Health and education: Statistics can be interesting

By Ray Petersen — MUSCAT: I love statistics. I can see why Mark Twain uttered his famous quotation of “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He was a cynic with a sense of humour, but it is even more fun to recall the words of Aaron Levenstein. Who, I can hear you asking? Well, he was the Professor Emiratus in Business Studies, at Barusch University, and he wrote: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is vital.” That is priceless!
Of course, I am always drawn to the education section first, as my area of expertise, and in the course of research, stumble across some ‘gems’ from time to time. The first wee chuckle was when I saw that primary school enrollments in the Sultanate in 2015 (undp.org) reveal that 112.9per cent of primary school age children in Oman attend primary school. Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but if anyone can explain to me how enrollments can exceed the number of eligible children, I would love to hear it.
Two other statistics from the education sector prove revealing in their own way. First, spending, where UNESCO figures show that education spending in the Sultanate is on par with the same sector in the United Kingdom, at 4.3per cent, and are about the average globally. However, both countries pale significantly when compared to the Nordic states of Norway and Sweden at around 7per cent, and New Zealand at 6.6per cent.
Perhaps a review too, of how the money is actually spent in schools is overdue as the same statistical set reveals a ratio of 16.9:1, students per teacher, which as any primary teacher will tell you is not a true representation, with class sizes regularly in the forties.
It is disappointing too, that the same statistics reveal no figures for the number of teachers qualified, by degree and/or certification, to function effectively in the classroom.
It’s important for educational authorities to continue to develop an education system that has defined teaching methodologies, as we are still seeing, in higher education, significant numbers of students who have been exposed only to ‘rote learning,’ rather than the current syllabus, which promotes enquiry-based learning.
Personally, I believe in rote learning, as a demanding and disciplined base for academic progression, not only experientially, but through research into the Confucian, or Oriental learning phenomenon, which is charging ahead of the rest of the world, educationally. I wonder then, if the unqualified teachers should be encouraged to teach by rote, rather than “falling between two stools” as many obviously are, at present. Qualified, pedagogically trained, and effective teachers could then progressively take the students into the critical thinking phase of their education, preparing them more appropriately, for higher education? Just a thought!
From a societal perspective, the general life expectancy in 1970 was 50.3 years, by 1990 it had incredibly risen to 67.2 years, and the good news, for those of us in our ‘late prime,’ is that now the average life expectancy in Oman is a whopping 76.3per cent. The population is also becoming wiser, in a literate sense, with adult literacy rising from 81.6per cent in 2006, through 86.9per cent in 2012, to a stunning 94.8per cent (UNESCO) today. My students put it all down to mobile phones, saying that their parents now have to be able to send and receive text messages (“because they are very cheap teacher”), to stay in touch. Interestingly, again the UN says that from 1.817 mobile phones per person here in 2012, we now only have 1.578. Now where did I put that half a phone?
Surprisingly, given the vigorous private health sector in the country, in 2014, only 2.6per cent of the GDP was actually spent on health, and when compared to the United Kingdom’s much maligned National Health Service (NHS), which is brutalised by ‘health tourism,’ it would appear that Oman should be doing more. However, I do feel, having spoken to a good cross-section of the health sector, that the management quality and performance is much more efficient and effective, than are other ministries.
Staying with fiscal matters, there must still be concerns over the employment statistics of less than 60per cent employment, and this is a sad reflection on the lack of development in two areas critical to Oman’s post-oil economy. The first is the employability factor of graduates, in many cases, having squeaked through a degree programme, the graduate is still insufficiently skilled, or knowledge-based, to take up employment as a ‘hit-the-ground-running,’ employee.
There is too, unfortunately, still an attitude problem among graduates, which is not germane, only to Oman. There is a sense of entitlement, a sense that the nation owes the graduate, not only a job, but a ‘good’ job, and that they know all they need. Exactly the same situation applied up until about the 1990s in the (more) developed world of the time, but the pressures of a volatile employment/financial sector relationship forced a situation on the academic and higher educational world, that was difficult to swallow. For the Omani school kids, students and graduates, that time, and those harsh realities, are here, and now.

— petersen_ray@hotmail.com