The status of preschool teachers in Saudi Arabia:

Controversial and challenging concerns 


It is not possible to discuss the status of preschool teachers independent of the context in which they exist, because it is reflected in a different way across geographical, religious, economical, cultural, and educational circumstances. Therefore this paper describes these contexts as they not only influence the status of preschool teachers but also have shaped early childhood professionalism and teaching career and have created controversial and challenging concerns in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

Research objectives:

    • To understand the factors that might influence perceptions of teacher status such as government initiatives or the portrayal of teachers in the society.
    • To describe the geographical, religious, educational, economical, cultural, and educational circumstances contexts as they shape the status of preschool teachers
    • To present some of the controversial and challenging concerns facing Saudi preschool teachers.
    • To find out how perceptions of teacher status can be improved.
    • To identify and describe changes in perceptions of teacher status.

Data Collection:

The paper will survey the views of a large, nationally representative sample of members of the teaching profession, as well as people associated with preschool education including policy makers, supervisors, directors, and parents to assist in the conceptualization of effectiveness, professional development and teacher roles and status. It also aims to capture and present teachers' subjective experiences as members of the profession through semi-structured interviews.

A theoretical theme is developed to guide interviews with preschool teachers in the sample. A total of 36 preschool teachers were interviewed gathering perceptions of their success with regard to the children they have worked with, and the key factors that have influenced their professionalism. This paper presents findings from the qualitative data collected from surveys and interviews, illustrating the factors that might influence perceptions of preschool teacher status such as government initiatives or the portrayal of teachers in the society. In addition, some of the controversial and challenging concerns facing Saudi preschool teachers will be raised during interviews to identify and describe changes in perceptions of preschool teachers�� status and to find out how perceptions of teachers�� status can be improved. The interviews set out with a broad conception of ��status�� to include both objective perspectives – how teachers are viewed by other members of society, and subjective perspectives – how teachers view themselves, their work and their profession. How do teachers compare with other professionals in ratings of professional status? What comes to mind when parents, policy makers, and society are asked to think about the status of preschool teachers? These are some of the questions covered throughout surveys and interviews. Answers to these questions include concepts of esteem and self-esteem associated with being a teacher, of the respect with which teachers are treated and feel themselves to be treated. It includes teachers�� conceptions of professionalism, their reasons for becoming and remaining as preschool teachers, as well as examining stakeholders�� perception of teaching careers.

  1. Geographical Context

 KSA comprises about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula, a landmass constituting a distinct geographical entity. The country occupies approximately 2,250,000 square kilometres, is bounded on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait; on the east by the Gulf, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates; on the south by the Sultanate of Oman and Yemen; and on the west by the Red Sea (Al-Ameel, 2002). According to the 1974 census, the population of KSA was just over 7 million. Since then, the population has grown dramatically. Preliminary results of the 2004 census give a total population of 19 million, of which 13 million are Saudi nationals. Of the Saudi national population, 54.3% are male and 45.7% female. Currently, it is estimated that almost half the Saudi population is under the age of 20 (Ministry of Planning, 2000).  

  1. Religious Context

To appreciate the history of KSA and its political, economic, and social development, it is necessary to realise that Islam, which permeates every aspect of a Muslim's life, also permeates every aspect of the KSA. It is not the function of this paper to attempt to describe or explain Islam. It is nevertheless true that some grasp of the spirit of Islam will help to see, in the correct context, the policies, and regulations, in terms of its efforts to benefit its own citizens. One of the most important aims of education, from pre-school onwards, is to teach children about Islamic beliefs and practices.

The educational policy specified the foundations on which education is based. These foundations are derived from Islam, the religion of knowledge and learning. They include issues of the Islamic doctrine, the values that are embraced by the Saudi society, the manners on which the youth have been taught, and the pedagogical and educational goals that education strives to achieve. Among the most important foundations are:

��To have faith in Allah as a God, in Islam as a religion, and in Mohammed (peace be upon him) as a prophet and a messenger�� (Educational policy, article 2, MOE, 1976). 

��The objective of education: understanding Islam correctly and completely, implanting and spreading the Islamic doctrine, providing students with Islamic values and instructions, acquiring knowledge along with different skills, developing constructive behavioural tendencies; advancing society economically, socially, culturally, and qualifying members in order to become useful in the construction of their society�� (Educational policy article 28, MOE,1976). 

