The first early childhood school was opened for children (3-6 year old) in Saudi Arabia in 1975 and it has not been considered as part of basic education provision because enrolment prior to grade one of primary school was not compulsory education system (Allehyani, 2016). However, under a new education policy called Khaled Al-Faisal, a policy introduced by King Khaled AlFaisal in 2013-2014, all children are now required to attend and complete at least a full year of early childhood education before enrolling into primary school (Saudi Gazette, 2014,). This new requirement of equivalence of 1 year of compulsory early childhood education was supported by Saudi research findings that the literacy levels of first grade students who had not attended early childhood were lower than those of children who had completed a full year in early childhood schools (Allehyani, 2016).
In Saudi Arabia, early childhood school has two levels:
- Nursery level: This is not a compulsory level and it is for children aged one to three-year-old Generally, staff/carers who take care of children with this age group are not qualified with early childhood Bachelor degrees. With a focus on ‘care’, the nursery level can be considered as an extension of the home environment and it provides care and play activities for young children (Alzaydi, 2010).
- Early childhood education level: This level is for young children aged 3 to 6 years old. It is divided into three stages:
- KG 1: for children aged three years old.
- KG2: for children aged four years old
- KG3: for children aged five to six years old. Children in early childhood education level are expected to learn all the required skills for primary schools including emergent literacy and numeracy skills. All children are required to complete at least KG3 (aged 5 to 6) prior to enrolling in primary school (Alzaydi, 2010).
Children who attend early childhood education settings are expected to acquire a variety of academic, cognitive, behavioural and social skills (Kashkary & Robinson, 2006). In Saudi Arabia, children are taught via a Self-Learning Curriculum (SLC) (see Table 2 in Appendix 1 for more details about the content of SLC) which is a mandatory national early childhood curriculum for all early childhood schools. Prior to the implementation of this centralised national early childhood curriculum, there was no formal curriculum or guidelines for early childhood schools as each school/kindergarten has its own curriculum (BinAli, 2014).
The influence of religion is omnipresent in the education system in Saudi Arabia. This applies to the way in which the centralised early childhood education curriculum is organised. The SLC draws from Islamic and cultural themes and includes activities such as Arabic language learning, mathematics and science education, Islam religious and moral activities, the development of children’s artistic skills, health and social education, and physical education. The SLC focuses on the individual child, considering his/her self-development, as well as his/her modes of learning (BinAli, 2014). This national curriculum provides all children with age-appropriate structured activities, including numeracy and literacy activities. The SLC has particular goals for children some of which are: flexibility; play; freedom; human interaction; respect and appreciation of a child’s identity and culture; Islamic beliefs; knowledge and skills; and productive relationship with families. This national early childhood curriculum is designed to be used by those currently teaching young children and for those in the pre-service stage (Allehyani, 2016).
Based on the Self-Learning Curriculum (SLC) in Saudi Arabia, classroom environments are structured into different learning areas (Allehyani, 2016). Each area represents an activity related to a specific skill. The learning activities should balance the children’s needs, including physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and linguistic needs, and should include literacy and numeracy activities (Allehyani, 2016). The early childhood school hours in Saudi Ariba starts at 7.30 a.m. and ends at 1:00 p.m and the learning sessions is organised in eight sessions. The daily timetable includes breakfast time, Quran recitation session, circle, outdoor free playing session, morning tea, indoor free playing session, and the last meeting with the teacher (see Table 3 in Appendix 2).
Recognising in recent years the importance of early childhood education for improving children’s learning later in primary school (Allehyani, 2016), the Saudi government has responded to Prince Khaled Al-Faisal’s call for universal early childhood education by increasing the numbers of early childhood settings in Saudi Arabia. Asserted by Prince Mohammad bin Salman:
“We will continue investing in education and training so that our young men and women are equipped for the jobs of the future. We want Saudi children, wherever they live, to enjoy higher quality, multi-faceted education. We will invest particularly in developing early childhood education, refining our national curriculum and training our teachers and educational leaders.” (KSA Vision 2030, 2016, p. 36).
This quotation by Prince Mohammad bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown-prince— announced a new developmental plan known as Vision 2030 (KSA Vision 2030, 2016). In April 2016, Prince Mohammad emphasized that Vision 2030 “is the first step on our journey toward a better, brighter future for our country and our citizens” in significantly improving the moral character of Saudi children from an early age (KSA Vision 2030, 2016). The Saudi Vision 2030 program has economic, social, and educational goals, in particular, focusing on areas relating to ECE, developing ECE curricula, improving teacher preparation and development programs, enhancing creativity and innovation in the learning environment, improving students’ skills and values.
