According to the Ministry of Education, the country’s education policy ‘is inclusive of many essentials and factors that are related to the domain of special education such as: respecting the dignity of individual and provide proper opportunities to develop his skills/abilities, so he/she can contribute in national development (Article 36); ... taking care of students slow in their studies and work on eliminating causes of this underdevelopment and create temporary and permanent programs as per their needs (Article 55); ... special education and care for mentally and physically impaired students, and making education a common for the children of nation as per the Islamic teachings (Article 56); ... the country should focus on education for physically and mentally disable persons as per its abilities and create special cultural curriculum and diversified training in confirmation with their situation (Article 188)’.
In addition, the national strategy sets out to emphasize developing general education in such a way as to provide inclusive learning opportunities and support systems to all students through the following measures:
- Develop policies related to identifying students with special needs and categorizing them
- Develop scientific tools to identify students with special needs and their needs
- Develop awareness and perception and build policies and work plans to integrate physically and mentally disabled students in general education
- Provide balanced enrolment opportunities for equal and suitable education in special education schools without any discrimination in terms of gender, social status, geographical location or the nature of the disability
- Provide tailored learning opportunities for differently abled gifted and talented students
- Set up school support systems for students at risk
- Provide other or alternative opportunities for lifelong learning for those who are outside the education system or not enrolled in schools.
The Ministry of Education’s webpage devoted to ‘children with disabilities’ highlights that: ‘Education departments must ensure that regular schools are offering education that is inclusive of exceptional students along with provision to normal students. Departments must also work on modification or elimination of any requirements or conditions preventing the admission of exceptional students into regular programs to ensure the efficacy of the education system’. In addition:
‘The education strategy of 2016-2020 ensures the provision of quality equitable education inclusive of all and enhancing opportunities of lifelong learning for all through the provision of equitable opportunities of quality and inclusive education to all society members of both sexes, whether they are normal, gifted, with a disability, senior or illiterate. This effort shall span all education and training levels across all regions and governorates of the Kingdom. In addition to enhancing the flexibility of student mobility and transfer between education and technical or vocational training programs, and between education institutions and technical or vocational training institutions. The first strategic objective of the Ministry of Education in the National Transformation Program 2020 stated to provide access to education to all student segments through the increase of the capacity for students with disabilities aged 6 to 18 from 58,600 to 2,00,000 Saudi children.’
Special education needs
The country identifies ‘special education’ categories but does not provide a direct definition of students with special education needs. Special education categories including hearing disability, visual disability, mental disability, learning disability, multiple disabilities, autism disorder, behavioural and emotional disorders, health and body disorders, language and speech disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and deaf-blind. However, the Ministry of Education’s webpage devoted to ‘children with deficiencies’ also highlights the need for equality in education ‘for disadvantaged children (Children with a disability, orphans and the like)’.
Article 2 of the 2002 procedural regulations to organize institutes and programmes offering special education in the Ministry of Education highlights the objective of special education as qualifying children with special needs to prepare them for public life and their integration in it. Similarly, Article 73 highlights that special education – in the form of special education classrooms, resource rooms, mobile/touring teachers or teaching advisors – is considered an integral part of the school setting and that the school administration is fully responsible for managing those programmes effectively and devoting to them all the resources it would offer to its other programmes targeting other students.
Students with special needs are expected to be able to participate fully in curricular and extracurricular activities inside and outside of school and to make full use of the schools’ facilities. This document further highlights that mainstream schools are the natural environment for students with special educational needs. According to the government’s webpage on the rights of people with disabilities, ‘integration education’ means ‘integrating students with disabilities in general educational schools and providing educational and rehabilitation support services that ensure that they do not fall behind their classmates academically’ and ‘creating an educational environment in the integration schools and train their employees to achieve a healthy learning environment.’
This integration is implemented through two approaches: partial mainstreaming and full mainstreaming. Partial mainstreaming consists of self-contained classes in regular public schools, while full mainstreaming is accomplished through special education support programmes, which include resource room programmes, itinerant teacher programmes and teacher-consultant programmes.