  1. Economical Context

Since the discovery of oil, KSA transformed itself from desert tribes into modern cities. Oil revenues allowed for rapid development in different aspects of daily life, and social changes followed economic growth. Tribal societies, largely of rural or nomadic character, converted themselves into highly urbanised ones, a development that brought a complete change in peoples�� lifestyles and attitudes. The government started a programme of five-year plans in the 1970s ,which resulted in rapid evolution with the construction of the main public services, such as hospitals, schools, universities, houses, roads, and communication systems that are completed throughout the 1980s (Khalifa, 2001).  

The increase in economic needs and the change of lifestyles have caused a growing increase in the number of women in the workforce: many work because their families need two incomes to survive; many others have found themselves the sole support of their families because of divorce or their spouse��s unemployment. In addition, the women��s movement in KSA has motivated many other women to seek work outside the home and to develop careers. Women make up about 46% of the whole population, but the number of women participating in the labour force is about 5% (Ministry of Planning, 2000) i.e. 275,700, of whom the largest number, 211,375 work in education, and 17,726 are employed in administrative positions. The next highest categories for the employment of women are the social services or as nurses. Women also work as typists, cashiers, bank tellers, journalists, and start private businesses such as women��s hairdressers, tailors, or in commerce (Nahedh, 1999, cited in Al-Sunbul et al., 1998).  

  1. Cultural Context

Social and economic changes have shaped the current characteristics of the Saudi society. The rise of individual/family incomes has affected the life style of many Saudi families, particularly the middle and upper classes, and in this, the State has played a major role. It directs development plans by providing mortgagees loans and new patterns of work, some of which are based on commerce, investments, and real estate agencies (Khalifa, 2001). Clear examples of this change in the standard of family living can be seen in the great building expansion of the 1980s, and in the large-scale use of modern appliances and consumer goods within the home. In addition, it can be seen in the high standard of living, which includes travelling, having large social greetings, having more than one person to care for one family, and the employment of private drivers, nannies, and house cleaners (Khalifa, 2001).  

Nevertheless, the drawbacks of this change are, the widespread employment of foreign labour within the family thus making the family lose its influence on the socialisation development of its children. The permanent presence of such labour, and the increased reliance on it, has changed family members�� obligations towards each other.  In addition, there have been increasing concerns about children��s health and safety, as a result of staying with nannies or house cleaners in empty houses or in at-risk families. Furthermore, most nannies and house cleaners may not speak Arabic as their first language. Since children are viewed as the future of their families as well as their countries, the decline of such values is considered to have broader social effect for the wider society (Khalifa, 2001). As a consequence, the contemporary family tends to be independent from the extended family and family size is growing smaller. Therefore, the family becomes more of a consuming than a productive unit (Al-Sunbul, Al-Khateeb, Metwali et al., 1998). The change in family structure from extended families to small nuclear ones has caused a shift in child-rearing and child-care practice, leading to the central question today : what kinds of care do children receive, and from whom? 

  1. Educational Context

The private schools before 1380H, were the beginning of education of the Saudi woman. This type of education has passed through three phases: In the first phase a woman or a group of women would educate the girls on specific subjects such as Holy Qur'an as well as the principles of writing and reading at their homes. The second phase was of semi-regulatory schools which had no curriculum or observation such as that of the currently organized private schools. The private elementary school for girls in Makkah, which was established in 1362H, is classified among the oldest private schools the Kingdom has witnessed. Girls�� education was developed gradually in order to fulfil the social and economical requirement for the state. We could perceive that through the achievements of the General Presidency for Girls Education, the number of schools, colleges and institutions allocated for girl education in the Kingdom has increased remarkably. People are drawn toward women��s education to the point that the number of educational establishments in 2000 became 13,893 schools, institutes, and colleges, which include 2,369,000 female students where 217,227 teachers and administrators work (Al-Rawaf, 1999) .The figures, will show how educational opportunities for girls were developed between 1970 and 2000 in table (1). 

