International Education & Change in the Arab World by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

 In his definitive novel about a quest for meaning from within the Arab World, Naguib Mahfouz (Mahfouz, 1992) chronicles the journey of Ibn Fattouma (Qindil Muhammad al-Innabi) as he leaves his home on a search for an understanding on the differences which exist between a society’s ideals, principles and values, and how they are lived out on a day-to day basis. Throughout his ensuing journey, Ibn Fattouma undergoes many struggles, both on an existential and intellectual level, as he attempts to determine the meaning of life in relation to who he is.

 The story is inconclusive, insofar as the outcome of Ibn Fattouma’s journey isn’t revealed to the reader.  It’s a poignantly clever twist by Mahfouz, because one is thrown back on their personal existential struggles, and forced to confront their unknown future, perhaps with renewed commitment; at least that was the case for me when I read the novel some years ago.  I was so inspired by the novel, and Mahfouz’s gift as a story teller, that I placed a number of his texts on a senior reading list, which had hitherto been dominated by Latin American, North American and English poets, novelists and playwrights, while I was teaching at an international school in Jeddah.

International schools are in a unique position to make significant contributions to the development of education in the Arab World. However, the caveat is a question. How much are international schools willing to balance claims to their exclusive cultural affiliation and heritage, or an overt entrepreneurial profit making venture, and accommodate the culture and faith of their host country?

  Despite their varied and contestable heritage, all international schools share a common element in that they are social environments. Groups of people, inclusive of children through to mature adults, representing a variety of social groups and cultures, come together in the name of education. Each person in the international school is a “being connected with other beings and cannot perform his or her activities without taking the activities of others into account” (Geertz, 1973) The interdependence of each member of a school is an extension of their relationship in the wider culture of a society. And schools, like the wider cultural site from whence they emanate affirm ideas of what reality is, and how one is to behave and act within any cultural system. (Geertz, 1973) International schools, no matter where they are located, are a microcosm of the human condition and experience.

 I have been fortunate to hold key positions in 2 international schools in the Middle East, and each one has been characterised by its particular, exclusive cultural affiliation and heritage. The schools operate in conservative Islamic societies, and notwithstanding their co-educational status, for the most part, acknowledge the distinctive culture of their host country. They are specifically western in both name and character, incorporating the name of the country which most closely symbolises the school’s raison d’être, and uphold a mission statement with very clearly defined western values and ideals, closely linked to the international curriculum offered to the student body. Both schools required their students to wear a uniform based on the kind of uniform worn by western students in a private and public school setting in the United Kingdom or Europe. At the same time, both schools are required to offer important components of the national curriculum of their host country, which includes the Arabic language, and Arab and Islamic history.

  The most striking difference for me while teaching in these two schools, was how they acknowledged, supported and cared about the host country’s culture, religion and associated values. One school had a mosque for Muslim students, who constituted the majority of the school’s population, and they were able to pray at the appropriate time, and felt that while they were benefiting from an international education, they were also able to integrate into their daily teaching and learning experience, their unique cultural and religious heritage, which outside of the school setting, underpinned the key values and experiences of their family and social life. During the holy month of Ramadan, the school day and lesson times were shortened, the canteen remained closed.

  The other school, while offering a similar highly valued international credential from primary through to secondary, as well as aspects of the national curriculum of the host country, as mentioned above, did not have a mosque, or any indoor area set aside for students to reflect and/or pray. Pray mats were made available on the balcony of an upstairs room, which during the heat of the months leading up to summer was unbearable to most of the Muslim students, who comprised of over 85% of the school population. During the holy month of Ramadan, the daily timetable remained the same, lesson times were unchanged, the  canteen remained open, and those students who were not fasting (around 15%) bought their food, and were required to eat it at the back of the school building, at first having to walk past all those students fasting.  Such insensitivities were not lost on the student body, and did not help to engender tolerance and understanding of some key cultural values in relation to the intellectual heritage of both the international school, and that of its host country.  It seemed to me, at the time, that this was such a lost opportunity to bring together the intellectual and cultural traditions, and the religious heritage of the host country. At the same time, it denied the non-Arabs in the school, an opportunity to experience and understand in real terms, key aspects of another culture. It also denied the significantly large Arab student population an opportunity to associate their own intellectual and spiritual tradition more fully; with the one which underpinned the curriculum they were being taught. The school administrations argument for such a polarising position was that all students should be treated the same, to avoid inequalities developing.  Once again, I was reminded of Ibn Fattouma’s journey through Aman, where justice is the highest value; yet it only generated suspicion and intolerance. (Mahfouz, 1992).

One of the most sought after a secondary school credentials is the International Baccalaureate Diploma, a two year academically, and intellectually challenging, liberal arts programme of study. The Diploma programme is the 3rd credential in a tripartite programme of study, offered by the International Baccalaureate, which begins in primary school, continues through middle school, and culminates in the final two years of high school with the diploma programme.

  The ideals and principles of the IB, while discrete, are also to be found in a number of global organisations which promote inter-cultural understanding, as well as basic human rights, equality, compassion and justice regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, creed and social class, to name a few. These are values and principles which grew out of the League of Nations, founded in 1919, following the Treaty of Versailles, and which were elaborated on in the international charter of human rights in 1948, which in turn, were a response to the horrendous consequences from the Second World War, which ended in 1945.

