With newspaper headlines focused on violence and political upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region, it is easy to forget that an annual beginning is also underway. Children from the Mashreq to the Maghreb have started going back to school. Parents are buying school supplies for little ones and millions of teenagers are going down a path that may shape their future careers. This week, Voices and Views presents Back to School 2013 - a series focused on the challenges that both teachers and students face in the region, and the policies and programs that can change a generation. We look forward to your comments.
Djibouti does not make the headlines as often as its larger neighbors Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia –or Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden. As children go back to school this month, the small, French speaking country deserves our attention as it works to overcome serious education challenges with a committed group of partners including the World Bank.
Djibouti has a story to tell. The government has managed to increase enrollment at all levels of the education system by approximately 61% in less than a decade. Total enrollment has risen from approximately 75,000 students in the 2003-2004 school year, to approximately 121,000 students in the 2012-2013 school year .1 As the new school year starts, a number of initiatives are planned and underway to improve access to education services throughout the country, with the focus as much on quality as quantity.
One of the key findings in education research has been the importance of how resources are used, rather than simply the amount of resources available. There is global evidence that strong results can be achieved in education systems at relatively modest cost levels, while high levels of investment are no guarantee of improved student learning. Following this principle, one World Bank financed initiative is attempting to improve the efficiency with which the education system is run through investments to improve the management, accountability and governance of the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training. This project began in January of this year and aims to strengthen the capacity of the ministry to deliver quality education services to the entire population of Djibouti. Strengthening Institutional Capacity and Management of the Education System Project. 
Djibouti’s commitment to expanding access while focusing on quality has received extensive donor support. Earlier this month, a request was made to the Global Partnership for Education to support the government’s recently approved three-year Education Action Plan. The proposal is a product of the close collaboration among multiple donors, and aims to invest in school construction to respond to increasing student demand and improve the quality of education.. In terms of quality, the project will finance training and materials for the effective teaching of early grade mathematics, complementing separate United States Agency for International Development (USAID) financing for early grade reading instruction and ongoing work financed by the French Development Agency (AFD). The project also includes support to early grade learning initiatives in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as a student health component, accompanying work by the World Food Program on school feeding. In this way, multiple donors are working together to support the common goals of the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training.
Djibouti has also made significant progress in the provision of textbooks to children in school. As recently as 2004, there was an average of one textbook for every four students in primary school. This ratio has almost been reversed, and there are now on average at least three textbooks (French, Arabic and Math) for each primary school student. This effort was supported by investments from the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education, with strong leadership from the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training and CRIPEN, its publishing arm.
Djibouti continues to seek a balance between the need to address issues related to access and the need to address issues related to instructional quality. While this balance has delivered significant results, there are a number of other challenges to the education system that require attention. These include the effect of food insecurity, environmental impacts  such as drought and gender disparity. Girls made up only 42 percent of the primary school population in 1984, and that figure is 46 percent today, representing just a bit over a percentage point improvement each decade.2 One successful avenue to improving the chances of young girls to attend school is early childhood education, an element of the newly proposed program, but more work is needed in this and other areas.
The government has set the direction in coordinating donors around the current three year plan, and with their continued leadership Djibouti can be expected to improve further its ability to welcome all children into quality schools each September.
1 Annuaire Statistique, 2012-2013, MENFOP April 2013
2 Staff Appraisal Report A First Education Project in the Republic of Djibouti, World Bank 1984; Annuaire Statistique, 2012-2013, MENFOP April 2013