Since 2014, the number of early childhood classrooms has increased at the rate of 300 schools per year, with a target of 1,591 schools nation-wide by 2019. This rapid development has increased the demand for qualified early childhood teachers (Saudi Gazette, 2014). Meanwhile, the number of early childhood teacher education programs at the Bachelor level degree programs in universities has also increased in across different provinces in Saudi Arabia. Within the Saudi Arabia context, early childhood teachers are all females and they are the only types of teachers who can teach both male and female students.
The Role of Gender in Education Saudi Arabia
Gender segregation is a traditional Saudi socio-cultural and Islamic religious practice. Women and girls have their own private and public spaces, including schools, universities, welfare organisations, hospitals, restaurants and government offices (Meijer, 2010). While gender segregation in education remains to be the socio-cultural norm, educators and policy makers have continued to work towards improving gender equality in Saudi Arabia. For instance, female employment rates have been increasing in a range of sectors, including teaching, medicine, social work, law, administration, banking, accounting, IT, journalism and broadcasting, as well as in private businesses, such as women’s hairdressing, tailoring and commerce (Alebaikan, 2010). Vision 2030 has outlined a number of strategies for national development in order to meet ever-changing demands. A key area targeted for improvement is recruitment, training and development of both male and female teachers. Despite the cultural practice for gender segregation in Saudi Arabia, children under 6 years are considered genderless as they are not categorised through their genders as learners. Both male and female children of this age group (birth to 6 years old) are treated as children and young learners before they reach the developmental stage of puberty.
Early Childhood Teacher Education in Saudi Arabia:
With a national expansion and provision of ECE to all children under the new education policy, the cultural practice of only female teachers can teach in Saudi Arabian early childhood settings has highlighted the challenge of a shortage of qualified early childhood teachers. Today in Saudi early childhood settings, it is common to see a mixture of both qualified teachers with early childhood Bachelor degree and teachers who are not qualified with ECE degree yet but are still teaching. Yet, early childhood teacher preparation programs have a relatively short history in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since the first ECE Bachelor’s degree program was established in 1986 (Alsaleh, 2019; Alyami, 2014). According to the current statistics from the Ministry of Education website, only 56% of preschool teachers hold Bachelor degrees and 76% of these teachers with degrees are not specifically qualified in early childhood education. To address this shortage of qualified early childhood teachers, the Ministry of Education has focused on the development of early childhood teacher preparation programs. As a result, a number of universities have been established since 1986 in 18 different locations around Saudi Arabia to prepare future teachers with a four-year Bachelor of Education degree in early childhood education (Hamdan, 2015).
Early Childhood Teacher Education degree programs are generally the same throughout Saudi Arabia. All early childhood preservice teachers in Saudi Arabia follow the same educational requirements for a four-year Bachelor degree (see the study plan Appendix 3) and they engage in a 10-week practicum during the last semester in the degree program. The practicum program is organised with a sequenced progression of learning activities beginning with 10 days of classroom observation and then 40 days of teaching practice in the kindergarten classrooms.
Pre-service teachers and university supervisor’s teachers are guided by a practicum handbook that clearly lays out the university expectations about how the practicum should proceed (University of Hail, 2018). The handbook stipulates when student teachers are to start teaching and how long they should teach for, as well as how universities supervisors should assess student teachers’ performances and other details regarding the practicum operation. The university supervisors are required to visit student teachers 8 times during this period for assessments (once a week for 8 weeks). During these visits, a teacher education student’s performance is assessed and rated by the university supervisor who complies two assessment reports for the student teacher: a mid-term report and a final report (for further details please see appendix 4). A pre-service teacher’s practicum performance can be rated as “pass ‘ or “fail ‘. A rating of fail at the end of the practicum means that a further fieldwork experience will need to be completed before the pre-service teacher is graduated. [footnoteRef:1] In Saudi situation, cooperating teachers are not asked to evaluate pre-service teachers during practicum period as a formal assessment. [1: Pre-service teachers who received ‘fail’ rating for practicum means a failure and need to re-take the course in next year with the same practicum operation proses.]
Pre-service teachers are also expected to participate in the professional life of the school during the 10-week practicum program. For example, student teachers are required to be a part of preparing for school excursions, and graduation parties for children. Trying to fit into a new community while building a new set of teaching practice and personal skills can be a very challenging process for a student teacher. However, this is a necessary process of becoming part of a community, this process may be ultimately beneficial and allow the preservice teacher to become successful and confident teacher in the future.