Despite progress, too many children remain out of school in MENA region

Approximately 22 million children in the region are either out of school or at risk of dropping out.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Schoolchildren listen to their teacher at the Oudaya primary school in Rabat.   (Reuters)
Staying at school. Schoolchildren at the Oudaya primary school in Rabat. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Although most countries in the Middle East and North Africa have made significant strides in children’s education, the region has an estimated 22 million children who are either out of school or at risk of dropping out.

A report by the Out-of-School Children Initiative (OOSCI), a joint programme by the UN children and cultural agencies, depicted the complex and challenging context in a region in which protracted crises, poverty and high levels of inequality between and within countries affect school enrolment.

The number of out-of-school children in MENA declined from 15 million in 2008 to 12.3 million in 2015, the report said, adding, however, that the figure does not fully capture the number of children forced out of school by the crises in Syria and Iraq.

The OOSCI said more children are in school in MENA today than ever before yet work on education remains unfinished. “There are many reasons why MENA children don’t go to school. These include conflict, gender discrimination, educational quality, poor school environments (including violence in schools) and an epidemic of drop out, especially from the lower secondary level,” the report said.

Gender parity in education in MENA is among the worst in the world. Discrimination against females is rampant in rural and poor communities, where girls are often undervalued because they are not expected to work. Many families do not encourage girls to learn, the report said, and others do not want them to walk long distances to attend classes where infrastructure is poor. In addition, early marriage is a problem in many countries, the report added.

Poverty and child labour are barriers to children’s enrolment in school in poor and rural areas, the report said. Though school is officially free in all countries in the region, there are associated costs, such as uniforms, transportation and fees for private tutoring, which is sometimes necessary for students to succeed in class. In addition, children who work to help sustain their families are less likely to go to school and those who enroll in the primary stage are more likely to drop out.

In many places, particularly rural areas, schools are overcrowded and under-equipped. Teachers often lack training and motivation and children leave school with few educational achievements; many lack basic literacy and numeracy. In some cases, school environments are dangerous or unsanitary and children are exposed to violence from teachers and peers.

Consequently, demand is weakest where the quality of schools is low and the costs of sending children to school instead of having them work are high. In areas where there is widespread unemployment among graduates, formal education is less valued and parents are less encouraged to make sacrifices to send their children to school or have them complete their education.

Insecurity and displacement, however, are the main impediments to children attending class in conflict-ridden countries. In Syria, for instance, schools came under direct attack, were looted and school buildings were appropriated for military use. For refugees and internally displaced children, barriers to education include cost, language, insecurity, complicated or slow bureaucracy and not having the right papers for registration. At the same time, large refugee influxes place a huge burden on the school systems of the countries they flee to.

The OOSCI, which is tasked with improving interventions that address the issue of out of school children, recommended that Arab governments focus primarily on resolving the problem of dropout and prioritise retention.

“Ensuring that children attend school regularly requires additional financial and human resources. These should be used to increase support for weaker students, ensure curricula are relevant and improve the school environment, especially where corporal punishment is practised,” the report said, stressing that “all efforts for improved school retention should put the role and capacity of teachers at the centre.”

Other recommendations included mobilising the community and the political establishment to reduce the practice of early marriage; providing financial incentives for poor rural girls to help delay marriage; expanding school infrastructure to facilitate access to school, particularly for girls living in rural areas; and recruiting more female teachers to act as role models for girls.

The report called on the international community to protect education for conflict-affected children by ensuring sufficient funding for education in emergencies. “Accelerated learning programmes should be taken to scale by governments together with partners, particularly for adolescents who have missed out on education due to conflict,” it said.