Muscat: Oman needs to offer secondary schools students more choices to decrease school dropouts and provide students with skills demanded by the labour market, said Dr. Wajeha Al Ani, Associate Professor at the College of Education, Sultan Qaboos University, in a study on the education system in Oman.
Amid calls for a growing role by the private sector and the increased promotion of entrepreneurship, Oman is still grappling with entrenched, traditional methods of education that do not meet the needs of the job market, according to Al Ani.
Despite the remarkable achievements the Sultanate has made in the field of universal education, Al Ani argues that the dropout rates, numbers of repeating students and the significant proportion of students who fail to reach low international benchmarks for reading, mathematics and science, call for alternative models of education.
According to Al Ani, the education system in Oman, which historically depended on memorising and repetition without encouraging critical thinking and questioning, leads to students not meeting the demands of employers who want to employ Omanis equipped with the knowledge, practical skills and technical expertise meeting global standards.
She notes that low-skilled job seekers find it particularly difficult to find work, since 40 per cent of job-seekers in 2014 did not have a General Degree Diploma (GDD). Further, 58.8 per cent of job seekers presented a GDD, 21.7 per cent a secondary certificate and 10.2 per cent had an elementary or lower education.
According to Al Ani, the GDD lacks flexibility to cater to students who might flourish in vocational education. Other countries have matched education programmes with individual needs to prepare students for the labour market, which has led to a decrease in the number of dropouts. Al Ani argues that the Basic Education programme in Oman needs to consider additional alternatives to more accurately meet current and future demands.
Further, Al Ani argues that so-called free schools in countries such as Sweden, Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Qatar better meet the need of students with diverse needs, including students who drop out of school or have to repeat classes. Those schools are publicly funded, but have greater autonomy to modify the pace and scope of the national curriculum. Vocational or technical training would cater to students who normally drop out of the mainstream educational system.
Al Ani points to Lebanon, where vocational and technical training has created new job opportunities for youths and has slowly changed ideas about such training. She notes that in the Arab World, vocational and technical training has been traditionally stigmatised due to the low status of manual work and the notion that it is the last resort for employment.
Based upon interviews with senior officials of the MoE, who were not identified, Al Ani notes that Oman already has forms of alternative education, such as vocational training offered by the Ministry of Manpower, to prepare students to work in a range of industries. Also, the Ministry of Education is working on developing two tracks of post-basic educational schools, one for science and one for humanities, in addition to Adult Literacy Centres which hire high school graduates after they have being trained to teach. Finally, the MoE is working on a strategic plan for 2030 for General Education Schools and Technical Education.
Dr. Omar Al Jabri, co-founder of the job vacancy platform Oman Careers, said the school curriculum, in itself, is not a problem, but the quality of teaching causes concerns. “I think the problem lies with the quality of teaching. The curriculum is very strong, but unfortunately we don’t see any motivation from students. They are relying on private lessons outside and the outcome of schools is of a low quality,” he said. According to Al Jabri, the curriculum is encouraging students to think and be creative, but this demands a lot from parents who help their children.
Khalid Al Far’i, Head of the Education Committee at the Majlis Al Shura, agrees with Al Ani that the curriculum does not meet the needs of dropouts. He told the Times of Oman that to solve the problem of dropouts, for which there are no statistics available, it is “urgently needed to reform the education curriculum in Oman, from the first to the twelfth grade.”
He noted that the Majlis Al Shura has proposed two plans to tackle this problem with the Ministry of Education. One plan calls for introducing a compulsory year before pupils enrol in schools, which is not currently available under the Ministry of Education. Secondly, students in tenth grade should have the choice between completing their study programme and transferring to a technical or vocational programme.
“Those who are on the brink of dropping out will have other fields to study in. The current curriculum is only designed to prepare for academic fields and not vocational fields,” he said.
According to Al Far’i, a study carried out by a foreign company has indicated that these plans will benefit education in Oman.
He also agreed that graduates from secondary or basic education are not fit for the labour market.
“Their study programmes are not complete and they need a real transformation of the education curriculum,” he said.