By Dr Philip Powell-Davies, Education and Social Development Consultant

Inequality seriously hampers progress in the education system and is most obviously expressed through poverty, and rural/urban and gender disparities. In several countries in the MENA region at primary level up to a third of the school age population is not in school and girls represent a disproportionate number of those out of school children. For many children across the region (and for girls in particular), education remains elusive. While access may have improved, very significant challenges remain with regard to the quality of education provided (poor teaching resulting in low levels of educational achievement), in its consistency across rural and urban areas, and in supply of basic services not meeting needs or demand. The impact of poor quality and access in government school systems results in large numbers of unemployed young people with few opportunities for vocational and skills-related education and training. Girls and women are often relegated to the most vulnerable forms of employment, and men outnumber women in paid employment.

Against this general background, the teaching and learning of English in education systems across the region is characterised by: 

  • poorly trained and supported teachers
  • no coherent framework for teacher development over time
  • outmoded curricula and textbooks, and 
  • a teaching model based on rote learning with little emphasis on communication and child-centred approaches. 

Learning outcomes in English, where they are measured at all, are very low. These need to be set against similarly poor learning outcomes and achievement in maths and science. It is no coincidence that education sector planning across the region tends to focus on measures to drive up learning outcomes in what are regarded are core subjects such as maths, science and languages (but especially English).

It is fair to say that English is regarded by governments and education planners as important for competition in a globalised world order. The challenge is generally framed around helping to produce generations of young people who are able to compete nationally and internationally. The teaching and learning of Arabic is of great importance in the education systems of the MENA region but it is also clear that English (and to a lesser extent French) proficiency is needed to enable young people to develop the kinds of skills which can open up choices to them for further study and especially for work. 

The educational and economic arguments for investing in English are quite clear in this context, though contested by some who tend to view them as meeting the needs solely of elites. To some extent this is a reductive position and ignores the potential for innovation in English to influence the teaching and learning of other subjects (maths, science and IT principally), and the powerful argument that providing access to English opens up opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised of students, rather than excluding them. The benefits of English are outlined in more detail below.

The Benefits of English

The main micro level benefit of improved English skills across the MENA region would be on individual earnings.  The return on investment in learning English, as a result, would be a wage premium.  The premium would arise from higher productivity of individuals (labour/output ratio) as a result of enhanced communication skills.  This includes the ability to communicate with the buyers of firms’ goods and services, as well as sourcing informational resources through books, manuals and the internet.  This gives firms a competitive edge (and hence profits) with which to reward those skills and the productivity levels of individuals. 

An effect on earnings is more likely to occur in the sectors that depend on English for conducting business, which would include multi-national companies, exporters and importers who have links to global markets, and service sector businesses.  In the case of the latter, communication is a core part of business, and value is produced through language-related activity including advertising, marketing, promoting, receiving guests and clients, and servicing. 

Even if the job itself does not require English, language skill could be a possible ‘entry necessity’ or have perceived value in access to jobs.  Given the fact that the key microeconomic impact of systematic interventions to improve the quality of teaching and learning of English will likely appear in enhanced earnings, assessing this during implementation of education system improvements would be important.  Although the beneficiaries of such interventions will be very large and dispersed across rural and urban populations around the region, capturing earnings at least for a sample of beneficiaries/specific target groups should be possible at the country level.    Although foreign direct investment (FDI) and the service sector in the countries of the MENA region are uneven and probably underdeveloped, looking through a long term lens, these are likely to grow with economic reforms and development, with more FDI from an improved investment climate and with the transition from agriculture and manufacturing to services.

At the macro level, although not regarded as a key aspect of human capital development (primary and secondary access, retention and completion and tertiary completion remaining the key issues for most policy makers), language competence certainly needs to be seen through a human development lens as one of a set of skills acquired through education and training which raises an individual’s potential productivity. 

‘Language capital’ satisfies three characteristics of human capital development:

  1. it is embodied in the person;  
  2. it is costly to create (both in terms of financial costs and opportunity cost of time) and entails returns over a period after investment costs are incurred, and 
  3. it is productive.   

The positive relationship between improved human capital and economic growth is well established.  Employers get an increased skills pool for a given amount of labour, which increases efficiency and output.   

If successful, long-term investments to improve the teaching and learning of English in the countries of the MENA region over a period of 5-10 years could improve the ability of businesses to trade, especially to export, leading to growth.  Merchants tend to follow the language of customers in the destination country of their products.  Better English skills could help traders understand and meet the needs of customers, meet import regulations and standards of destination countries, and better negotiate commercial terms of trade.  It is likely that even if these exports (-and imports) are not to (-from) English speaking countries, English would tend to be by default the common language and the more appropriate language to engage in commercially.  For MENA countries this is important, given the significance of both the export and import sectors to the economy, which have been growing over the past 10 years, demonstrating a trend of increased openness to the world economy.   

