When it comes to education in the Arab world, more is never enough. Do we need more schools? Definitely. More teachers? Absolutely. More efforts to help more girls to enroll? It goes without saying. However, we also need to explore issues such as quality and the contemporary crisis in much education in the region.
The Arab world, part of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has achieved enormous gains in terms of schooling and education over the past two decades. But what was regarded yesterday as a huge achievement is looked upon today with a different eye.
Today’s specialists in education are at least as interested in measurements of quality and attainment as they are in quantity, and they have pinpointed a crisis in education in the region that has led to not only deterioration in terms of quality but also in some cases a return almost to point zero.
In a report launched a few days ago entitled “Expectations and Aspirations: A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa” the World Bank pointed to the fact that the MENA region hosts one third of the world’s internally displaced persons (IDPs).
According to the UN refugee agency the UNHCR, in May 2018 about two million people were internally displaced in Yemen, two million in Iraq and 0.2 million in Libya. Most children among IDPs face significant hurdles in accessing education.
Rough estimates place IDPs school enrollment at 28 per cent in Yemen and 52 per cent in Iraq. In Syria and the host countries of Syrian refugees, there are some 7.7 million school-age children who face great obstacles in accessing education.
Among Syrian refugee children, 43 per cent are out of school (formal or non-formal) in Lebanon, 31 per cent in Jordan and 35 per cent in Turkey.
Imagine these children in five or ten years’ time. They will have had no education, or no proper education, and they will be living in a damaged country with their own families to care for.
While reaching a clear-cut political solution for countries that are war-torn may be something that is beyond the capabilities of individuals, UN organisations or even political regimes, it is nevertheless essential that all stakeholders come together to ensure the education of young refugees and displaced children to ensure they are not left behind in future.
It must also be faced that millions of children in the Arab region have been and still are left behind in education even without their countries going through armed conflicts or their having special difficulties in reaching schools.
The World Bank report says that despite the big gains the region has made in schooling, it must now focus far more than it has done on learning.
In international standardised tests, 15-year-old students from across the region lagged behind the global average by two to four years of schooling.
Four key “tensions” that are holding back the region’s education have also been identified in tensions between credentials and skills, discipline and inquiry, control and autonomy, and tradition and modernity.
These four tensions are deeply rooted in our history and culture, and they are not unique to education. Instead, they can be seen as controlling the details of 435 million Arab lives.
They have held education systems back from evolving and delivering the skills needed to prepare students for their future. Schools and classrooms are the platforms on which these tensions are exercised through outdated curricula and pedagogy and in the norms that define interactions among teachers, parents and students.
Even among students, there are phenomena that are unique to the region. According to the World Bank report, the underperformance of the region’s boys is not seen anywhere else in the world.
Although girls now outperform boys in education across the region, the Arab world has the lowest female labour-force participation rates in the world.
The inefficiencies and costs associated with the loss of learning among boys are substantial both economically and socially. The under-representation of women in the labour market, despite the fact that women outperform men in learning from their early years all the way to adulthood, also represents a substantial under-utilisation of human capital.
The “aspirations” and “expectations” referred to in the title of the report lie in human capital. The way out of schooling and into learning lies in tackling these tensions and unleashing the power of education through a concerted push for learning, a stronger push for skills, and a new pact for education among all stakeholders in the region in support of educational reforms.
A prescription is offered by the World Bank, ranging from pushing learning and focusing on the early years of every child to preparing qualified teachers and school leaders, introducing new pedagogical practices, coming up with better assessments of learning and reaching all children regardless of gender, race or background.
There is also the need to supplement the push for learning with the pull for skills from the labour market and from parents demanding skills, not just credentials, from the education system.
This pull for skills requires the modernisation of the school curricula in an attempt to move away from rote-learning to critical thinking and creativity
. It is also essential that students learn digital skills to be ready for the jobs of the future and that teachers draw on the benefits of technology to improve the learning environment.
However, this push for learning and pull for skills, identified by the World Bank in its recent report, will need a new pact for education at the national level with a unified vision and shared responsibilities and accountabilities.
The report concludes with a clear yet sometimes forgotten fact, pointing out that education is everybody’s business in any region and not just the responsibility of the educational system.
Many centuries ago, education was a special feature of the Arab region, and the Arabs’ love for education and the sciences led to a rich history, a well-grounded civilisation and great scientific achievements.
Unfortunately, education in the Arab world more recently has been paying the heavy cost of political problems, social turbulence and even regional conflicts. A vicious circle has become more and more vicious, and the region as a whole has been stuck at a low-learning and low-skills level.
Students in the region have consistently ranked among the lowest on international assessments. Less schooling, worse learning and a widening gap between educational systems and the job market have given rise to depressed and helpless younger generations.
It would be unfair to say that the Arab states have not done anything to change the status quo. Five decades of investment in education have led to an impressive growth in enrolment rates, though these have not been accompanied by high fulfilment rates.
This is especially true when millions of unemployed Arab graduates are seen wasting years in despair. This decay of the region’s human capital is a clear sign of the gap between the education system and the job market, with young people receiving material at school that is very different from what employers need at work.
There is a need to restructure the region’s educational goals and to redirect the educational system. This is no longer just a national priority, or a step preceding economic prosperity and social well-being.
Instead, it is now an emergency intervention that is necessary for the region’s future stability, peace and prosperity.
* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: From good schooling to better learning