Published on Arab Voices

Back to School 2017

On the heels of the first World Development Report focused entirely on education, and its critical importance for stable and inclusive societies, we launch our annual ‘Back to School’ series that focuses on the state of education in the Middle East and North Africa region. We begin the series with a two-part interview 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.

Over the past few years, a major concern has been the education of Syrian refugee children. How have the education systems in host countries coped with this challenge?
Safaa El Tayeb
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: This September, approximately 350,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan are expected to enroll in formal public education. Both countries have committed since the onset of the refugee crisis to providing education to all children in their territories and have been actively fulfilling this promise with support from the international community. Nevertheless, major challenges persist. In Lebanon, the public education student population has nearly doubled. To accommodate this large number of students, one third of basic education schools had to introduce a second shift dedicated for Syrian refugees after having exhausted all places in the first shift. Similarly, in Jordan, double shifts are run in 200 public schools across the country. Despite the exceptional efforts in expanding access, nearly half of the school age (03-18) Syrian refugee population is out of formal education. 120,000 of them have been enrolled in non-formal education opportunities designed as accelerated learning programs (ALP in Lebanon) or “catch-up” courses (in Jordan) to make up for the lost years of schooling and help ease the transition of those children into certified formal education. But 230,000 children, mainly in the early years and in secondary school age, remain out of the education system.
What can be done to cater to the needs of this large population left outside the education system?
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: Upcoming programs in both countries will cater to these most vulnerable ages, by meeting supply-side constraints such as the low numbers of available Kindergarten (KG) classrooms through school extension and construction, and demand-side barriers such as early marriage or child labor through cash transfers. Both countries also plan to strengthen their Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system to hone skills of youth and connect them with decent job opportunities. In addition to the challenges in providing access to education, the quality of education and learning remains the main priority to be addressed. With large heterogeneity in the student population and acute vulnerabilities due to forced displacement and poverty, education systems have to reinforce their efforts to meet the cognitive and socio-emotional needs of students to achieve learning for all. Some of the initiatives introduced by Lebanon and Jordan, such as conducting formative assessments to identify students with difficulties and providing additional support to them, deploying pedagogical and psychosocial counselors to support schools needs, upgrading teacher training to focus on differentiated instruction and inclusive education, and strengthening school leadership and the engagement of the local community (including the refugee community) with the schools, will help in overcoming this challenge. However, these initiatives should be coupled by strong evaluation mechanisms, including impact evaluation studies, to determine their effectiveness and improve their implementation.
There are some major educational reform programs underway in the region – could you describe the goals of these reforms?
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: Countries across the region are investing in education because they recognize its importance for economic and social inclusion, and for peace and stability. Over time, countries’ goals for education have moved from increasing access to primary, secondary, and tertiary education, to improving student learning. Countries now want to make sure that their young people leave school or university with the skills they need to succeed in life. Many countries are embarking on system-wide reforms that address the constraints commonly found across the region. When young children do not gain foundational skills for learning, they are at an early disadvantage for the rest of their schooling. This is reflected in the region’s poor performance on international assessments of primary and secondary students in mathematics, science, and reading. As a result, countries’ education reforms are starting to address the early learning deficit with goals of increasing participation in early childhood education and improving the quality of education in the early grades of school, such as in Lebanon’s Education Development Project II.
What are some of the other challenges facing the region’s education systems?
Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali: Countries are also focusing on youth, helping them to develop the skills they need for their futures, and opening up a path of opportunity from school to work, such as the Education-to-Work Transition Project in the West Bank and Gaza. While countries have their own particular education needs, they share many challenges. Some of the most important challenges were identified by the World Bank Group and the Islamic Development Bank Group during their wide consultation for the Education for Competitiveness (E4C) initiative. E4C provides a framework for education reforms and interventions to (1) make sure all children are ready to learn with quality early childhood education; (2) strengthen the building blocks for learning by improving early grade literacy and numeracy acquisition; (3) equip young people with adaptable skills for life; (4) help young people transition from school to work; and (5) improve services through open provision of information for accountability. Together, the World Bank Group, Islamic Development Bank Group, and partners are seeking to coordinate their work, build on regional and global best practice, and develop tools and opportunities for exchange to help countries address these fundamental education challenges.

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