No country in a globalised world can afford to remain in isolation. Owing to competition, a country can obtain optimum advantage from its buying and selling in the world only through having adequate knowledge of trade data and procedures which tend to be in English.  Foreign trade statistics are also indispensable for economic development planning, framing commercial policies, conducting trade negotiations, and making bilateral, regional and international arrangements for promotion of trade. Hence, with patterns of trade with English-speaking/Western countries growing, it makes even more sense for the countries of the MENA region to be proficient in the English language. According to the World Bank’s annual ‘Doing Business’ Reports 2014/2015, the indicators in MENA are gradually improving making it easier to do business with most of the economies of the region. With all procedures including form-filling, entrepreneurship requirements and databases in English, greater proficiency in the language will help to attract a larger segment of society to set up businesses and attract foreign customers– thus, in the longer term helping to make entrepreneurship more inclusive. In particular, increased English skills alongside generally low labour costs could help the MENA countries become a destination of outsourcing particularly where language is a key determining skill. 

Although English is certainly not a determinant high on the list of potential foreign investors (political instability and poor governance and infrastructure are the most prominent deterrents of FDI), over time, an English-speaking population would be attractive to foreign investors.  However, security concerns exercise a dominant effect in holding back such developments.

While the above benefits depend largely on those sectors where language communication is necessary, perhaps the more convincing macroeconomic level benefit would be the potentially higher level of remittances from (those countries with significant numbers of) migrants with improved English skills.  With a common trend of migration, skilled workers lose out on better income opportunities due to their limited knowledge of English and poor communication skills, particularly in the case of the services sector. Learning English will lead to greater assimilation in foreign countries as well as greater knowledge of their laws, and people’s personal rights in that context. 

In the destination countries (outside the MENA region) of migrants, English is likely to be by default the common language.  This could result in a remittance effect, firstly from simply greater numbers of English-speaking emigrants demanded in other countries, and secondly from higher wage premiums for the English skills they possess.  Remittances are a core part of the economies of several countries in the region and therefore English language promotion to this end is an important macroeconomic benefit.  


The issue of access in analysis of education interventions is important.  Where the teaching and learning of English can be promoted through specific interventions, access to English language learning will depend on general access to schooling.  In several of the countries of the region this is a significant challenge – not least in Syria, Iraq. Libya and Yemen for example – though in recent years countries such as Egypt have made some progress in bringing children into school, with civil society organisations increasingly working with government to address access issues for the most marginalised in society.  Hence we see reasonable enrolment rates in primary schooling which demonstrates that the school populations could receive improved language training as a result of access to regular schooling. 

The decision to participate in learning, however, depends on a number of issues – cost is one, but more especially the comparison of costs versus the benefits to the individual and household.  There are clearly tangible benefits such as the economic returns from improved earning opportunities, and intangible non-economic benefits that can come from English language learning such as self-esteem, social status, bargaining power, joy of learning, cognitive skills and access to information, for example, from a largely English-based internet.

The perceived costs and benefits to parents generally matter in analysis of access, and perceptions generally depend on the information available to parents.  This can be affected when parents have limited engagement in and knowledge about a child’s schooling as is many poorer societies.  

Teaching Science and Maths through English

Some governments of the region have invested in programmes to teach Science and Maths through the medium of English. The argument in support of such English-medium policies is that teaching students subjects in English from an early age at the primary level will facilitate their smoother transition to secondary schooling and will lead to higher levels of comprehension and ‘use’ of subject knowledge. This is a much contested area not least because of the huge challenges it poses for governments in its implementation.

To introduce large-scale programmes of English-medium subject teaching, the following (very demanding) suite of factors needs to be considered:

  • teachers need to be able to speak the language well enough to use it for teaching their subject (and governments need to resource language improvement training to facilitate this);
  • learners need to have adequate levels of language ability to use it for learning;
  • teachers need to have the specialist expertise they need to teach their subject to learners with low levels of language ability (governments need to fund training them and to develop the training capacity to do this);
  • extra support will be required for disadvantaged and low-performing schools;
  • learners’ cognitive and literacy abilities in their first language also need to be enhanced;
  • trained English language teachers should be involved in programmes (though not necessarily as ‘substitute’ subject teachers) and any necessary changes to their training, syllabus and materials need to be effected;
  • appropriate (bilingual) textbooks designed for learners working in a second/foreign language need to be selected;
  • school heads/managers need to be trained to operate English-medium education in their schools.

