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A Global Lesson on Educational Reform from Ten Schools in Jordan

Manal Quota's picture
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Zeid Bin Haritha is a school in the Jordanian village of Yarqa. In this school, you’ll witness tiny overcrowded classrooms, old broken furniture and over-worked teachers. These are characteristics common across a number of schools in the Governorate of Al-Salt.  But, wait! This is not a tragic story filled with heart breaking tales of under resourced schools and low achieving students…

Rather, this is a story of a community of ten schools, spread across two villages, which joined forces to address serious challenges to the delivery of educational services. This process of change began through donor led interventions that introduced guidelines and a framework for school autonomy and community engagement. Yet what this story is really about is how external interventions can be adapted and tailored by local communities to fit their existing social, political and administrative structures. It provides a valuable lesson for communities looking to adopt international best practices – rather than treating them as cookie-cutters; they can be adapted to conform to local circumstances.

Adapting external interventions to local institutions

Al-Salt is the heartland of tribal Jordanian society.  Families here have lived together long enough to tell tales of generations that survived feuds, marriages and political gains. Community members, teachers and students are acutely aware of the shortcomings in the provision of services but have struggled with obtaining the appropriate support needed, and have to a degree, lost confidence in the ability of Ministry of Education (MoE) to provide these services quickly. “The Ministry of Education is too slow,” explained Maytham (names have been changed to protect identities), a teacher from one of the ten schools, “we know we can’t depend on them for all our problems.”

In response to concerns over the capacity of the MOE to address service delivery challenges, a program was launched to increase school autonomy and community engagement. Under the School and District Development Program, the ten schools in Ira and Yarqa formed one education cluster that is accountable to the local Education Council (EC), which in turn reports to a Field Directorate.

In the process of setting up a school cluster and establishing the EC, community members, teachers and principals received training and support on the value and importance of working with their local schools, and the value of schools working together. Based on its diverse membership – including the school principals, as well as teacher, parent, student and community representatives – the council served as a venue for aggregating demands and debating challenges in the community. This resulted in community buy-in, transparency, and hence, greater ability to hold schools- the providers- accountable.

The success of this process however, wouldn’t have been possible without total commitment and involvement from all stakeholders. So as the schools and communities embarked on a process of re-organizing the school community, the citizens, teachers and students inadvertently established a common vision.

This vision first and foremost complements the local formal and informal systems that at times, worked against each other. Here the community found its own way of navigating the existing formal and informal structures towards the common end of improved education for community children.  This helped address the underlying fear among reformists that increased school autonomy and community engagement would meet with disapproval from local tribal leaders.

“We live in a rural small village. It’s like a large family. We hold evening events all the time, family gatherings and the majlis, where issues are discussed and we hear from each other and the children about what’s happening at school,” explains a father of a student. This interconnectedness and ease of information flow in these villages means that formal means of communication at the school level were overlooked as teachers and principals regularly interact or see parents of students outside of school. Despite the frequency of interactions, however, discussions between parents and teachers were limited to student behavior and performance.

To encourage interaction and community involvement in matters beyond student behavior and performance, the communities worked together to elect an Education Council Chairman.  The Chairman was able to outline a unified vision for the community and schools to strive towards.
 
Abu Muhanad, who was elected Chairman and received training through the program,  embodies the local traditions and cultures of the community, while also having a forward looking vision of what the schools and citizens together can accomplish having been an educator himself for over 20 years. His knowledge of the education sector and the trust local members have in him has made it possible for him to create a sense of cohesion and purpose, to mobilize and influence local representatives and leaders and convince them of the benefits of functioning under a cluster with increased parental and community engagement. “We work as one team the local community and the school,” said Abu Muhanad as he described the new attitudes towards increased school autonomy. It has also made parents more comfortable with their new role.
 
 “Now the engagement with the community is different. Its regular, parents are involved in decision making, they oversee and support the school. They provide support to the teachers and school by their active participation,” explained Hasan, teacher and former student at Zeid Bin Haritha School.

