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Middle East and North Africa

EF EPI Average: 44,85 Average Population: 30946845 GNI per capita: $ 17132

Proficiency:

  • Very High
  • High
  • Moderate
  • Low
  • Very Low
Middle East and North Africa EF EPI Average: 44,85

Proficiency:

  • Very High
  • High
  • Moderate
  • Low
  • Very Low

MENA CONTINUES TO STRUGGLE WITH ENGLISH

The Middle East and North Africa have the lowest levels of English proficiency in the world, and overall proficiency is declining. Despite enormous progress in expanding access to primary education, increasing the number of girls in school, and reducing barriers to education in rural areas, MENA school systems are not making significant progress in teaching English.

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A LONG ROAD AHEAD

Many of the countries in the region spend more per pupil than countries in Asia with similar levels of development, but this higher investment is not delivering better results. Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates – the only countries in the region that participated in the 2012 OECD PISA testing­ – were all well below OECD averages in math, science, and reading, and three of them were among the six lowest-performing school systems in the study. In terms of English proficiency, both women and men are markedly behind global averages, and the gender gap in MENA is significantly wider than in any other region in the world.

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JUST GETTING BY IN ENGLISH

The U.A.E. has weak English proficiency compared to most countries, but it is slightly more proficient than other countries in the MENA region. English is pervasive in the U.A.E. thanks to a highly multinational society and a large, trade-oriented economy.

Any discussion of English proficiency in the U.A.E. must note the fact that fewer than 20% of the more than nine million residents of the country are Emirati citizens. The EF EPI classifies test takers based on their country of residence, not their country of origin. This gives an accurate sense of the level of English in the adult population, but because many of the people who completed our tests in the U.A.E. have been educated in school systems abroad, their levels of English proficiency cannot be used to evaluate the education system in the U.A.E.

As in many other countries, English in the U.A.E. serves as the default language between people with different native languages, but unlike elsewhere, that lack of a shared native language in the U.A.E. is the norm rather than the exception. It is surprising that English proficiency is so low in the country given the language's pervasiveness. Exposure and usage usually drive proficiency, but in this case people seem to be just getting by.

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MAGHREB EMBRACES ENGLISH

Although historically tied to France through trade, colonialism, and emigration, countries in the Maghreb are increasingly seeing English as a way to modernize their workforces and strengthen their access to Europe. English proficiency levels are still extremely low in this region, but pilot projects are aiming to raise them.

For example, the British Council and the government of Algeria have launched a three-year teacher training project, SEEDS, which aims to reach all 32,000 secondary school teachers in the country, delivering both face-to-face and online English training via a network of inspectors and trainers. Their goal is to raise English exam scores on the national high school exit test, as English scores are currently lower than those in any other subject area.

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SEPARATING ENGLISH FROM WESTERN CULTURE

We might expect socially conservative countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen to reject English because of its cultural associations with the West. Instead, public opinion surveys consistently find that English is widely accepted as an essential tool for international communication. It is this instrumental view of English that has allowed these countries to adopt it wholeheartedly. English is the only foreign language taught in schools in Saudi Arabia, and it is the language of instruction in many university-level courses. There is an increasing demand, however, for more culturally relevant teaching materials in English.

Saudi Arabia’s education system, like many in the MENA region, relies heavily on rote learning and memorization to prepare students for exams. These ineffective teaching methods mean that most students entering university in Saudi Arabia need remedial English courses before they can begin their studies. English is the official operating language of the state-run Saudi Arabian Oil Company, and remains a requirement in many professions in the Kingdom. Despite this strong demand for English skills, the education system will need significant reform before it is ready to train a modern, English-speaking workforce.

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Saudi Arabia

Proficiency: Very Low
EF EPI Score: 39,93

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STRUCTURAL DIFFICULTIES IN EMPLOYMENT

One of the major difficulties for effective education reform in MENA is the structure of the labor market. In many countries the public sector employs as much as half of the formally employed workforce, a far higher percentage than that of most economies outside the region. Regulations protect companies with government connections from competition, subsidize their fuel costs, and impose trade barriers to keep foreign firms out – all of which have stifled private sector growth. Most of the employment sector in MENA is informal, with only 19% of working-aged people having formal employment.

Unemployment rates are very high among young people in the MENA region, even those with university degrees. The difficulties of legally migrating to Europe and other parts of the world leave many young graduates with a choice between being underemployed at home or living in precarious conditions abroad. These inefficiencies in the labor market make education reform even more challenging. The benefits of reform will not necessarily be apparent in either economic growth or increased employment levels, and the incentives for young people do not drive them towards educational achievement.

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GENDER GAP

Scores for both women and men in the MENA region are significantly behind global averages, with women scoring better than men by an unusally large margin.

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GENERATION GAP

Adults over 40 have the best English skills in the MENA region. This differs from global trends, where younger adults and mid-career professionals tend to have the best English.

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CONCLUSION

For the MENA region as a whole, reforming education systems, while essential, will not be sufficient to align economic incentives with educational objectives, whether in English or in other fields. In particular, countries must increase the availability of technology and restructure their economies in order to encourage private enterprise.

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