Expecting all teachers and learners of a subject in all schools to reach high standards using at best a second language (and much more likely to be a foreign language) in which few may be comfortable, is a huge challenge to the education system, and it is difficult to imagine that it could be done unless all the conditions above are fulfilled. 

Probably the best way to introduce a change in the medium of language across the education system is to do it gradually and cumulatively over a long period of time, trailing and monitoring interventions carefully, generating expertise over time and (assuming commitment is in place) scaling it up over many years. This will involve more than providing short-term language upgrading for teachers – it will require a suite of complementary interventions covering trainer and teacher training, materials development, strengthening mentoring systems and providing high-level capacity development. 

Changing the medium of instruction in all schools is a major undertaking. Executed poorly, the shift to English medium education can damage educational standards and spread discontent in the community. 

Linking the teaching of such subjects in English to vocational training, students can become better masters of their trades once they enter the labour force if they have acquired functional competency in English. Many skilled and semi-skilled trades require the ability to read and understand instructions on machinery or warning labels on equipment and chemicals. They also need to differentiate between various products available in the market to make a rational choice about what they buy, thus empowering them in their work.  For those skilled and semi-skilled workers who work outside their own countries the ability to communicate in English and develop a functional or operational competency in the language will open up access to better paid jobs.


Questions of access tend to receive higher policy attention than quality (the latter is not a part of the Millennium Development Goal targets, but is a key part of learning) especially when both are competing for the same budget. Any intervention to improve the learning of English will thus have to ensure quality as it will entail capacity building (including teacher and trainer training) and mainstreaming provision and teaching methods into government education programmes.  Some of the quality issues that would be dealt with through such an intervention to improve teaching and learning of English would include: 

  • assured high standards from innovative learning methods; 
  • improved mentoring and classroom-based support for English teachers; and
  • enhanced child-centred approaches used in the classroom. 

The extensive literature on language training indicates that formal training without sufficient exposure to English in the immediate surroundings of the student (that is in the community and at home) leads to poorer learning outcomes.  This is a constraint that would need to be examined in terms of the use of media to support work being conducted face to face.

Analysis of education programmes usually incorporates the question of whether there could be an access-quality trade-off.  This can occur if, for example, increased demand and participation arising from quality outstrips supply capacity - that is if both access and quality objectives compete for the same budget. Provision of some training/learning through media has some of the attributes of a public good as once programmes are broadcasted, they are provided to all who own communication outlets – TV, radio and mobile phones - at no additional cost.

The Social Dimensions of English

It is recognised that the poor do not generally benefit greatly from the programmes of support, whether from Government, NGOs and other sources. For the extreme poor, there is usually ‘no way out’ from limited or no access to employment, incomes, finance, credit, savings, and social safety. Women experience deprivation more acutely than men, including physical, sexual and verbal harassment; exclusion from local arbitration systems and other decision making processes; and fear of theft and robbery. The need to pay ‘protection money’ to extortionist gangs is a daily reality for women-headed households. Elderly, disabled or chronically ill people, with no family support, are extremely vulnerable. Some 40% of the elderly belong to poor households, with higher levels amongst the extreme poor. 

Compounded with often poor law enforcement system and a patriarchal society that in some circumstances considers the poor almost to be at fault for their poverty, the few coping mechanisms available to the extreme poor are fast eroding. Households often collapse. Children are sent to work at a young age in many urban and rural societies across the MENA region, and are highly vulnerable to all forms of exploitation. A lack of awareness as to their rights and dues prevents the extreme poor from being able to articulate their needs, or use the existing political systems to make their voice heard.

Improving English teaching and learning offers an opportunity to specifically address some of the issues above because access to English could potentially help to:

  • advocate for reform, in order to align policies and programmes to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged;
  • reform power structures that prevent poor/disadvantaged people being able to demand and access services and entitlements from local government and other providers;
  • increase livelihood opportunities by helping to increase incomes and diversify income sources, improving food security, nutritional intake, and hygiene practices; improving local markets and empowering the poor to take advantage of market opportunities in trade and employment; strengthening SMEs and SME support services;
  • reduce vulnerability by enhancing economic assets and improving public and private service delivery; 
  • reduce social, economic and political exclusion by building capacity in the provision of governmental social services; expanding social protection and credit-extension schemes and aligning them to needs of the poor; reforming laws governing the usage of state-owned lands;
  • enhance the capabilities of children to move out of poverty; 
  • mobilise communities and build partnerships between the private and public sector and within the private sector, for provision of key services and social protection programmes; developing whole community approaches; 
  • develop innovative programmes and partnerships with local government and business and increasing their awareness of and ability to address the needs of the extreme poor; and
  • enhance the awareness of the poor and disadvantaged through skills transfer and lesson learning.