Interview: The impact of COVID-19 on Bahrain’s education sector


The COVID-19 pandemic presented significant disruptions in different sectors of the society; the education sector worldwide is not an exception to the impact of these unprecedented times.

In Bahrain, the spread of COVID-19 has required a range of extraordinary responses from authorities and education institutions.

We recently interviewed Dr. Jawaher Shaheen Al-Mudhahki, the Chief Executive of the Education and Training Quality Authority (BQA) to know more about the current status of educational institutions in the Kingdom.

Dr. Jawaher Shaheen Al-Mudhahki, the Chief Executive of the Education and Training Quality Authority (BQA)

We have learned from your recent annual report that you have shifted your frameworks and processes in rating educational institutions remotely. Did this have any implications on the accuracy of the ratings?

The BQA is committed to improving education and training by evaluating educational and training institutions fairly and objectively. In response to the current challenging circumstances, the BQA has established a framework that focuses on evaluating the schools’ responses to any exceptional circumstances the country or the world is going through. 

This framework has been adopted to gauge the appropriateness of the schools’ measures, procedures and practices to ensure the continuity of providing proper education to all students. It does not replace the regular review framework – it adopts a somewhat modified approach and set of evaluations than those provided in the regular review framework. Once the exceptional circumstances are over, hopefully in the near future, the review cycle will resume in accordance with the regular review framework.

As for the review of the Higher Education (HE) institutions, BQA conducted international benchmarking of its Programme Review Framework. The review handbook was also modified to include virtual aspects to the actual review processes. 

The site tour and interview sessions were conducted remotely through ZOOM, and all the required review materials are delivered electronically.

Can you explain the challenges and successes associated with this change in process?

The BQA has successfully evaluated 44 government schools and 17 private schools in the past academic year. The findings of these evaluations highlighted that most government and private schools responded adequately to the exceptional circumstances by initiating suitable procedures and practices to ensure the continuity of students’ learning and maintaining the students and staff safety. Similarly, most schools were able to identify risks and plan appropriately for the exceptional circumstances with mostly sufficient redeployment of learning resources. 

However, the BQA faced some challenges in the evaluation of school practices. These are mainly concerning the continuous changes that occur during these challenging times and their impact on providing synchronous or asynchronous education, which subsequently affect the planning for evaluating the school practices. Another challenge was the lack of understanding by some parties of the school performance classification in which they considered the evaluation as a judgement of the school. 

For the higher education sector, the main challenge for BQA as an external quality assurance entity was to accurately understand what disruptions and changes were taking place in higher education institutions, in order to take those into consideration in the reviews. Several surveys were conducted to assess the readiness and the success of higher education institutions in moving to distance teaching and learning. Based on these surveys, BQA established that higher education institutions were able to adjust to the current circumstances and continue with their operations. Ensuring that special arrangements were in place for conducting online reviews (e.g. comprehensive remote site visit schedules; utilization of appropriate communication platforms, etc.) was also a challenge the BQA faced. 

Despite the challenges which resulted in having delays in the submission of the applications – Institutional Listing Applications, Qualification Placement Applications, and Alignment of Foreign Qualifications Applications – were successfully evaluated in the past academic year. 

Surprisingly, some of the Higher Education (HE) institutions were keen to meet the deadlines for submitting their applications. In addition, the HE institutions demonstrated better readiness to cope with the new circumstance, especially related to online learning and continuity of operations. 

What are the educational inequities that exist in schools around Bahrain? What causes them?

From the outset, all schools in Bahrain have benefitted from the guidelines provided by the Ministry of Education (MoE) on how to maintain students and staff health and safety. With regards to curriculum, assessment and use of educational platforms, the approaches varied. 

On the one hand, Government schools in Bahrain have the advantage of adhering to the MoE pre-defined assessment policies, reviewed curriculum and use of MS Teams as its main educational electronic platform along with a variety of other digital tools. On the other hand, Private schools had the opportunity to decide on their own curriculum modifications or rely on internationally modified curriculum according to the adopted standards in their schools. 

Likewise, different schools adopted a variety of electronic platforms and digital tools to facilitate students’ learning according to their needs. The array of choices available and methods adopted accounted for the discrepancies among schools (regarding their effectiveness and overall performace). The main points can be summarized through the following: 

  • The availability of human, physical and electronic resources which have impact on the quality of provision.
  • The awareness of school leaderships.
  • The inconsistency in the provided professional development programmes and their impact on teachers’ performance.
  • The inconsistent alignment of expectations from students to curriculum and age-expectations.
  • The awareness of parents in becoming more active in their respon ses to the parents’ questionnaires sent to them prior to the evaluation and review processes. 

From the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) perspective, the educational inequities are clear between the Higher Education (HE) and Vocational Education Training (VET) sectors. The inqequities are concerning their readiness to shift to virtual learning or, in general, their capacity to be in line with the NQF requirements. The HE demonstrated better readiness to cope with the new circumstance and to fulfill the NQF requirements. These inequities are resulted because of several factors, including:

  • The financial capacity of the institutions, including the physical and technical infrastructure and the support provided to educators and learners. 
  • The technical capacity of the institutions, including the experience and the ability of the team to fulfil the requirements. 
  • The existence of well-established policies, procedures and formal arrangements to govern the institution and ensure the suitability and the continuity of its operations. 
  • The size of the institutions and the team. 
  • The awareness and knowledge of the rules, standards and guidelines. 
  • The level of commitment toward meeting the requirements within deadlines. 

How does the BQA become more effective in reducing or addressing these inequalities?

The BQA is keen to spread the good practices identified through conducting the evaluation processes and publishing periodic reports that summarise these practices. The evaluation teams engage with the school/institutes which are being evaluated to highlight the positives and areas for improvement, which will assist the school/institutes in developing its practices. 

Consequently, a written report is sent to the school/institutes for it to benefit from the results and recommendations in planning for its development. Low performing schools/institutes are kept under close scrutiny through monitoring visits to gauge their progress. Better performing schools/institutes are urged to share their experiences and good practices through establishing learning communities. Moreover, capacity building events such as the BQA conferences and forums utilise the review and evaluation results to shed light on best practices and sharing local and international best practices

What goals does the BQA hope to achieve in the next three to five years?

The BQA aims to continue maintaining its strong communication with its key stakeholders as it is integral in achieving Bahrain Vision 2030. The authority also aims to improve the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).

Moreover, the BQA will be conducting the National Examinations (NE) for Grades 9 and 12 within the coming years. Continuous discussions are taking place with the concerned partners to finalize the plan for this important project.

What message would you like to give to students and educators across the country during these trying times?

Schools and educators are encouraged to continue their efforts in ensuring the continuity of the education process while ensuring the health and safety of its staff and students.  However, they are encouraged to strive further to ensure students’ active participation in school life, which allows them develop personally and academically in these challenging times. Filling the gap in students’ learning and skills should be of prime focus in the coming period. 

Education and training institutions are encouraged to comply with quality assurance requirements and work on risk and crisis management plans to accommodate global changes. They are also encouraged to update the content of existing qualifications or develop new qualifications, which cater to emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and digital communication systems. Finally, they are encouraged to include individual skills such as communication, digital skills, decision-making, emotional and social intelligence, and creative mindset as part of the content of the qualifications.

Students should seize the current circumstances as an opportunity to develop their decision making, independent learning and technological skills, which are essential skills in the 21st century. Parents are encouraged to be active participants in monitoring the effectiveness of school practices through their responses to the questionnaires prior to the reviews and evaluations. They need also to maintain a clear balance between assisting their children’s learning while developing their independent learning skills. 

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