Published on Arab Voices

Explaining boys’ underachievement in MENA: Lessons from Saudi Arabia

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The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the largest gender gap in learning poverty among regions with available data . Learning poverty is defined as the proportion of children unable to read and understand an age-appropriate text by 10 years of age.  The size of this gender gap, however, varies across MENA countries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is among the countries with the largest gender gaps in student achievement in the world.  Available data show that boys in KSA consistently and significantly underperform girls across different grades and subjects. For example, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019, 53% of KSA’s grade 4 boys failed to achieve minimum proficiency in mathematics, i.e., lack basic mathematical knowledge of whole numbers and graphs,  compared to 45 percent of girls. In grade 8, 58% of boys did not achieve minimum proficiency in mathematics compared to 49%of girls.  This gender gap persists in the national indicators of educational achievement, including KSA’s National Assessment of Learning Outcomes (NALO) and the standardized college admission tests.

A new working paper, entitled “What Explains Boys’ Educational Underachievement in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?”, explores the factors that contribute to the gender gap in student achievement in KSA using data from both TIMSS 2019 and the NALO 2018. At the time of collecting these data, boys and girls in KSA attended separate schools on a universal basis starting from grade 1, being educated only by male and female teachers, respectively. In effect, boys and girls inhabited parallel education systems. In 2019, KSA announced that boys in grades 1-3 will be taught by female teachers. Currently, there are few girls’ schools offering boys’ classes taught by female teachers, though the intention is to increase that number.

The results of the new study suggest that, at the elementary level, school climate, early literacy and numeracy skills, and student absenteeism contribute to the observed gender gap in student performance in KSA . A safe and orderly school climate is more strongly associated with improvements in boys’ mathematics and science achievement than girls’ achievement. The findings also indicate that even though greater literacy and numeracy readiness was linked with improvements in science achievement of both boys and girls, boys tended to benefit more from this readiness relative to girls. In addition, boys’ mathematics achievement decreases to a greater degree than girls’ achievement with more frequent student absenteeism.  At the middle school level, the relationships between student achievement and students’ confidence in science, the degree of schools’ emphasis on academic success, and teachers’ age were different for boys than for girls.

Importance of the school climate

Overall, the study findings point to the relevance of the school climate in understanding boys’ underachievement in KSA . Active steps need to be taken to build and maintain positive school and classroom environments where students feel safe, connected, and positively challenged to learn and think. This is especially the case for boys, who may require a greater degree of behavioral support and guidance from adults to engage fully with schoolwork in a structured classroom setting. Where such support and guidance are lacking, boys appear to fall behind in their learning and are at risk of being held back to a greater degree than girls who attend schools with similar school climate. 

Home learning environment

A supportive school environment is important for boys’ learning, but support for learning in the home is also crucial.  By the time students begin attending school, they have been growing, developing, and learning at home and in the community for several years already. The TIMSS 2019 data show that boys in the KSA tend to begin school with weaker early literacy and numeracy skills than girls. More than that, the results indicate that boys’ science achievement is more strongly associated with their early literacy and numeracy skills compared to girls’. In other words, boys who begin school at an early learning disadvantage to their peers are further disadvantaged as they progress through the education system and appear to be at more risk of falling behind than girls who begin school with equally weak early skills.

Absenteeism and missing school time Student absenteeism in KSA is frequent. Students who are frequently absent are consistently poor achievers in at least two key areas of study (mathematics and science) , at both elementary and middle school levels. The rate of student absenteeism in KSA, and its negative effect on learning, suggests that KSA’s policy makers would need to explore practices that are effective in combating such a problem and design practical frameworks suiting the local context to discourage students from missing school time.


Aidan Clerkin

Research Fellow at Ireland’s Educational Research Centre & Consultant for World Bank

Vasiliki Pitsia

Researcher at Ireland’s Educational Research Centre & Consultant for World Bank

Nayyaf Aljabri

Director General of Research and Data Administration, Education and Training Evaluation Commission, Saudi Arabia

Khaleel Al-Harbi

Director of Data Analysis Department & Research Department, Education and Training Evaluation Commission, Saudi Arabia

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