must be to teach the youth how to become active members of society.

“[The] second thing is to teach them habits and attitudes that let them think and analyse and become independent,” he says. “If you teach them this, they are ready to take any job in the future, be it to go later to university or into the work market where they are trained.”

But companies in the private sector are often criticised for not providing adequate training for young citizens because they have access to cheap foreign labour. “Pretty much everywhere else in the world, usually the private sector is expected to integrate itself with the labour force and the education system, and train workers,” says Omar Alshehabi, head of the Kuwait-based Gulf Centre for Development Policies.

Business owners have said steps to improve vocational training in recent years have helped to reduce the gap between university graduates’ abilities and the skills employers require. But some complain about young people’s attitude towards their job. “They lack work ethic and commitment to work,” says a local businessman. “Some feel they are entitled to jobs and feel they don’t need to put in any effort.”

As new economic realities intensify competition for jobs, an increasing number of families have sought to improve their children’s chances by sending them to private schools, amid criticism of teaching methods in state schools.

Abigail White, deputy headteacher at the private Nadeen School, says the public education system remains “very text- and exams-driven” and relies on rote learning. “What we are talking about is massive social change, not just schools changing their curriculum,” she says. “It’s the notion that if you equip children with the right kind of life-long learning skills and personal characteristics, they can learn anything.”

Changes to the education system are showing some promise. The latest results published by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, known as TIMSS, show that Bahraini students improved their scores in recent years and ranked second in the Gulf after the United Arab Emirates.

“We are moving in the right direction,” says Ghada Abdullah, from local think-tank Dersata, who has researched Bahrain’s education sector. “The main focus should be improving teachers, organisation of schools and leadership, and constantly reviewing the curriculum.”

Bahrain is set to slightly increase education spending from BD319m ($850m) in 2017 to BD325m this year. Pressure on state finances could mean future cuts, however, but Ms Abdullah and others believe the system can be improved without increasing expenditure if existing resources are managed properly.

“We need to have a vision for the future,” says Sawsan Karimi, an assistant professor of social anthropology at the University of Bahrain. “If you look 70 years ago, people did not have proper houses, no running water or sewage system or electricity. In two or three generations, there was a huge jump. The first fundamental thing is learning.”

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