Table (1) number of students in Saudi Arabia

Male & Female Students in Saudi Arabia 1970 - 2000
Year Male Female Total
1970 412,000 135,000 547,000
1975 673,000 311,000 984,000
1980 951,000 511,000 1,462,000
1985 1,273,000 876,000 2,149,000
1990 1,624,000 1,310,000 2,934,000
1995 2,022,000 1,912,000 3,934,000
2000 2,405,000 2,369,000 4,774,000

Free, compulsory, education, and open admissions have led to major improvements in female education. The availability and accessibility of schools and the quality of their programmes and human resources have had significant effects on female educational enrolment, continuation, quality, and outcome. Because of that educational reform, increasing numbers of girls continue to higher education levels. Moreover, since girls in KSA tend to marry at an early age, most of the college girls are mothers of young children.

The objectives of Saudi educational policy are to ensure that education becomes more efficient, to meet the religious, economic and social needs of the country and to eradicate illiteracy among Saudi adults. General education in the Kingdom consists of kindergarten, six years of primary school and three years each of intermediate and high school. The Ministry of Education sets overall standards for the country's educational system and also oversees special education for the handicapped. Early in 2003 the General Presidency for Girls' Education was dissolved and its functions taken over by the Ministry, to administer the girls' schools and colleges, supervise kindergartens and nursery schools and sponsor literacy programs for females.

Preschool education in KSA has a more recent history than that of public education. It is non-formal and includes day-care centres, nurseries, and preschool centres. The Children Act (2005) stressed the importance of improving training, progression and career structure, and recognizing the complexity of working with preschool children. However, it has been a concern that different training backgrounds have produced teachers with widely varying awareness of their role, children��s needs, and the objectives of the centres in which they work. This is promoted by personal beliefs and values which influence their practice and arise many controversial and challenging concerns. The preschool enrolment rate was only 8% in 2002 and is very low compared to the numbers of children. Such low rates necessitate a better understanding of childcare practices at home as well as of children's readiness for school. This indicates that there is a demand to increase the number of preschool centers, and numbers of teachers (which is low in comparison with the high number of children). At national level this ratio is good at one teacher for every 13 children, but when broken down to urban/rural differences the disparity is found to be very high. There are more children entering preschool centers in cities and less in rural areas (UNESCO, 2004). Accurate statistics on the number of newborn babies is needed for the Ministry of Planning to the development of new preschool centers which in turn will lead to provide more opportunities for early childhood careers.

The government of Saudi Arabia has given emphasis to education under the global slogan ��Education for all,�� and it has devoted considerable financial resources toward that goal. The Ministry of Education budget in 1947-48 was SR10 millions, by 1954-55 it was 21.6 millions, and by 2005-2006 it was 135 millions. This indicates how generous the government is when it comes for education but unfortunately the proportion for preschool education is still being limited. The main goal of preschool education is to prepare children via righteous upbringing to receive life��s diverse roles with a sound basis. Nurseries for children up to age 3 were first opened in 1969. In 2000, the number of nurseries reached 126 (MOE, 2002). Preschool centres accept children ages three to before six. In 2004, there are 1320 preschool centres, of which 342 are government-run (public) and 978 are private. Combined, they served 100,032 children (MOE, 2004).  

An important initiative of the Government is the establishment of Saudi National Commission for Childhood (SNCC) which was formed in 1979, the International Year of the Child. It was formed as a living proof of KSA�� considerable concern for children to enhance and develop child-related activities. The general objective of SNCC is to formulate a general policy on child-related needs and activities in KSA and coordinate the efforts of the various agencies concerned with children's affairs and handles all child-related affairs. Some of the functions are stated below: 

  • To organize relationships between government agencies, national associations and institutions concerned with childhood in the Kingdom in order to achieve integration and avoid duplication.  
  • To formulate a national strategy on childhood to help the competent authorities in the Kingdom to promote various aspects of child welfare.  
  • To propose child-related programs and projects for implementation by government and private agencies.  
  • To establish a database on all child-related affairs in the Kingdom, update its data and exchange such data with all the agencies concerned.  
  • To prepare for the meetings of the Supreme Council for Childhood and the Planning & Follow up Committee.  
  • To monitor the implementation of the recommendations and resolutions of the Supreme Council and the Planning & Follow up Committee.  
  • To monitor activities of regional and international bodies and institutions concerned with childhood.  
  • To encourage researches, studies and all forms of children's culture.  
  • To prepare periodic reports on the activities of the SNCC.

