Tunisian minister of Education: ‘Cultural life in schools is crucial’
Tunis - Since his appointment in February 2015 as Tunisia’s minister of Education in the previous government and during his renewed mandate among the current leadership, Néji Jalloul has opted to take the difficult road to reform national education in Tunisia. That is a journey that has taken him towards head-on collisions with union representatives and some parents.
Education specialists and observers agree that elementary and secondary education in Tunisia has regressed, placing the country’s future in jeopardy. The drop in educational standards started before the revolution of January 2011 and worsened during the transition period.
Like all other sectors, education suffered from instability and lack of direction with various administrations giving it a different emphasis during the post-revolution period.
Jalloul, 59, is an academician from the University of Manouba who specialises in Islamic history and movements. He studied in Tunisia and completed his formal education at the Sorbonne in Paris. From the beginning of his career, his approach to educational reform was based on reinfusing quality education and stopping extremist ideologies in the educational system.
Among his first decisions as minister was banning wearing the niqab by female students and staff. He went as far as firing teachers and administrative staff who had insisted on wearing the niqab on school grounds.
Jalloul also proposed reducing the number of instruction hours for scientific subjects, such as maths and physics, and replacing them with artistic and cultural subjects, including music, dance and sports. The objective was to produce a “happy and balanced child”, he said.
Some social media activists, teachers and parents criticised the idea, accusing Jalloul of “diluting” education. Others welcomed the push for cultural subjects, particularly in light of studies that showed that students majoring in sciences were more likely than those majoring in the arts to be co-opted by extremist groups.
Jalloul, speaking to The Arab Weekly, insisted on the necessity to reform national education so the result was a balanced and happy individual with a passion for living a full life.
“A decent educational space must be provided and cultural activities in schools must be encouraged,” he said. “I did declare that we need to make more room for more hours devoted to music and dance and some thought I was just being provocative and do not realise how important is culture in combatting threats to society such as terrorism.”
“America discovered since 1972 that engineering students were the ones carrying right-wing and extremist ideas. The Americans decided that dealing with intolerance begins with enriching cultural life in schools and universities,” Jalloul said.
Under Jalloul’s direction, the Education Ministry has put in place an evaluation matrix, the first of its kind in developing countries.
The evaluation revealed weak points in the country’s education programmes when compared to international standards. Tunisia trails by three years when it comes to the protection of students from risks and dangers. The country has the lowest average number of required school days and each year about 100,000 cases of school dropouts are recorded.
Jalloul connected the falling standards in Tunisian education to numerous factors, including deficient infrastructure, the combining of grade levels in some rural areas and poorly trained teachers and administrators.
The minister did not deny that education reform is subject to political pulls and pressures. The education reform steering committee includes people with Islamic sensitivities and others with leftist leanings. Jalloul, however, insists that “education reform [in Tunisia] is a civilisational project and a social concern. We deal with it within this framework.”
Regarding the controversy produced by his progressive views on Islamic education in schools, Jalloul explained that this subject matter is essential in educating children and giving them a spiritual boost.
“The proposed progressive content for this subject does not conflict with Islamic principles. Our heritage is progressive and our Tunisian Sufism is progressive and Tunisian jurisprudence is progressive,” Jalloul said. “Islam in Tunisia is largely connected to the concept of humanity, which centres on the importance of mankind. That’s why I consider Islamic philosophy progressive.”