The mainstreaming programmes in Saudi Arabia focus on different categories of disability by targeting two groups of students. The first group includes gifted, learning disabled, physically disabled, and behaviourally and emotionally disturbed students, as well as those with communication problems, who are hard of hearing or have low vision. These categories are already found in regular schools but without special education services. Thus, mainstreaming programmes provide such services. The second group consists of students who are blind or deaf, or have intellectual disabilities or autism, who are educated in separate special schools or self-contained classes. These categories need to be mainstreamed into regular schools.
According to a 2011 study:
‘Students with mild learning disabilities receive their educations in typical classrooms with some support from special education services such as resource rooms. These students also fully participate in the general education curriculum with some modifications and accommodations. Students with mild and moderate cognitive disabilities still receive their education in separate classrooms in public schools. They do share some time with their typically developing peers in noncurricular activities such as lunch or recess. The schools provide special education curriculum to these students, which is different than the general curriculum provided their typically developing peers. Students with mild to moderate disabilities attend elementary schools from ages 6 years to 13 or 14 years, followed by middle school until age 18. … Students with severe disabilities often are educated in segregated settings ... . These institutes provide residence, food, financial aid, and assistance to students with moderate, severe, or profound intellectual disabilities, multiple impairments, and autism.’
However, the Ministry of Education’s webpage on ‘children with disabilities’ mentions that:
‘The organizational regulations of special education institutes and programs administered by Ministry of Education build on the following principles and tenets:
- States have made available the education system and schooling for normal children reaching school age, wherever they are on the vast land of our country, and took it upon itself not to leave any exceptional child without special education services in the best possible educational environment that ensures learner benefit.
- How accepting and adapting the normal children teacher is with exceptional children, is the prime factor towards the success of an exceptional child educational journey along with their normal peers.
- School principals can play a major role in helping children with disabilities more engaged and responsive with their school. Principals are called for more adaptive and more capable management practice in diversifying learning options and supporting those students who are facing challenges or difficulties.
- The school facility designed for normal students is supposed to be free from all obstacles hindering students with disabilities' use of its amenities.
- Education departments must ensure that regular schools are offering education that is inclusive of exceptional students along with provision to normal students. Departments must also work on modification or elimination of any requirements or conditions preventing the admission of exceptional students into regular programs to ensure efficacy of the education system’.
The Ministry of Education operates the Noor Institute for the Blind, the Amal Institute for the Deaf and the Institute for the Intellectually Disabled. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs operates career rehabilitation centres in Riyadh, Taif and Damman, social rehabilitation centres for the severely disabled in Riyadh, Al-Ahsa and Medinah, comprehensive rehabilitation centres in five regions, and the Institute for Paraplegic Children in Riyadh and Taif.
Saudi Arabia has not ratified the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education but ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1996. Article 30 of the 2005 Saudi Constitution stipulates that ‘The State shall provide public education and shall commit itself to the eradication of illiteracy.’ Article 55 of Education Law 1389 of 1970 stipulates that the ministry is to help those who lag in their studies by helping remove the obstacles that might cause such a lag in their education process.
The General Educational Policies of Saudi Arabia were established in 1970 and include 236 articles that outline the overall goals and purposes of education in Saudi Arabia, based on the Islamic religion. Schools, institutes and universities in the education system in Saudi Arabia are under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education.
Saudi Arabia acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. Saudi Arabi's Vision 2030 states: ‘We will also enable those of our people with disabilities to receive the education and job opportunities that will ensure their independence and integration as effective members of society. They will be provided with all the facilities and tools required to put them on the path to commercial success.’
Article 56 of Education Law 1389 of 1970 states that the ministry is to offer special education and care for physically and mentally disabled students, guided by Islam’s teachings that education is a right for all. Similarly, Article 2 of the 2000 Disability Code lays down the rights of persons with disabilities in education. Education includes preschool, basic and secondary education, vocational training and higher education and must be offered in ways suitable to the capabilities and needs of people with disabilities and that facilitate their access to these services. The article also highlights the importance of ongoing assessment of curricula and services offered.