The key findings:

The process of identifying the status of preschool teachers in KSA, particularly when considering other applications in different countries, presents a number of difficulties in spite of its short history and successful implementation. For example, it is difficult to verify how many teachers are evaluated. In addition, no national data is available that documents the teachers in this field by qualifications, experiences, salaries, and so forth. Even defining pre-school education from a community perspective can be difficult: whom does it serve? Where is it offered? By whom is it designed/funded/administered? These are only few questions that arise when seeking to interpret the status of preschool teachers in the Saudi community. Table (2) provides a general summary of pre-school education compared to the general education in KSA in terms of centres, classes, teachers, and administration staff.   

Table (2) General summary (2004-2005)

General Summary Pre-school  Education  
General Education
centres 1320 4.43% 29807
classes 5704 2.71% 210294
children 100,032 2.09% 4,783,176
Teachers 9744 2.42% 402,176
Administration 1074 4.81% 22331

* The percentage of Pre-school Education to the General Education 

Unfortunately, the percentage of pre-school centres to the total numbers of general schools is very low (4.43%). In 2004, The Saudi government issued a new declaration, which stated that by year 2010, 40% of children at pre-school age should be enrolled in pre-school centres (MOE, 2004). Evidence shows that it is impossible to fulfil this promise but at least it signals that officials start to realise that preschool education needs much more effort and attention at the country level. As a consequence of this declaration, the government encourage the private sector to invest in building and expanding private preschool centres by offering free- interest, long-term loans equal to 3 million Saudi Riyals (MOE, 2004). The government authorities and policy makers in the MOE realise that the first step to accomplish this goal, is to make the elementary schools in KSA compulsory for both boys and girls, which sets the stage for early preschool education for all children. Subsequently, the Minister of Education announced in September 2004 that elementary education is free and  compulsory for all Saudi children at the age of 6 (MOE, 2004). 

In the light of concern about the declining status of preschool teachers as illustrated by data that were collected for this paper and by difficulties of employment and retention, and yet the relatively high rankings of preschool teachers compared with other teaching jobs in surveys of public trust and opinion that was administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE, 2002). Research evidence indicated that public rankings of occupational hierarchies tend to show that ��school teacher�� tends to appear in the upper quartile of the range. On the other hand, preschool teachers were ranked in the lower quartile of the range (Hodgkinson, 2003). This comparative analysis concluded that the status of preschool teachers is on the way out.

Interviews with preschool teachers in the sample enlightened that the most reason behind this concern is the issue of professionalism. It was apparent that teachers need to identify and access relevant, high- quality development opportunities that enable them to realize their full potential. It includes how teachers define a high status profession, the extent to which they consider teaching a high status profession and the factors that might contribute to status change. They suggested that there is a need to develop a professional standard for the key stages of professional development which involve consultation on the teaching profession��s views on the key skills and qualities required of preschool teachers. Such standards will enable effective teachers to remain in the teaching profession and be rewarded academically, professionally, socially, and financially. In order to achieve a high status career, teachers should demonstrate the capability to evaluate their practice, reflect critically upon it and show improved professional performance that will add quality to their teaching and their practice in the classrooms.

As national attention turns to quality preschool education, ��Asmaa" has just turned away from the profession. Although bright, compassionate, and a recent graduate of a degree in early childhood education, the minimum wage offered by the private preschool center would put her family of five well below the poverty level. Children, society, and the profession lose as Asmaa��s teaching talents are wasted in an administrative job in a beauty salon. Although some of Asmaa��s college classmates will accept the poor salary and benefits because they enjoy working with children, their patience for the low wages is often determined by marital status, life-styles, and opportunities for better paying jobs. But this is not just Asmaa��s story; it is a national trend in KSA. In addition, this phenomenon is an international trend all over the world. For instance, as many as one third of all preschool teachers in the United States of America leave the field annually (Hodgkinson, 2003), allowing low quality care and untrained teachers to fill the empty space. Parents usually endure low quality care because it is accessible and affordable, underestimating the importance of trained teachers (Epstein, 1999). The "dilemma" in preschool education, according to Barnett, (2003) is balancing affordability and accessibility with adequately trained teachers. Although each of these dimensions greatly influences the others, the compensation of those who choose careers in preschool education demands immediate attention.

