Education strategy must reflect Oman's national vision

Special to Times of Oman

We are all well aware of the crucial role that education plays in advancing civilisation as we know it — enhancing societal mores and cultural values, while developing skills and capacities that shape the best possible lives for the people of any given country or region. Education is the prerequisite to not only individual growth but also to the future prosperity of our country.

From the beginning of his reign, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said made it a priority to oversee the development of an education system that encompasses all parts of the country in its reach, while encouraging access to education for all segments of society. Starting with just three schools in 1970, we now have more than a thousand, and an impressive youth literacy rate of 98 per cent.

By the mid-1990s, the Ministry of Education had achieved what it set out to do — education for all — but as a result of national improvement stipulations, social issues, external challenges of globalisation and the advancement of knowledge and technology, the accent on the education system in the country has begun to lose momentum.

To be fair, the Government of Oman allocates a high proportion of its civil ministries' budget to education. In 2009, education expenditures represented 12.8 per cent of total government spending.

With a steady increase of budget during 2010, 2011 and 2012, the education expenditure reached 4.6 per cent of GDP and 13 per cent of the 2013 budget.

Oman's education sector, however, risks total dependency on the government as the sole financier.
According to a World Bank study, Oman's reliance on public funds to finance its top priority pre-tertiary education sector may put the sector in a vulnerable position if the fiscal space were to be reduced and/or sectoral priorities changed. In this scenario, privatisation of the education sector seems the need of the hour.

It is also imperative that we start equipping our national workforce with skills that match today's labour market requirements. In doing so, we will empower them with the expertise to not just survive, but thrive in today's modern workplace.

Overlooking this priority would result in jeopardising the government's efforts to localise the country's workforce. Consequently, education programmes in the country need to design curricula that cater to the unique needs of emerging industries.

Efforts must also be made to drive home the interesting career opportunities that such sectors offer.
Needless to say, this will require some work as it will demand a change of mind-sets from opting for conventional educational programmes.

Teaching standards are a huge area of concern, given the fact that currently no definitive selection or qualification process is necessary for school-level educators in Oman. To deliver a consistent standard of education, we need to adopt a structured approach.

Perhaps the establishment of an organisation that triggers change through implementing quality standards within the education sector could supplement the on-going work of ministries and school management teams.

This organisation could work hand-in-hand with ministries as one composite unit in developing and driving employment standards for schools and introducing compulsory professional training programs to update existing skills.

Lastly, I believe a crucial element that must be added to our school education system is formal values. To ensure that values are instilled in every child, schools can introduce planned programmes that focus on identifying and nurturing these values.

This format has been followed in other countries with success — for example, the Australian government funds value-education through publications and forums, which are a consistent element in every student's experience.

Oman can benefit greatly in the long-term from a similar approach. Instilling values at a young age will allow our children to evolve into hardworking, honest and well-meaning individuals who can make positive contributions to the nation.

I recommend such changes in the long-term interest of Oman's education and believe that given the appropriate funding, planning and political will great things can be achieved.

The author is the Vice Chairman of National Bank of Oman, former Chief of the Omani Air Force  and an International Advisor to the Brookings Institution. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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