The government webpage on the rights of people with disabilities states the objective to provide educational services to students with disabilities at all stages in a way that best suits their abilities and caters to their needs, as well as respecting the advanced capabilities of children with disabilities and their right to maintain their identity and facilitate the services provided to them with continuous improvement. On the same page are mentioned exceptional education, integration education and higher education.
The Law of Disability was enacted in 2000 through a cabinet resolution. The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia, the most important legal document in the Kingdom, states in Article 26: ‘The State shall protect human rights in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah’, which encourages the elimination of prejudice and discrimination on any basis, including disability. The Disability Code was enacted in 2000 ‘to guarantee that people with disabilities have access to free and appropriate medical, psychological, social, educational, and rehabilitation services through public agencies. This legislation further requires these agencies to assist eligible people in areas including welfare, habilitation, health, education, training and rehabilitation, employment, complementary services, and other areas.’
In terms of policies and strategies, the Saudi Arabian government enacted the General Education Policy in 1970. The policy offers guidelines that are required to protect students with disabilities at all education levels. Goal 8 of the Ministry of Education’s 2016–20 strategy is ‘to guarantee a good and fair education that is inclusive of all and that promotes life-long learning opportunities for all’. Under that goal the key strategic initiatives listed include ‘enhancing education for students with special needs’ and developing ‘a comprehensive educational system that offers opportunities for quality education for students with special needs’. In the same vein, the 2016 Special Education Policy of Saudi Arabia offers guidelines for special education schools and institutes for students with disabilities. It includes education plans and goals.
A 2011 study mentions:
‘The Regulations of Special Education Programs and Institutes (RSEPI) were modelled after those U.S. policies and introduced in 2001. The first regulations for students with disabilities in Saudi Arabia, RESPI outlines rights and regulations for students having disabilities in the Saudi Arabia and requiring special education services. The RSEPI defines the main categories of students with disabilities—mental retardation, learning disability, deafness, blindness, and multiple disabilities—as well as tasks for professionals who work with these students. It also describes an individual education program (IEP), elements of an IEP, and individuals who should participate in planning and providing an IEP. The RSEPI includes procedures of assessment and evaluation for students to determine if they are eligible for special education services. Under the RSEPI, all children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education, individual education programs, early intervention programs, related services, and transition services. The RESPI also specifies how schools must provide these services to students with disabilities. Thus, RSEPI supports the quality of the special education services in Saudi Arabia.’
Saudi Arabia ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000. Goal 8 of the Ministry of Education’s 2016–20 strategy is ‘to offer equal opportunities that are of good quality and that are inclusive of all the various elements of society including both genders.’ According to a 2018 shadow report to the CEDAW committee, ‘The Saudi Government funds women’s education abroad through the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme. However, the Ministry of Education continues to require a woman to obtain a guardian’s signature before she is allowed to accept a scholarship to study abroad. ... The Ministry also requires that a male guardian or mahram (close male relative) accompanies her for the duration of her studies abroad’.
Saudi Arabia acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1996, yet there is no legal minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia to date. However, the CEDAW report noted, ‘it appears that Saudi Arabia is currently considering setting a marriage age of 16 for both sexes, and that this proposal has received support by a majority of Shura Council members most recently in January 2018.’
Linguistic and ethnic groups
In primary schools, only classical Arabic is used as a language of instruction. In secondary schools, English is also taught. Private schools may use a language other than Arabic as a language of instruction. There are also schools for American, British, French, German and other nationals. In these schools, the teaching of Arabic as a second language is compulsory. Saudis may continue their studies in academic institutions where the languages of instruction are Arabic and English.
