The start of this new school year was quite special. It took place two days after the first round of the second presidential elections being held in Tunisia since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. The political calendar is coinciding with the start of the new school year, one of two important moments on the school calendar, with the other being the end-of-year examination season.
In a meeting on September 6 with Mr. Jesko Hentschel, the new World Bank Country Director for the Maghreb and the Republic of Malta, the Minister of Education, Mr. Hatem Ben Salem, told us that the start of the new school year is a time for widespread mobilization of all teams in the education ministry: “A massive logistics operation to ensure that premises are ready, that teachers have been assigned, that students have been placed in the right classes, and that all timetables are available. It is critical to a smooth start to the new year.” Every year in Tunisia, just over two million students, 120,000 teachers, thousands of school principals, and other personnel head back to school. And the problems are always the same: how to avoid hiccups and, more importantly, how to address them in a timely manner! But this year, an additional challenge was lying in store for all mobilized personnel: they had to get the thousands of schools that had been used as polling stations back in order. This is a great example of democracy in action at schools.
Minister Hatem Ben Salem also informed us that the major new feature for the 2019 school year was online enrollment of primary students, which had already been introduced the previous year for all secondary students. The ministry drew lessons from the experience last year. Now, enrollment fees can only be paid by mobile telephone for the modest sum of four dinars. The ministry is embracing the age of electronic payments and digital service use.
Other changes are expected throughout this school year because the Ministry of Education is partnering with the Ministry of Communications Technologies and Digital Economy, the Ministry of Telecommunications, and the Ministry of Social Affairs on a new project that was concluded between the Republic of Tunisia and the World Bank. This project aims to achieve the digital transformation of user-centric services by supporting a GovTech approach. It is expected to finance the digitization of education management services to facilitate enrollment, student/school monitoring and dropout identification, and improved digital resources to strengthen teaching and learning.
While all these changes are welcome, the main objective of the school year must always be borne in mind: strive to achieve the best learning outcomes while providing more equal education. Unfortunately, the estimated data used to calculate the Human Capital Index showed that, while the average Tunisian youth under the age of 18 had 10.2 years of schooling, the number of learning-adjusted years of school 1 was only 6.3 years. This is yet another reminder that schooling is not synonymous with learning. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, solutions do exist. As Minister Hatem Ben Salem said: “Priority will be accorded to building the skills of personnel and in particular of all the teachers who interact closely with students.” Steps have therefore been taken since last year, as evidenced by the establishment of the Centre National de Formation et de Perfectionnement (CENAFOP), the institution responsible for the programming of all continuing training activities. CENAFOP will receive significant financing, particularly from the Strengthening Foundations for Learning Project (PREFAT), which will allow this center to implement the activities scheduled for the coming years.
I would be remiss if I ended this blog without wishing all students who went back to school on September 17 much success in their studies!