Qatar, its educational system, and books

Qatar's financial center

A former colleague and current teacher is spending the year with her husband in Qatar, and she blogs about it here. She had a great post about Qatari schools and schooling, of which I have taken a large snippet. Thanks, Cheryl, and enjoy the snippet, dear readers.

As a nation, Qatar sits pretty high on the ‘have’ end of things, and there are schools galore here. State organized education began quite modestly back in 1952, with a single primary school enrolling 240 boys taught by half a dozen teachers; while the system has been growing since then, the vast majority of that growth has been quite recent, as part of the ‘modernization’ of Qatar under the current regime. The Supreme Education Council (SEC) assumed charge of state education about four years ago, taking over from the now-defunct Ministry of Education. One of the things the SEC has accomplished is the development of a standard curriculum – more on it in a minute.

Education today is open to both boys and girls, but all state schools (called ‘state independent schools’) are divided by gender. At present, there are 137 state independent schools in Qatar: 67 for girls and 69 for boys. (I wonder how long this separation will go on; one of the long-term effects will certainly be an exacerbation of the current challenging issue of conservative Qatari women refusing to work in any situation where men are present – but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.)

Qatar Academy

While neither money nor an appreciation for education is lacking at the state level, that’s a fairly recent state of affairs, and the educational system is not without its share of interesting challenges as it works its way through growing pains. One of the biggest challenges for the state independent system is that there are currently no state schools using the SEC curriculum that are internationally accredited. That accreditation is greatly desired because among Qatari, an institution of higher education in the UK or US is most preferable. (One state school – a girls’ school – does have it, but they use the IB curriculum, not the one designed by the SEC.) Another issue in state schools is that English is taught as a second language, but all other classes are taught in Arabic; thus English fluency is not nearly what it needs to be for many graduates even to qualify for university regardless of their grades in other classes. And last but by no means least is the issue of what’s really being learned: while the royal family might be promoting the importance of education, the concept hasn’t necessarily filtered down to students yet. Or their parents. Though teachers in state schools are native Arabic speakers, few are Qatari, and the prevailing social stratum of Arabic nationalities here not-so-subtly assumes that Qatari children will receive passing marks, no matter what. Not all those who attend state independent schools are Qatari (though most are), nor do all Qatari children attend the state independent schools.

Logo for Bangladesh M.H.M High School and College

Because the international and expatriate population is so enormous (and often temporary, with one to four years a common ‘stint’), there is a plethora of other schools, many catering specifically to a particular nationality. There are schools for Sudanese, Lebanese, French, Indian, Pakistani, Philippine, and Canadian nationals, each taught in that particular language and each with a curriculum lifted directly out of schools in the respective nations; children can thus transfer relatively seamlessly from their home school to the one in Doha and back again when the family moves home. In addition to state independent schools (which use the SEC curriculum) or national-specific schools (with their home curricula), there is a whole raft of what are called ‘private independent schools’ with other curricula: Montessori schools, schools that follow the National Curriculum of England and Wales, ones that use the Cambridge IGCSE, or the IB and/or AP curricula.

One such school – the British Newton School – is across the street from our compound; I will spare you the gory details of what morning drop-off is like, but I’ve rambled on enough about driving in Doha. Just add a ridiculous number of pint-size pedestrians, undesignated street side parking on both sides of the road, perennially rushed parents, and a complete disregard for through traffic into the mix; shake well, step back, and let your imagination take over. It’s a treat.

These schools all have an application process (and fees, of course); the population at them tends to encompass multiple nationalities, and the language of instruction for all classes is English. And here is where you will find some Qatari children, mostly from wealthy families: at schools where there is an internationally accredited curriculum in place taught in English by teachers who will hold the Qatari children as accountable as their peers from other nations, and where graduating with commendable grades will qualify the student for university.

The issues that state independent schools are grappling with are pretty easy to identify, and while addressing and correcting them won’t be easy, there are definitive steps that could be taken. Also, the schools and the SEC policy wonks have a decent amount of control in making the necessary change happen in order to achieve the desired outcomes.

That’s not the case with at least one larger issue at play: this is not a reading culture. This is understandable given the historically short period of time they’ve been a modern society. Still, that’s an imposing hurdle to clear from an educational mentality – in the US, there’s a saying about third grade being a transition year from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn,’ and that’s no small transition. A significant portion of a successful student’s knowledge base ultimately comes from reading.

