A region in transition
The past two years have witnessed enormous political change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Entrenched rulers have been overthrown and it is not yet clear what priorities new governments will set. It is evident, however, that improving the quality of education will be necessary to human and economic development across the region.
40 years of education reform
Spending on public education over the past few decades in the Middle East and North Africa has been at or above levels in East Asia and South America when comparing countries with similar levels of economic development. Despite this investment, the average years of schooling in the adult population remain low (5.4 years compared to 7.2 in comparable countries in other regions). This is in part due to the extremely low level from which the MENA region countries started in the 1960’s, when average years of schooling were between 0.5 and 2 years. Today, access to education for both girls and boys from primary through tertiary levels is high. Literacy rates continue to improve, although they are still low in North Africa.
Quality education still lacking
Although access to education has improved significantly over past decades, the quality of instruction is still patchy. No countries in MENA score above the international average in assessments like PISA and TIMSS, which compare the reading and math skills of teenagers around the world. The best scoring countries in the region, Iran and Turkey, also score best on the EF EPI. This is further evidence that an adequate level of English cannot be attained with inadequate general education.
A booming population provides a unique education opportunity
Over 60% of the population in MENA countries is under 30 years old. This youth boom, while challenging for schools to adapt to, is also a unique opportunity. Significant curriculum reforms including improved English language instruction can have a much faster impact on the adult workforce than is possible in countries with an aging population.
Commitment to English in education
Emerging governments in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as more established leaders, are considering how best to educate their youthful populations in the 21st century. Many countries invest a healthy portion of GDP in education already, yet fail to attain high international standards. English language ability is a key skill for driving innovation, encouraging entrepreneurship, and attracting foreign investment. Leaders in MENA countries would do well to take stock of the relatively weak English skills in their populations and commit to lasting education reforms to rectify this skills gap. Creating a sufficient pool of qualified English teachers is usually the first hurdle to an effective English language instruction program in public schools. Training large numbers of young people to teach English and incentivizing them to join the teaching profession should be a high priority for countries across the Middle East and North Africa.