Educational challenges in Bahrain

Written by Francisca Rosales

Bahrain is an island nation in the Persian Gulf, comprising a small archipelago. Bahrain has approximately 1485509 inhabitants, 84% of its population is Muslim, and Arabic is the country’s official language. Bahrain achieved its independence from Britain in 1971. Since then, the government has envisioned moving the country toward a modern state (Gharaibeh, 2011).

Bahrain flag. Photo by jorono via Pixabay

Public education in Bahrain is free throughout primary and secondary education (The Borgen Project 2017). The Bahraini Constitution states the citizens’ right to education (Al Khalifa, 2022). The Education Law No. 27 of 2005 states that education is free in primary and secondary government schools, which applies to citizens and non-citizens (Oxford Business Group 2022). Education is compulsory for children aged 6 to 15, and public schools educate boys and girls separately. The Ministry of Education is responsible for directing private and public schools, which have to adhere to some of its curricular demands (Oxford Business Group 2022). The Ministry offers the syllabus for the Arabic language and approves the textbooks related to Arabic and Islamic studies. Students in public schools take modern Arabic, as well as English, since their first year in primary school. The spending on public education in 2020 was 2.152% of the country’s GDP (CEIC 2023a). 

The majority of the country, approximately 95.7%, is literate, and Bahrain has the highest female literacy rate, with 94.95% (CEIC 2023b). The secondary education system is divided into two tracks: unified and vocational. The first prepares students for higher education, whereas the vocational track prepares students to pursue technical careers. In 2019, the primary school enrolment was 97.4%, and the secondary education completion rate was 97.3% (Ministry of Education from the Kingdom of Bahrain 2023). 


According to the World Bank, the lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic affected approximately 1.5 billion children worldwide, especially due to schools closing (Buheji et al. 2020: 474). During the lockdown, the Bahraini government ensured that children continued receiving education. Bahrain’s national wealth eased the transition to distance education. The percentage of students with access to the internet and computers was high (idem: 481). Charities supported families that did not have access to computers, and communities were highly involved and mobilized to ensure the continuity of education throughout the lockdown (ibid.).

Private schools were equipped with online learning tools to record lessons and send these to students and parents (idem: 480). Likewise, public schools also provided online education after completing a two-week training program for teachers. Lessons were available on live television, YouTube, and Microsoft Teams (ibid.). Students with special learning needs also continued their education online, with teachers providing one-to-one lessons together with the children’s parents. Lastly, higher education resumed online, with professors uploading their lectures online (ibid.).

Nevertheless, students and professors complained that the transition to online education was oftentimes challenging due to technical issues, teachers’ lack of enthusiasm during recorded lectures, and lack of organization (ibid.). Additionally, teachers highlighted that students rarely engaged during online classes and that online education was more theoretical than practical. This aspect prevented students from gaining experience in their field, limiting the development of employability competencies (idem: 481). 

Gender in Education & equality of opportunities

According to Unicef, Bahrain has made steady progress in gender equality in education and women’s empowerment (Unicef 2022: 2). Women’s education in Bahrain has been an essential step towards equality of opportunity, especially as girls are educated at the same rate as boys. The first public school for boys was established in 1919. The first public school for girls in Bahrain was established in 1928, being the first Arab country to pioneer formal education for girls (Gharaibeh 2011: 97). Approximately 97% of girls and 98% of boys are enrolled in primary schools, while 91% of girls and 87% of boys attend secondary schools (Borgen Project, 2017).

Furthermore, in 1983, the Bahrain Ministry of Education opened a department for adult education. The department aimed to offer women and men the opportunity to complete basic education in adult education centres. This initiative contributed to reducing the percentage of illiterate women from 76% in 1971 to 11.7% in 2006 (idem: 98). Furthermore, Bahraini women have access to higher education. The government offered scholarships to female students to enrol in foreign universities since the 1950s, and parents often send their daughters to Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to pursue higher education (ibid.). In the academic year of 2016-2017, 63.4% of students in higher education were women, illustrating a higher female representation in university compared to men (Statista, 2023).

Special needs education

The Ministry implemented a program in 2005 for inclusive education for students with special needs in public schools, which would offer educational opportunities tailored to the needs of students (Al Khalifa, 2022). In 2011, the government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and developed a strategy for people with disabilities following the United Nations Development Program (ibid.). However, the implementation of this initiative has been challenging for public schools, and many students with special educational needs still lack an appropriate placement in the educational system.