Jarir Bookstore

I don’t mean to imply that the Qatari can’t read and write; they definitely can. The literacy rate here is very high and in addition to their native Arabic, most Qatari can speak reasonably good conversational English. But that doesn’t translate to fluency, not by a long shot, and there doesn’t seem to be any perceived value in using the skills they do possess to read for education or enjoyment. A trip to any of several local retail establishments labeled ‘bookstore’ will make this clear. My favorite of such is called Jarir Bookstore; the logo includes the phrase “…not just a bookstore” beneath the store name and it’s not kidding. The particular store I like to visit (Jarir is a chain) is brand-new and quite big – almost the size of your basic Barnes & Noble or Borders store in the US – and it’s two floors.

You won’t find a single book on the entire first floor. What you will find are computers, video games, a staggering array of office supplies, and an impressive variety of fine art and drafting supplies, but no books (to be fair, the magazines and newspapers are on the first floor). On the second floor, there are more arts and crafts supplies, a selection of educational toys for the primary school set, and finally books. The books take up about half of the available floor space upstairs, split evenly between English and Arabic titles. The English section has a bit of everything: a decent selection of classics, an interesting assortment of textbooks, a hodge-podge of what look like books from the ‘Bargain’ display at a B&N, and three small aisles of fiction. Recent titles and best sellers are among the titles for sale, but browsing was definitely challenging: the fiction is arranged strictly by author’s last name regardless of genre, and so mysteries, popular fiction, science fiction and romance novels are oddly juxtaposed; I will say it made for some amusing book-neighbors. Still, it’s heartening to see books readily available; I’ve a friend who has lived in Doha for nearly four years, and when she and her family moved here, books were scarce. Even more heartening is the wide selection of children’s books available in the Arabic language section; clearly, the powers that be recognize the need to encourage a love of reading at an early age.

Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned

One of the driving forces behind fostering the growth of education in Qatar is Her Highness Shiekha Mozah, and one of the things she’s paying a lot of attention to is changing the cultural attitude about reading. I saw one of those initiatives in full force on the day I visited the Doha International Book Fair, a ten-day event held at the Doha Exhibition Center back in November. The Exhibition Center was absolutely packed: in addition to an impressive number of adults, there was what can only be termed as an invasion of very young school children on field trips to the fair. (One of the most adorable sights I’ve seen in a very long time was a class of four-year-old boys – thirty-two of them – being shepherded through the fair by their abayah-clad teachers. The boys were dressed in school uniforms of navy shorts and light blue shirts, all huge solemn eyes and dark hair, standing two-by-two before a table covered with brightly colored paperback preschool books. Each boy was clutching a glossy yellow plastic bag in one hand and most held their marching partner’s hand with the other as they waited patiently for their turn to approach the table and choose a book, which the vendor dropped into proffered bag. I might actually have uttered an audible awwwww as I passed them.) I saw other groups of school children all holding similar yellow bags, and I’m guessing that taking a book home was part and parcel with the field trip.

While I wandered through the fair (which housed nearly 30,000 titles in Arabic and over 7,000 titles in other languages), I noticed that a significant percentage of books and educational ‘learning-to-read’ toys were aimed at the ten-years-and-under age group. I remember thinking that it was pretty much a kid’s dream to wander amongst the aisles, and that I’d be hard pressed to choose just one book; obviously, that’s the point. Start the reading early and often and encourage, encourage, encourage.

Camel crossing

In the meantime, there are the kids moving through the educational system as it (and they) are right now; it’s definitely a work in progress. That’s fair enough. When your people have made the transition from fishermen and nomadic camel herders to inhabitants of a 21st century city in two short generations, that doesn’t allow a lot of ramp-up time to get everyone accustomed to the wonders (and rigors) of ‘good education’ or, in fact, to even necessarily define what a ‘good education’ means in the context of your country’s development and long range goals.

Case in point: an article in the January 18th edition of The Peninsula (one of the Doha daily newspapers) reports that the Qatar Center for Heritage and Identity, in collaboration with the Supreme Education Council, is planning to introduce Qatari heritage to the curriculum. The center plans to form groups in preparatory schools to promote Qatari national heritage with the goal of ‘bringing about a unified vision for the next generation.’ Admirable.

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