The early signs of a new academic year are everywhere. It is September, and the few international schools that open their doors during the last week of August are already sending their school buses roaring around the streets of Egypt’s major cities.
Hundreds of students along with their parents are cramming the country’s stationary shops to buy their supply requirements.
But with the early signs of a new academic year come late signs telling us that our educational status in the Arab world is far from perfect. Huge numbers of young children in Egypt are working as street cleaners, Tok-Tok drivers, or in shops and homes.
The vast majority of them have dropped out of school or have never been enrolled in the first place.
Others have been facing the dilemma of schools that have been wrecked in conflict-stricken areas or have been displaced to areas with no schools.
The millions of children who are blessed with the fact that they still go to school often receive an extremely low quality of education that will only guarantee unemployment in the future.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF tells us that while millions of children and young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are starting their new school year, an estimated 9.3 million children between the ages of 15 and 17 are still out of school. And guess what? Girls account for just over half of all out-of-school 15 to 17-year-olds in the MENA region.
This means that more than one third of adolescents in this age group are out of school, which in turn means that in a few years’ time more than one third of the Arab countries’ youth population will be illiterate.
They will not know how to read and write. And more than half of this illiterate youth population will be girls getting ready to get married and give birth to children as illiterate mothers.
UNICEF says that the cost of conflict in this part of the world has been enormous. An estimated three million out-of-school children would have been enrolled in education had the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen not occurred, it says.
At least 2,160 education facilities have been attacked in the region since 2014. According to a situation analysis of Syria from last July, a total of 2.1 million children in the country are estimated to be out of school, with a further 1.3 million at risk of dropping out.
Displaced communities remain significantly underserved, with most internally displaced people (IDP) camps having insufficient or non-existent education services.
More than one in three schools in Syria have been damaged or destroyed, while others are used for purposes not related to education such as shelter for displaced people.
In the northwest of the country, the continuation of hostilities has resulted in the destruction of an additional 45 schools and in 400,000 children not being able to attend their final exams.
An even worse account from the UN refugee agency UNHCR on Yemen points to education becoming a luxury for most Yemeni children, with children regularly seen walking to school barefoot, carrying their notebooks and pencils in plastic bags rather than in school bags.
Some two million children in the country are estimated to be out of school, almost three times the number of out-of-school children at the beginning of the war.
In areas of active conflict, it is estimated that only one in three children attends school due to safety concerns, displacement, the unavailability of teachers and destroyed or damaged schools.
In addition to the deteriorating situation caused by the conflict in Yemen, the dire economic situation is keeping parents from sending their children to schools in areas where there are operating schools.
The report goes on to conclude that in a country where 81 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line, and ten million people are one step away from starvation and famine, it is no wonder families are not able to prioritise school for their children.
Importance Of Education
Yet, education cannot wait, and providing un-interrupted, quality education to children, including displaced children, is a way to ensure a sustainable end to their displacement once the active conflict ends and the basis for a more stable future.
Education helps to protect children from war-time abuses, such as recruitment into the armed forces, and it helps families to break the cycle of poverty and supports the country as a whole once the recovery and reconstruction starts.
In Iraq, the crisis is multi-faceted with threads of the Islamic State (IS) group, child labour, psychological drama, poverty and war intertwined.
ReliefWeb, a digital service for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says that as schools continue to re-open in areas of Iraq formerly occupied by IS where children bore the brunt of the conflict and had to quit school for different reasons, many of these children, especially those drafted into armed groups, are in desperate need of psychosocial support to help them to reintegrate into their education after this was so violently punctuated by factors beyond their control.
Other children in Iraq had to drop out of school following the death of a relative in order to support their families by seeking work.
The numbers of young children that were forced to join military forces, whether with IS or with the different groups fighting IS, are also alarming, but not as alarming as the traumatic psychological effects they now suffer.
The situation of education in the conflict-stricken areas of the Arab world is horrific. However, the situation in other Arab countries that have not been directly or strongly affected by the winds of change from the 2011 Revolutions is also far from brilliant.
UNICEF states that inequities in access to education persist across the region, with the poorest and conflict-affected children consistently left behind. Children from the poorest families are seven times more likely to be out of school than children from the richest families, it says, while children in rural areas are three times more likely to be out of school than their urban peers. At the lower secondary school level, girls are twice as likely to be out of school as boys.
As children move into adolescence, they are far more likely to drop out of school than at an earlier age. To help their families make ends meet, many engage in labour, and young girls are forced into marriage.
The quality of education around the region remains poor. Only half of all students meet the lowest international benchmarks for foundational skills such as reading, mathematics and science.
A traditional curriculum, teacher-centred approaches and a know-by-heart style of education and exams are still the core of the educational system and the main reasons behind the crises of education in the Arab world.
There is also a huge gap between the skills acquired in school and the requirements of the job market, despite years of attempts at bridging the gap. As a result, Arab youth unemployment continues to be among the highest in the world.
There are still ultra-conservative teachers in some classrooms who exert efforts to ensure that the vicious circle of religious extremism remains alive and kicking in the Arab world.
UNICEF Regional Director for the MENA region Geert Cappelaere also points to extremely low Arab spending on education that leads to blocking youngsters’ access to school and the stalemate of low-quality education that helps preserve the status quo.
It has come out with a list of requirements that might help ease the current educational crisis in the Arab world.
These range from increases in investments in education to somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of total public expenditure, to making sure that schools are inclusive of all children, to providing learning opportunities beyond schooling, especially with the new technologies offering a wide range of good learning alternatives.
There are no alternatives to a good education. The past eight years have been catastrophic for many Arab countries’ educational systems and performances. Even the countries that have not gone through the processes of change, chaos or conflict have been affected one way or another by the aftermath of the 2011 Revolutions, whether by receiving thousands of refugees, or having to engage in neighbouring conflicts, or even being on their guard against the spreading chaos.
It was only a few years ago that the world was wondering if the winds of change and the promises of democracy and prosperity in the Arab world would lead to a corrective revolution in its educational systems. Maybe we should try things the other way round, since the winds of change have not given way to positive results.
Why don’t we pave the way to a revolution within our education systems? Let’s get rid of the know-by-heart and don’t ask questions system and adopt a critical thinking approach instead.
Why don’t we decide to provide a civil and liberal education for all, abolishing all the sorts of religious and fanatical education that is currently pulling the whole system downwards? Why don’t we allocate billions of pounds and invest them in creating a new generation of well-educated, cultured, informed and well-paid teachers rather than recycling conservatism, fanaticism and rigidity?
If we must have a revolution, let it be an educational one. Let’s have a revolution in education before we have any other revolutions.
* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.