As new coronavirus cases rise again more than three months after lockdown ended, Tunisian pupils are preparing for schools to reopen. What can they expect? What health conditions lie in wait for pupils, teachers and support staff? How can we stop the pandemic from further imperilling an education system that was already in crisis? And how can we turn this unprecedented situation into an opportunity for change?
Recent weeks have seen intense debate and tough negotiations over the advisability of this extraordinary new term and the conditions under which it will begin. The start of Tunisian pupils’ new school year will ultimately be staggered over the week from 15 to 19 September. More importantly, though, pupils will be attending school on alternate days to avoid breaching the limit of 18 pupils per class. The curriculum will be lightened but without relinquishing the basics. Holidays will be shortened. And the first few weeks of lessons will be spent bringing pupils up to standard.
However, we should ask ourselves whether these solutions meet the needs of pupils and their parents. According to a study carried out in August, 79% of parents were unhappy with the last school year; 41% of parents felt it was unfinished; 30% considered it a lost year and 28% saw it as a disaster.
These results confirm those of another telephone survey conducted in May by the National Statistical Institute, in collaboration with the World Bank. 61% of households questioned reported that their children had not taken part in any educational activity during the week leading up to the survey. The main reasons: no remote learning possibilities had been offered (33%); a lack of interest in educational matters within the family (22.5%); a lack of communication with teachers (18%); and a shortage of materials at home (11%). In reality, a great many pupils were left to their own devices.
All of this raises the question of what effect the announced measures will have, especially regarding the impact of the new alternate day attendance system on learning and drop-outs. Surely the greatest risk is to the weakest pupils, those whose parents cannot afford private lessons or do not have access to teaching resources, or pupils from disadvantaged areas in the country’s interior. What measures should be taken for such individuals at risk?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were numerous signs of an education crisis in Tunisia. The continuous decline in results (Tunisia ranked 65th out of 70 countries in the 2015 PISA study) is the most obvious symptom. It is currently estimated that two thirds of 10-year olds in Tunisia are unable to read and understand an age-appropriate text. The education system’s failings are depriving thousands of young Tunisians of the basic skills needed to enter the workplace and flourish as both individuals and citizens. They also make the Tunisian economy less competitive and productive, as shown in the 2018 Human Capital index, which suggests that a Tunisian child born today will reach only 51% of his or her productive potential due to the poor quality of the education and health care systems.
The current situation requires a massive response. This would first mean tackling health requirements while reducing the risk of school drop-outs, including through awareness campaigns, targeting poor families in particular. It would also mean considering support measures for these families, probably in addition to those already announced. This feeling is shared by a majority of the parents questioned, whose main goals are to ensure a healthy start to the new school year (36%) and take the protective measures needed to reduce the risks of infection and their consequences (19%). Teachers should be encouraged and supported when asked to work even harder with the lowest-achieving pupils. Pupils will also have to be assessed throughout the year to measure their progress. These efforts must focus specifically on the key stage of literacy to build the foundations for learning.
Given the learning crisis, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that the Ministry of Education is not without resources. Many backers, including the World Bank, had provided the Tunisian government with considerable education funding before the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, too little has been done to speed up the disbursement of these funds. COVID-19 has actually slowed or even halted certain activities. In June, for example, the Strengthening Foundations for Learning in Tunisia Project (PREFAT), financed by the World Bank, saw its resources cut back by a quarter in the absence of tangible results after more than two years of implementation.
Apart from improving the use of external resources, increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of education financing would appear to be a matter of urgency. Tunisia is one of the North Africa and Middle East countries that invests the most in education: more than a fifth of the State budget, equating to around 7% of gross domestic product. Despite the large sums allocated, investment has not had the desired effect on pupils’ results, and the quality of education has declined significantly. Successive reforms passed in recent years have not had the expected impact. The difficulties in implementing policies and programmes also reflect a deep crisis of governance in the Tunisian education system, which has been going on for some years.
I acknowledge Tunisia’s unwavering commitment to education since its independence. I now want to send out a call for us to work together and put an end to the learning crisis, and for us to take the opportunity presented by the COVID-19 crisis to redouble our efforts. The reforms needed are well known, the resources are there, and the gravity of the situation requires commitment and continuous monitoring at the highest level of government.