In the academic year 2018-2019, 8600 students with special needs enrolled in public schools in Bahrain, including children with autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, and Down syndrome (ibid.). These students are often placed in segregated classrooms, lacking the opportunity to interact socially with other children. For example, some schools offer separate recess times for students attending special educational needs segregated classrooms (ibid.).

Additionally, there are no coherent guidelines or governmental standards serving as a point of reference to evaluate schools’ implementation of appropriate practices toward students with special educational needs (ibid.). Public schools often lack a special curriculum tailored to children’s learning needs. This hinders teachers’ capacity to conduct their classrooms, especially as many educators lack the necessary skills and training to deal with students with special needs.

Lastly, Bahrani public schools only offer special education services for students from age 6 to age 15, entailing that these educational programs are not available for pre-schools and secondary schools (ibid.). Therefore, students who later transition to general education in secondary schools often face great academic difficulties following the curriculum, as teachers fail to tailor it to the needs of students with disabilities (ibid.).

The Ministry of Education, however, is currently drafting a transitional program from secondary school to employment for students with special needs, which has already been implemented in the US, Canada, and the UK (ibid.). The program aims to support students’ transition from education to ‘adult life’.

Freedom of expression

Freedom of education is imperative for academic freedom. Nevertheless, academic freedom is highly restricted in Bahrain. The government’s intolerance policy towards dissent has negatively impacted both students and teachers (Bahrain Center for Human Rights 2021). Since the uprisings in 2011, hundreds of teachers and students have been imprisoned, intimidated into silence, or expelled from educational institutions for participating in activism or peaceful demonstrations (ibid.). Government critics are subject to discrimination in employment and scholarship distribution (ibid.). The Bahrain Teacher’s Association (BTA) played a vital role in the 2011 uprisings, leading multiple peaceful protests. The government responded by prosecuting hundreds of teachers and banned BTA in April 2011, replacing dissident teachers with employees they deemed more suitable (ibid.).

Scholars who openly criticized the Bahraini regime were arrested; some had their citizenship and passports revoked or were refused entry into Bahrain (ibid.). In 2011, the University of Bahrain dismissed 117 academic staff members. It expelled 427 university students for openly expressing their opinions, and the government nullified the scholarships of university students for the same reason (ibid.). Underage students have also been arrested, with figures reaching 191, 124, 56, and 41 in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively (ibid.). As a result of their incarceration, these children have been deprived of education. The Bahraini government also executed a student, Ali al-Singace, in 2017, although he was underage at the time of his arrest (ibid.).

Furthermore, the government has been accused of discriminatory practices in scholarship distributions (ibid.). Personal interviews account for a large part of the scholarship allocation process, and many students reported that authorities questioned them on their political beliefs (ibid.). To illustrate, some top students were deprived of scholarships and unable to acquire jobs due to their political opinions (ibid.). Thus, by persecuting educators and students for their political opinions and assigning scholarships according to political ideology, the Bahraini government is compromising human rights and the quality of education.

Conclusion and recommendations

Altogether, Bahrain should continue to offer free and mandatory education for all children from primary to secondary school, with special attention to low-income families. Regarding inclusivity and equality, the government should continue to ensure that girls and boys have access to education and sustain high literacy rates. Given that Bahrain only uses a very partial percentage of its GDP on education, the government could invest more money to ensure that the quality of education does not diminish.

The matter of human rights and freedom of expression is currently an urgent matter in Bahrain. There is a need for legislation to prevent any administrative practices that involve discrimination, and the Bahraini government should be encouraged to include human rights principles in its academic curricula.

Concerning inclusive education, the Ministry of Education should draft a tailored curriculum and ensure educators are more adaptable to students with disabilities. Special needs education should also enable a smooth transition to secondary education and ensure that students have the necessary life skills and social and communication skills.

There should be staff with appropriate training and educational material available to students with special needs so teachers can give the proper attention to their students. Additionally, Bahrain’s school system needs to adapt its facilities to the aspirations of students with disabilities instead of offering segregated and isolated facilities. Resources and facilities can be used more efficiently by shifting to a more inclusive educational environment. In other words, the government should advocate for an educational model that focuses on empowerment rather than assimilating students with special needs to the social norm.


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