Published on Arab Voices

Back to School 2017 – Part II

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This is the second part of our interview with with Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali, World Bank Practice Manager in the Education Global Practice, on the challenges faced by the region’s education systems and the efforts to address them.

The World Bank produced significant research on Early Childhood Development, and there appeared to be significant regional momentum in investing in the early years. Has that momentum been sustained? 

Safaa El Tayeb
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: Last February marked an important milestone in early childhood education (ECE) for the MENA region. Government representatives from 15 MENA countries and territories - Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the West Bank and Gaza, and the United Arab Emirates -convened at a High-Level Regional ECE Workshop in Kuwait, and  discussed—for the first time—what it would take for the region to reach SDG Target 4.2: “[b]y 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education”.  As a result, countries from the region agreed on a Common Roadmap for 2030 that will enable them to reach this target, and called for national and international partners to help them mobilize an unprecedented level of financial support and technical assistance in ECE. 
How has the World Bank responded to the roadmap?
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: In responding to the call of the roadmap, the World Bank is working on three simultaneous fronts. At the country level, the Bank is preparing an unprecedented number of operations to help increase access to pre-primary education in countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, while also strengthening countries monitoring and evaluation systems to ensure high quality early childhood education, or ECE. At the regional level, the Bank is partnering with other donors and organizations to develop a set of public goods that will be available for any country in the region, including: regional quality standards for ECE that are grounded in the latest research; a regional tool for measuring child development outcomes; and a costing tool for countries across de region to financially assess various ECE policy options and identify their financial gaps. Finally, the Bank is also investing to strengthen the evidence-base of ECE within the MENA region. An ECE impact evaluation, or IE, incubator will be launched in early 2018, with the objective of developing and evaluating innovative approaches to provide quality ECE to the most disadvantaged children in MENA. The incubator will build capacity on IE and ECE measurement in the region, develop partnerships between MENA governments and researchers, and make funding opportunities available for IE in the region.
How much appetite has there been in the region to adopt new technologies, and has it lead to innovation in education systems?
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: There is a great interest in the use of new technologies in education across the region. Many countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan have long standing efforts to provide related computer hardware and connectivity to schools. Many teachers have received basic training on the pedagogical use of ICTs to support teaching and learning, although only a minority of them report being comfortable in their use. For this and other reasons, the use of digital teaching and materials is not widespread in classrooms across much of the region, but this is growing, and there are small pockets of excellence. There are exceptions to this: In countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, schools typically have excellent technology infrastructure and access to high quality teaching and learning materials. In Yemen, the use of technology in education is still in its infancy. While connectivity to schools is increasing, outside of the Gulf countries, high speed broadband connections to the Internet remain relatively rare. In most instances, where ICTs are being utilized in schools across the region, they are primarily being used to support existing traditional teaching and learning practices in ways that are perhaps not terribly innovative, but nonetheless potentially useful. As ICT use and ownership becomes more prevalent across societies, especially among middle class families in urban areas, the potential for ICT use to be used to access additional learning opportunities is growing quickly, and the rapid growth in smartphone ownership highlights the potential for new teaching and learning products and services to be offered outside of school. Initiatives in Egypt such as the Library of Digital Learning Objects, which provides free access to learners across Egypt to thousands of digital learning materials aligned to the country's curriculum, and the privately supported free Nafham digital learning platform, as well as a number of efforts piloted and spearheaded by the Jordan Education Initiative, which for many years has been a trailblazer in exploring innovative uses of ICTs in education, are examples of pioneering approaches to utilizing technologies to help meet longstanding educational challenges across the region using new tools, and new approaches.
In view of the demography of the region, how important are investments in education for the region’s future development?
The MENA region has indeed experienced a demographic shift in recent years in the form of a youth bulge. Right now, for example, according to WDI 2017 data, 50 % of Egypt’s population is under the age of 25. In fact, across the whole MENA region, 47 % of the population is less than 25 years old. This presents a huge challenge for countries in the region, but also provides opportunities if harnessed in a positive way. These young people will need an education that provides them with the skills and knowledge that will help them to participate fully in society—be that economic, political, or social participation. They will also need opportunities, or the ability to create opportunities for themselves, as they move into adulthood. As they grow, this bulge of youth will have significant influence over their societies, given their large numbers. Without a good education and job opportunities, there is a possibility that instability and violence ensues.

While research has not found a causal link between unemployment and terrorism, being without a job can lead to social exclusion and deflated aspirations, creating conflict. In fact, when surveyed – as seen in the Asda’a Burson-Marstellar 2016 Arab Youth Survey, young people across the region were found to believe that a lack of jobs and opportunity were a factor aiding the recruitment efforts of extremist groups in the region. However, with a good education and opportunities, countries could become more prosperous, as has been the case historically for countries with a youth bulge, such as Korea. It is therefore essential that education systems across the region face up to this challenge and put in place reforms that improve the quality of learning in schools, equip students with the cognitive and noncognitive skills and knowledge they will need, and link schooling with the labor market to enable a smooth transition into adult life.

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