So, in essence, the IB curricula are more than just tracks of learning to educate the world’s children and youth. Embedded in the  organisation’s mission statement  and in their programmes of study  are very explicit ethical frameworks and associated ideals, designed to nurture and promote particular values and attitudes,  and inculcate these into the personal and professional behaviour, and lives,  of all those who undertake their programmes of study:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (IBO, 2005-2011)

 At the time of writing, there were 2,306 schools throughout the world offering the IB’s senior Diploma Programme. Only 68 are located across the Gulf Arab States, Occupied Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. (IBO, Find an IB World School, 2005-2011):


Schools offering IB Diploma Programme







Palestinian Territories (Occupied)






Saudi Arabia




 According to a 2008 report in the online Middle East business magazine and forum, AMEINFO, the IB is targeting the region for growth in its tripartite programmes of study.  They quote the current Director General, Dr. Jeffery Beard as aiming for a target of 400 schools across the region by 2020. (Florian, 2008). While this may signify a shift by local educational authorities in the region, to indicate an interest to integrate a western liberal arts educational programme with its innate ethics and cultural world view into the national systems of their respective countries, it is extremely difficult to predict to what extent the IB diploma programme will lead to positive educational and social transformation in the countries cited above.

 There’s no doubt that the diploma contributes towards a successful education, and entry into tertiary studies and the world of work. Universities throughout the world acknowledge the ability of IB graduates to adjust and successfully pursue degrees at tertiary level. The world of work acknowledges the ability of IB graduates to cope more efficiently and successfully in the early years of their careers. But, most importantly the vast majority of IB graduates acknowledge that their success was in great part due to undertaking the IB diploma programme.  These assertions are supported through an extensive 2010 study into the IB’s three programmes, undertaken by the Hannover Research group in the United States of America. (HanoverResearch, 2010). It is interesting to note, that this report only dealt with indicators of success which were of an academic and intellectual nature.   In 2001, Judy Hinrich of City University, Washington DC published a comparative study on whether students undertaking the IB’s diploma program fulfilled the underlying principles and ideals of the mission statement. The research compared levels of international understanding among students of the IB’s diploma programme, and Advanced Placement programmes in the United States of America. Hinrich found that IB Diploma students “on the whole did not score significantly higher than did AP students.” (Hinrich, 2002) She went on to further argue that “while education has a profound effect on world perspectives, we also know that the value systems of the underlying ideology of a society have tremendous influence on the attitudes and behaviors of its members. It may take years for that underlying ideology to shift substantively enough to allow a program such as the International Baccalaureate program to exert its full effect.” (Hinrich, 2002) In a response to the Hinrich study, George Walker, the then Director General of the IB argued that the organization should not become complacent, even though it “holds a number of defensive cards in this debate. Its mission statement is so general, as to be very hard to measure. The aims and objectives of its strategic plan are so obviously worthwhile that anyone with a sense of vision will be persuaded by them.” (Walker, 2002).  To date, little further research has been undertaken to attempt to measure the success of the integration of the inherent ethical frameworks, and associated values, which are embedded in the IB diploma programme curriculum, into the personal lives of individual graduates and their graduating class. To what extent are IB diploma graduates, in a state of becoming more caring, compassionate, understanding and tolerant global citizens? 

In terms of the kinds of social transformation which Dewey regarded as essential for the development of a civilized society, and its ability to change for the better, (Dewey, 1916), there’s not a lot of evidence, as yet,  to suggest that the importation of a European curriculum, into the Middle East, or any other non-Western country for that matter,  will have any great influence on the host country’s culture and traditions and how it perceives itself and the wider world.  Presently, in terms of measuring the extent to which the IB diploma program may shift hardened cultural and moral prejudices, the kind of which are bred through fear, suspicion, decades of conflict, religious intolerance and just plain bigotry is extremely difficult to measure.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a graduate of an IB World school, The British School of Lome, is a case in point. This young man, coming from a very privileged background and an education in one of the top private schools in West Africa became a Jihadist suicide bomber and attempted to blow up a US bound airliner on 25th of December, 2009. Another instance from my own professional experience as an educator is Jeremy Strohmeyer.  I taught this young man while he was a first year IB student in an international school in Singapore. Jeremy is serving a life sentence in the United States, for the murder of a 7 year old girl, in Nevada, in 1997. While these are isolated incidents, they do suggest the inherent complexities in assessing the overall long and short term efficacy of a value based educational curriculum, such as the IB’s high school diploma programme, no matter where it is located.

  Yet, despite the overall pessimistic appraisal of general educational trends in the Arab world, and the ongoing social and political instability in the region, there is good cause for hope and optimism that with change comes progress. Early in 2011, the World Bank published a very upbeat report on education reform in the region citing a 2010 meeting in Qatar attended by a number of Arab countries. The report asserts that the next 5 years will be critical for positive reform of the regions educational sectors. A memorandum from this meeting endorsed reports from UNESCO, UNICEF and the UN calling for quality, and opportunity in education across the region. Moreover, the Arab League’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is working on an educational framework which will facilitate coherency of learning along with curriculum reform and to align disparate educational systems in the region with Global expectations. (WorldBank, 2011) It is to be hoped in doing so, the rich intellectual and spiritual traditions of the Middle East will form the very foundations of curriculum reform and implementation.

Nonetheless, these are vast expectations and are akin to Ibn Fattouma’s journey as he prepares to reach his ultimate goal, the land of Gebel, which is to be found on the summit of a mountain. This mythical land is where peace, solidarity, tolerance, learning, understanding and happiness are located. As the novel ends, we find Ibn Fattouma, along with fellow pilgrims standing at the base of this very intimidating mountain, whose peaks reaching way up into the sky are almost invisible. Will they reach their goal?


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