The increased interaction eventually translated into greater expectations on the part of parents, leading them to seek stronger school initiatives, activities, and standards of teaching. This in turn was reciprocated by the schools, which – having seen and, for some, harnessed the positive outcomes of community involvement – were happy to cooperate with the local community to address challenges to service delivery. This resulted in community led initiatives to raise community funds to purchase needed teaching and learning materials, printing textbooks in large print for students with eye impairments or in-kind services such as fixing gas and electric connections needed in the schools. 
 
“I stopped solving school problems on my own,” explains a principal of a girls’ school. “I now wait for the LEC meeting, and share my problems and there I find multiple solutions. Principals now offer support to each other, and we come up with ideas that I would have never thought of.”

Learning from local experiences

The problems of overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers have not disappeared. But this story does show what can be achieved by combining international best practices with local practices. In development, the focus often tends to center on helping struggling communities by implementing external interventions at the expense of local solutions.

The challenge remains of finding ways to incorporate local knowledge and experience into an institutionalized process that offers guidance and inspiration while also increasing accountability.

This process can then be coupled with reforms from the government’s side to foster an environment that further integrates local practices and makes full use of their potential benefits. 

Comments

Submitted by Abdulrahman on

Very insightful article. Wish more communities in our Arab society would leverage the benefits of the tribal system instead of only reflecting its negative attributes.

Submitted by Manal on

Thank you for you feedback AbdulRahman. Indeed, tribal affiliations and traditions can play a positive role in supporting new community initiatives. In the context of Jordan and the case presented, tribal leaders were a driving force for change. Without their backing and support it is likely much of the positive impacts would not have been realized. However, there are contexts that require caution as groups, of different types and affiliations, can gain ground by political capture, and this is always a concern. In the Jordan case, the means by which the two villages come together and established a common vision for school and community partnership is quite unique, as this has not yet been fully replicated across the Jordanian Kingdom. The question remains however, can other communities in the Kingdom learn from this experience and work towards improved education service delivery?

Submitted by Abdulrahman on

Good points. In regards to your question however I believe the answer lies in the unique nature of the Arab identity. When I visited Jordan I was struck by the difference felt between the population itself for those of Palestinian origin and those who are classified as 'Original' Jordanians. I saw the tribal connections running far deeper with those not of Palestianian origins to be honest. Anywhere where initiatives are made to help the wider society you would expect broad support form all segments however sadly in our society and especially if there is political or worst economic gain (one usually follows the other) then vested interests leads to internal conflict then to stagnation and ultimately to failure through breakdown. I believe in order for progress in regards to adoption of collaboration of initiatives then the society itself needs to change it's mentality from the me, my family, my tribe order to my society, my tribe, my family, and ultimately me benefit. The Eu is an example I really enjoy watching develope. Many different people with many different languages however they are able to cooperate. War I believe was their ultimate catalyst. Hope that war and or poverty is not required in places like Jordan in order for community spirit to superceed single minded self short sighted self interested. Would be interested to see whether more countries have been able to develope their unique approach in the arab world.

Submitted by Manal on

Interesting outlook, Abdulrahman, however, I’ll have to respectfully disagree on your assumption that the root of the problem lies within the Arab identity. While identity is important, I don’t think that it is the main determinant for the delivery or improvement of services such as education. True, identity can cause divisions, and can result to cases where groups with certain ethnic/racial/tribal backgrounds receive better/more services (we all know about the power of wasta and political connections), but these issues wouldn’t be so deep-rooted if there were higher levels of transparency, oversight and accountability on all players within the service delivery chain- just to name a few possible variables.

The purpose of this blog, which is derived from a larger case study that will be published on a later date, is to demonstrate that despite inefficiencies in the public management system there are times when local communities work together, innovate and find locally grown solutions to common problems. When all else is equal, there are pockets of positive deviants that produce promising results that could be a basis for learning across communities versus direct importation of cookie-cutter best practice solutions from context that might not be applicable.

I recommend you read a colleague’s blog, Story of Working Together Against All Odds from a Public School in Palestinian Territories, which provides another example of a positive deviant in the education sector.

Submitted by Abdulrahman on

interesting view point. Will make sure to read the article. Also would.love to see something on the reconstruction in Gaza of school infrastructure in the near future. maybe its an opportunity to start fresh and incorporate many of the best practices highlighted in the blog. will be keeping an eye on interesting articles in the near future.

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