Another example illustrated how teachers who work in private preschool centers have a very different view from the mothers, which they regard these centers as a "rotating doors". In spite of the teachers�� training or education, starting salary is at minimum, and wage increases are rare. Hours are long with many responsibilities, causing many teachers to quit shortly after being hired. Because of this high staff turnover, those who remain are often required to work with a large numbers of children. Paid vacation, emergency and sick days are not provided. Opportunities for professional development are absent. The only reason that teachers stay at that center is that enjoying working with children. In effect, most private preschool centers are providing an essential service to the parents at the expense of the teachers (Mahdly, 2001). As supervisors have stated that many teachers work in private centers knowledgeable about the poor wages, but persevere because they have a passion and knack for working with young children. They continue in spite of the poor wages because they have a desire to help children, or because they enjoy the freedom and creativity offered in child care (Al-Sunbul, Al-Khateeb, Metwali et al., 1998). However, the appeal of the insubstantial rewards of child care can understandably fade as neither appreciation nor financial support is forthcoming. Preschool teachers suffer the poor wages until their patience or money runs out.

Who else pays? When quality is compromised with poor compensation for teachers, children also pay a hefty price. They are unable to become securely attached to their teachers and to develop relationships with them. Some will pay even higher prices later, lacking developmental skills that could have been developed if consistent and well trained qualified teachers had been available (Gahwaji, 2006). As trained and experienced teachers leave, they are being replaced by untrained and inexperienced personnel (Swigh, 2000). When the best teachers turn to more economically rewarding careers, and the most experienced turn away, children lose.  

Studies have shown a relationship between developmentally appropriate practices and early childhood teacher education (Hadeed, & Sylva, 1995; Sylva et al., 2003). These studies suggest that preschool teachers who have a degree or an equivalent in early childhood education were not only more knowledgeable but also more sensitive and involved with children than those lacking this profession. The poor wages earned by preschool teachers, however, makes it difficult to pay for additional training or education from their own insufficient salaries, although taking additional qualifications seldom results in recognition, status, or compensation (Sylva et al., 2003). Despite having research that shows a positive relationship between high qualifications and effective teaching strategies, no commitment has been made to give teachers especially in private preschool centers the financial support they need. Hard-working teachers apply a holistic approach when caring for children, even when forced to work under conditions that deny many of their needs. Children need sensitive, involved teachers who are knowledgeable about appropriate communication styles and developmentally appropriate practices. However, they also need teachers who are happy and satisfied, who have a sense of belonging, whose own cultural, social, and spiritual needs are being met (Saluja et al., 2000). Worthy wages, opportunities for advancement, and release time would give those who choose this career the opportunity to develop and to enjoy it. Also, it would be a more attractive career choice for new students. In addition, the role of educational research in studying child development has highlighted the importance of teachers�� qualifications for the future of Saudi children (Otaibi & Swailm, 2002). 

Different nations have been developing a categorizing system to define the overall role profiles of workers in early childhood education programs. Based on data from a study that looked at how European Union countries through the framing mechanism of training and provision, roles have been emerged that reflect different cultural notions of what it meant to be an early childhood professional. Preschool teachers rooted in public sector with a prescribed framework of accountability are more likely to recognize their job as predominantly child oriented and educational, whereas the early childhood pedagogues and the workers with a broader based, socio-pedagogical training are more likely to view their profession in a wider context—child oriented, but also family and community oriented. These are issues around the notion of professionalism. The different role typologies would seem to suggest that what counts as professional knowledge or as professional action is a matter of interpretation, depending on the particular cultural discourse used to define and evaluate these concepts (Oberhuemer, 1998).

The ��professional�� in professional development implies expertise, pursuit of advanced training, and maintenance of prevalence in an evolving knowledge base. Preschool teachers in KSA have had a historic struggle for recognition of their qualifications, particularly if they teach in child care or less formal playgroups. Data implied that almost all preschool teachers in the sample wondered if their expertise is valued and recognized by parents and policy makers who pressure them to provide quality care and education for children. Unfortunately, but as expected those educators who have experienced the fluctuation issue of reform efforts may be tempted to ignore important aspects of current emphasis on accountability. 