Saudi Arabia was among the states that voted in favour of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Article 192 of Education Law 1389 of 1970 stipulates that the state must provide special care for gifted and talented students to help them further nurture their talents and offer them opportunities in their various areas of giftedness. Article 193 specifies that the state and specialized entities must develop means for discovering those with special talents and offering them relevant programmes and incentives. Furthermore, Article 57 stipulates that the state must work on discovering and supporting the discovery of gifted students and offering them the needed opportunities through both general and specialized programmes. Finally, Article 194 states that there is to be an emphasis on offering support for scientific research methods for gifted students.
The Ministry of Education established the Administration of Special Education in 1962. Moreover, the number of special education departments housed in regional education districts throughout Saudi Arabia is increasing. In 1999/00, the Saudi Ministry of Education established a new department to support gifted students and to provide better coordination among all institutions across the State. In 2001/02 another department dedicated to gifted female students was established.
In 2015, the ministries of education and higher education were merged into one entity, the Ministry of Education. An agency of Parallel Education was also created and is responsible for special education and the gifted, among other areas.
Article 8 of the 2000 Disability Code calls for the creation of the Supreme Council for Disabled Affairs, to comprise representatives of the then-ministries of education and higher education. The council is also to include two persons with disabilities and two businessmen concerned with issues of disability, to be appointed by the prime minister. Further, Article 9 highlights the key role of the Supreme Council for Disabled Affairs in drawing policies and procedures or revising existing ones related to persons with disabilities.
Article 188 of Education Law 1389 of 1970 requires that the state offer education for those with physical and mental disabilities and create special curricula suitable to their situations. Article 195 states that curricula for the blind and visually impaired should give priority to religious studies and Arabic language instruction.
That said, the special education curriculum is the same as the regular education curriculum, but with modifications and accommodations based on the type of disability. For example, visual impairment books are printed in Braille, while instructional methods and accommodations are provided to students with learning disabilities.
According to the Ministry of Education website, ‘Educational content also includes a lot of other material which provides interaction between learner and teacher experiences, and what educational process facilitates, and what elements of attraction and thrill it provides and it also provides self-motivation to learners and to get many sources and provide many inclusive climates which cover all the requirements that cater individual differences amongst the learners.’
The 2020 Disability Code sets out to coordinate with education and training entities to build and prepare needed human resources specialized in the disability sector and to train them. Among its measures on education and training:
- Article 4(3) lists several specific details regarding teacher preparation, highlighting the need for them to have received a university degree plus a diploma in special education or the equivalent.
- Articles 5(3) to 13(3) highlight the necessary qualifications for teachers of visually impaired students, students with mental disability or learning difficulties, gifted students, students with autism, or students with behavioural disorders, multiple disabilities, health and body disability or communicative disorders.
In this regard, the special education policy in Saudi Arabia identifies the main guidelines on how to cater for students and individuals with disabilities and ‘clearly outlines what mainstream teachers need to do, as well as requirements for specialist teachers’.
King Saud University was the first university in Saudi Arabia and the Arab region to establish a bachelor’s degree in special education; its Department of Special Education played a significant role in the development of teacher education in the field of special education in Saudi Arabia. Now, there are more than 11 special education departments in Saudi universities.
Finally, non-government organizations and international organizations play a crucial role in teacher training. UNICEF, under a joint programme on child safety with the Arab Gulf Programme and the Ministry of Education, completed commitments to address topics in child psychology, child protection and safety and early childhood development more broadly in kindergartens. Initially, a basic training package (completed in 2016) was developed and mainstreamed into the ministry’s training programme, reaching 8,356 educators in 45 regions of the country. Additional topics identified by the ministry and teachers were then addressed through an advanced manual, which was completed in 2018. The UNICEF Gulf Area Office continued to collaborate with the Ministry of Education and the national family safety programme on a bullying prevention programme that has reached 7,558 individuals in the school system, including counsellors, principals, supervisors and teachers. The content features in the ministry’s routine teacher training.
Saudi Arabia has no national education monitoring report. Some education indicators are presented on the website of the Ministry of Education. Moreover, the general authority for statistics publishes the results of an education and training survey.