McKinsey: Bold initiatives to improve education in the Middle East

22 August 2022 6 min. read
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The education sector in the Middle East has come under strain in the last decade, with various crises across the region derailing progress in some of the region’s largest countries. New research from McKinsey & Company puts forward four ways how leaders in the education scene can improve life for students, teachers and institutions.

While there is large variety across countries in the Middle East, a general trend shows that students in the region are struggling. On average, students in the Middle East score around 20% lower on well-known tests than the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

UNICEF also notes that the region is near the bottom in international assessments, such as theProgramme for International Student Assessment; Progress in International Reading Literacy Study; or the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

Primary-age children who will reach a basic level of learning by 2020

Much of the gap with the global average stems from challenges faced in the education system. However, the gap has also been exacerbated by unequal access and poor educational outcomes in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, where wars, economic collapses and political deadlock have held schools back.

In spite of this, a new report from McKinsey & Company suggests that leaders in the education system can still find room to improve the region’s performance. According to the firm’s experts, four key avenues could help reimagine the educational system for the better.

Enhanced teacher quality to improve student outcomes

Most obviously, the calibre of education supplied by any system hinges on the quality of its teaching staff. By McKinsey’s reckoning, the best performing teachers can raise the performance of students by as much as 53 percentage-points, compared to the performance of students exposed to lower teaching standards. As such, investing in teacher training cannot be neglected.

One example of a country looking to capitalise on this is the United Arab Emirates. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE’s Ministry of Education conducted a one-week remote professional-training course for more than 25,000 government schoolteachers and administrators, as well as 9,200 private-school teachers and principals.

The ministry also collaborated with Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University to launch a free online course, helping train teachers on how to operate online classrooms – a vital skill in the lockdown months that were about to commence.


As with any transformation campaign, education leaders should be wary of over-estimating technology. Simply investing in digitalisation will not make up for the absence of a great teacher. It can free up a teacher’s schedule, however, and enable them to commit to more important interaction with students.

Activity composition of teacher working hours

Teachers currently work an average of 50 hours a week globally, but only get to use around 20% to 40% of that time on instruction and engagement with students. The rest is devoted to administrative responsibilities, evaluation and feedback, preparation, and other nonteaching activities.

McKinsey & Company asserts that technology could free up 20% to 30% of that time, however, allowing teachers to spend a greater proportion of the day improving educational outcomes.

Potential for time reallocation by activity category

Whole-child education

Citing an “increasing amount of evidence”, the researchers suggest that while education is often evaluated by how successful children are at tests, this narrow view may actually hinder a student’s ability to perform in exams. As a result, teaching needs to expand to a more holistic, ‘whole-child’ perspective.

In this sense, educational systems should consider going beyond the traditional drive to simply promote the acquisition of skills, and also encompass “empowering mindsets”. This can be particularly important for low-income students, as it can help motivate them to improve their lives.

Effectiveness of remote learning, access, and engagement by subgroups

An ideal ‘mindset’ education comprises five dimensions, according to McKinsey. First, motivation calibration can help students identify what ‘motivation’ means in day-to-day life; then educators can instil motivation – or the desire to succeed and receive good grades – for learning itself.

Teachers also need to promote a sense of instrumental motivation for topics, showing how useful they will be for future lives and careers; promote a sense of belonging, helping learners feel accepted in school to boost their performance; and monitor test anxiety to help make them more resilient for pressure tasks.

Middle East and North Africa score improvement for top mindset measures

Creating pathways for lifelong learning

As Middle East economies look to develop diverse, sustainable markets beyond the traditional drivers of fossil fuels, fuelling a system of higher education that allows for the widespread gaining of skills in later life will be crucial.

Lifelong learning is not a concept which begins when someone enrols with a university, though – rather, it is a concept which needs to be fostered among high-school students. By helping them look beyond their brick-and-mortar schools for certifications, education systems can provide them with another form of motivation entirely.

There is potential for this, even in countries where economic fortunes are few and far between. Pointing to Lebanon as an example, McKinsey highlighted the work of non-profit CodeBrave, which works with schools and NGOs to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue learning throughout their lives. The organisation helps build self-learning proficiencies among the students, teaching them to teach themselves and solve problems, as well as digital literacy.

In the long-term, this kind of project can help boost the number of students in higher education, and help economies to plug high-end skill gaps that they might previously have had to recruit beyond their borders to plug.

Time for change

The researchers concluded that reimagining the future of education in the Middle East has never seemed more urgent. As the social and economic toll of the pandemic unfolds, the experts argue that “innovative and timely investments in the region’s human capital are the surest way to help countries weather the crisis and prepare for a rapidly changing world.”

The research by McKinsey was conducted by partners Stephen Hall and Dirk Schmautzer, and associate partners Safia Tmiri and Roman Tschupp. All four are based in the Dubai office.