Several research studies investigated the issue of teachers�� education and training, and concluded that there is massive need for in-service training resources and programs for pre-school teachers (Al-Ameel, 2002; Al-Noaim, 1996; Mahdly, 2001). Even with rapid expansion of innovative programs and new colleges for ECE in KSA, there is a current lack of qualified pre-school teachers to fill in the spaces provided by the pre-school provision (Otaibi, 1997).  One of the challenges facing preschool education nowadays is the pressure of preparing children to elementary school and enhancing the programs�� focus on supporting children��s language, literacy, and numeracy skills. This view is supported greatly by parents and this explained the notion of high numbers of children attending private centers. But if these beliefs acknowledged by government, their implications would require much larger investments in facilities and teacher preparation.

On the other hand, preschool centers have the challenging of attending to the population��s increasing diversity in terms of language, needs, culture, and poverty, as well as including children with special needs. Unfortunately, not all preschool teachers have the necessary preparation to meet these challenges. Even though research shows that teacher preparation is correlated with teacher quality, the level of education of Saudi preschool teachers varies broadly, from a high school diploma to a master��s degree. The results indicates that 56% of preschool teachers in public centers have a bachelor��s degree, while 76% of that percentage are not specialized in early childhood education. Alternatively, 78% of preschool teachers in private centers are holders of high school diploma only which points to the varied level of teacher�� qualification between public and private centers.  Currently, the MOE in KSA does not regulate the licensing of workers in preschool centers. But teachers who work in public centers are required to attend a comprehensive training program aims towards giving in-service teachers practical information on how to implement the curriculum of preschool education. The program is based on the participatory self-directed methodology through which knowledge is gained by experiential learning. The trainers in these centers are experienced Saudi teachers who have received training for more than two years under qualified consultants to become professional trainers in the field of early childhood education. The training sessions are usually between 8 and 10 sessions (Swigh, 2000). It is important that a certificate or a degree is no warranty of quality, or at least, of knowledge and understanding of how children learn and develop, if licensing programs is not in line with accepted teacher-quality standards at both international and national levels.  

Proposed legislation by the SNCC on the quality of early childhood programs require that at least 75% of all preschool teachers in KSA hold as a minimum a bachelor��s degree by 2010, and that all preschool teachers in public centers have at least an associate��s degree in early childhood education or a related field by 2008 (MOE, 2006). If act out, this legislation would create a new challenge for higher education programs, since most workers in preschool centers would be applying to enter their programs. In addition these programs should attend to the changing needs of children, parents, society as a whole, and the profession.  

Implications and Recommendations:

Workers in preschool centers traditionally have been seen as caregivers than as teachers. The movement toward professionalism of the early childhood education field requires attention to practical issues to raise the low status of preschool teachers in the field of education and in society overall. This suggest credential all preschool teachers and staff, as well, preparing all professionals in the field to be competent/experts in early childhood education while educating society that preschool education is an individual instance of life with corresponding practice based on scientific research.

Another controversial issue is lack of accurate information on the different components of the field of preschool education. Current official data include mostly public preschool centers and the children who attend them. Data on private, non-profit, and home centers are incomplete and irregular. Recommendations include developing a complete data set on early childhood education that takes account of children, teachers, and centers. 

Lack of adequate standards for early childhood teacher preparation programs added a challenge to preschool teachers in KSA. This proposes establishing greater portability of teaching credentials across universities and higher education programs. Such proposal could be achieved by creating shared content, concepts, and terminology; shared meanings; shared sense of purpose within the preschool community.  Furthermore, creating professional preparation and certification of preschool teachers that is separate from general teaching certificate.  

At last, one of the major challenges and concerns is that preschool teachers rate retention rates are among the lowest in the kingdom as well as wages and compensation. This concern implies to conduct more research on the reasons behind preschool teachers�� turnover and on characteristics of successful retention programs. This suggestion has policy implications for the government in their quest to improve the quality of preschool education to increase preschool teacher pay, especially at private preschool centers to equal teachers at elementary schools.


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