September 10, 2017

Back to school in the Arab world

Children across the world are returning to school after the holidays. Much more than most other places, educational systems in the Arab world face serious challenges when they are not going through tragic circumstances.

Too many children in the Middle East and North Africa are out of school because they live in conflict zones, in dire poverty, are displaced and refugees or face conditions that are not conducive to receiving a decent education.

Furthermore, too many of the children who do make it to school and stay the course to graduate, find themselves woefully unskilled to succeed in a fast-changing world. The mismatch between education and the job market remains a major source of unemployment and social instability.

Schools should enable students to master not only science, mathematics and the humanities but deep critical thinking, a culture of inclusion and the values of good citizenship. Anything else means the region’s schools are failing its children.

A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides a revealing snapshot of at least one part of the problem. MENA coun­tries figured in the bottom third of 76 coun­tries surveyed to assess basic maths and science skills.

Of the MENA countries, the United Arab Emirates led the pack, if being ranked 45th out of 76 can be called a triumph. Tunisia was next at number 64, followed by Saudi Arabia (66), Qatar (68), Oman (72) and Morocco (74). Clearly, MENA schools are perilously close to being bottom of the class in the dissemination of basic knowledge.

This chimes with a recent report by UNICEF’s sister agency UNESCO, which estimates that many millions could avoid poverty if all adults had just two more years of schooling. Education, the report said, has had a proven effect on growth and poverty reduction in developing countries from 1965 to 2010.

For the region to benefit, systemic inad­equacies need to be tackled. These include unsafe learning environments, lack of infrastructure, the absence of teaching materials, poorly prepared teachers and the lack of a learning culture at home or within the wider community.

Public education, which is suffering everywhere because of budget restrictions, has an important role to play in ensuring equal opportunity to quality education.

The systemic problems are compounded by conflict. War continues to take a heavy toll. For all that, more than 400 schools have reopened in Mosul, liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS), and the same process is under way in Raqqa. UNICEF said the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have meant an additional 3.4 million children are missing out on an education with all the attendant implications for their economies and pros­pects. Then there’s Yemen and Libya.

That said, there are good news stories, too. It is heartening to hear of the eagerness with which girls in Mosul are returning to school after a three-year ISIS-imposed gap. Their schools have no running water or electricity and offer only the chance to learn. Their teachers’ dedication is inspirational. They work for free because the Iraqi government has not yet resumed paying salaries.

Then there is the art teacher who helps schoolchildren at the Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan’s largest, to cope with traumatic memories of the Syrian civil war by drawing rainbows and flowers instead of bombs and tanks. There is also Morocco’s stated deter­mination to begin the school year with a new approach, which includes cutting class size and reducing teacher absenteeism.

There is no reason the Arab world’s youth cannot be given the chance to escape the spiral of under-education and dashed hopes. The way forward starts at school. Educa­tional reform is needed, more than ever.

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