Until the mid-1950s, Sa'udi Arabia's educational system was primarily oriented toward religious schooling that stressed knowledge of the Qur'an (Koran) and Hadith (sayings of Muhammed and his companions). Except for basic arithmetic, reading, and writing, secular subjects were not taught in the schools. There was a highly developed oral culture, however. Nearly all of the students were boys; education of girls was virtually nonexistent and took place in the home, if at all. The first school for girls was built in 1964, and now girls' schools exist around the country. The General Presidency for Girls' Education administers girls' schools and colleges. By 1999 females accounted for 48% of primary enrollment and 46% of secondary enrollment.
As of 1985, attendance in primary school was required by law. Education is free at all levels, including college and postgraduate study. The literacy rate in the 1960s was 3%. By 1995, it was 62.8%. However, literacy among women remains significantly lower than that of men. For the year 2000, adult illiteracy rates were estimated at 23.0% (males, 15.9%; females, 32.8%).
By 1997 there were 11,506 primary schools, with 2,256,185 pupils and 175,458 teachers. Student-to-teacher ratio stood at 13 to 1. Secondary schools had a total enrollment of 1,542,989 students and 119,881 teachers in the same year. In 1999, the pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 12 to 1, and 58% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school.
Higher education was pursued in seven universities and 83 colleges. The principal universities are King Sa'ud University (formerly Riyadh University), founded in 1957, and King Abd al-'Aziz University of Jeddah, founded in 1967. All higher-level institutions had 273,992 pupils and 15,868 teachers in 1997. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 7.5 % of GDP.