Marginalization of public education sector a ‘threat’ to Lebanese identity

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Students attend a class in an all-girls public school in Lebanon. Marwan Bou Haidar

By: Maguy Arnous

Published Wednesday, January 7, 2015

To say that the Lebanese public sector is being systematically marginalized is no exaggeration. Public education, in particular, has suffered since the civil war, and even more so over the past four years, with the influx of Syrian refugee students. Several public sector advocates are warning of lost generations – even the dissolution of the Lebanese identity.

Aside from sectarianism spreading across governmental bodies – or due to that – there are several factors that led to the deterioration of the public education sector, which faced strategic blows to its structure, staff and product. There was a clear political decision to dismantle the administrative body, Dar al-Mua’llemeen (L’Ecole Normale), a specialized faculty to train public school teachers, to rely on contract teachers instead of recruiting and training new public school teachers. This led many to seek alternative employment in the private sector and to advance a weak curriculum.

In an interview with Al-Akhbar English, Feyrouz Salameh, the head of the Social Movement (Mouvement Social) said, “The marginalization of Dar al-Mua’llemeen is a strong message from the government, striking the vertebral column of the Ministry of Education.”

This strategy resulted in an alarming increase of student dropouts, and significant discrepancies between the public and private sectors. The latest statistics – from 2011, prior to the Syrian crisis, show that 29 percent of Lebanese students are enrolled in public schools as opposed to 54 percent in private ones.

Lebanese civil society has been working hard to close the gaps between the two sectors. “There is no rivalry between the public and private sector. We can complement each other. But we should never abandon the public sector,” Salameh warned, recalling that the Social Movement – established in the early 1960s by Bishop Gregoire Haddad, who, along a group of secular activists, sought to establish a secular movement to address the needs of Lebanese citizens in neglected regions – shifted its strategy in the early 1990s to limit its focus to education.

This shift in focus was intended to address what the Social Movement foresaw as the rapidly deteriorating situation of Lebanese youth. Indeed, while in 1994 Lebanese students left school at the age of 16, by 1999 they were dropping out at the average age of 10. This signaled a serious problem in the system.

Public school teacher and political activist Walid Daou echoed the same concerns, telling Al-Akhbar English that “during the 15 years of war in Lebanon, despite the displacement and the killings, the educational level was higher than today… The militias who targeted public schools during the civil war, setting up barricades in their place, are now in power after the Taif agreement.”

“During the war and afterwards, there was an expansion of the sectarian private sector, disguised as the ‘ultimate savior,’ at the expense of the public sector as part of a neo-liberal policy applied in all political segments of the state,” Daou added.

In public schools, only eight of a thousand students finish their last year. “Who is responsible for that?” Daou asked, a key question that places the blame on the sectarian system, and accused all post-war Lebanese governments of wasting the future of thousands Lebanese students.

Salameh remains optimistic though, hailing the government’s five-year plan (est. 2010) to reform and develop the educational system as a victory for civil society and Lebanese society, despite major setbacks, the most notable being the Syrian refugee crisis.

Syrian refugee students’ quest for an education

As the fourth year of the Syrian conflict looms, more than 400,000 Syrian children, who fled their war-torn country with their families to neighboring countries, are struggling for fair chances to quality education.

Though Lebanon never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Lebanese government is still bound by other human rights treaties – such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child – to provide equal access to education to all children in the country, including refugees.

In early December, Dr. Maha Shuayb, the director of the Center for Lebanese Studies (CLS), presented her research on the access of Syrian refugees to quality education in a roundtable discussion featuring members of the Lebanese civil society, Syrian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives of local private schools.

While the Lebanese government is shackled by political indecision on Syria and the Ministry of Education lacks a relief strategy in emergency situations, the research highlighted the role of the private education sector and NGOs, which stepped forward – albeit in return for hefty financial donations from external funds – to address the growing educational and psychosocial demands of Syrian refugee students.

In 2013, the ministry and the Center of Education Research and Development (CERD) collaborated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to launch the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) – a belated effort to reign in the flux of often under-qualified local and Syrian NGOs to refugee camps and other Lebanese regions. The ALP is a three-year module-based curriculum that allows a standardized evaluation of students and thus facilitating their reintegration into formal education. According to a UNHCR education report released in October, the number of Syrian refugee students registered in ALP is around 17,500, exceeding the 15,000 target for 2014.

A year later, the ministry launched a more comprehensive effort with the UNHCR: Reaching All Children with Education (RACE), a three-year strategy aiming to provide education to more than 400,000 Syrian refugees, by increasing the number of second shifts (afternoon shifts solely for Syrian refugees) in public schools and ALP programs.

The second shifts, however, haven’t started yet, four months after the beginning of the academic year, and even after the ministry, recipient of 100 million dollars from Britain and USAID, issued a decree in early December annoucing the start of the shifts.

Drawing on the experience of Lebanese students since after the civil war, Daou advises Syrian students not to rely on the public sector or the ministry. The Lebanese public schools can take in 450,000 students, based on numbers from before 1975. That number should be much higher today, and Daou said that the public sector can “theoretically” cater to all the Syrian students, but is unwilling to do so because of the Lebanese government’s institutionalized policy of discrimination.

“It is not about sitting on a wooden bench,” Daou said, reiterating that the problem in Lebanon is not logistical, but rooted in the educational system itself and the curriculum used in the Lebanese public schools.

In a more reserved manner, Salameh echoed Daou’s fierce criticism of the system. Salameh compared the struggle of the Syrian refugee students to that of their Lebanese counterparts after the Taif agreement. Relying on over 50 years of expertise in the field, the Social Movement responded swiftly when the first Syrian families started to arrive three years ago to regions where the organization was already well established.

“The social movement is not a relief organization. This was very clear to us. But we agreed to respond [to the Syrian crisis] because our previous projects already included different nationalities. We are present in marginalized regions, and the movement doesn’t discriminate against anyone from a certain religious or ethnic background.”

“Poverty begets poverty,” Salameh said, adding, “We can’t ask children to wait six to nine months until they are registered to help them. Particularly when it comes to six or seven-year-old children, we can’t tell where they will be in six months time if we leave them on the streets.”

The movement, which has taken a non-discriminatory approach since its inception, embraced the Syrian refugees, especially the young students, as they struggled with the Lebanese government the way many Lebanese students still do.

“At the end of the day, we [Lebanese and Syrians] are very close to one another, geographically and socially, so we couldn’t fathom a separation there,” Salameh said.

Lebanese identity under threat

The struggle for the development of the public sector is not limited to the Syrian crisis. The Social Movement’s fight, along with other civil society organizations and many activists, is to force the Lebanese government to take responsibility of students in Lebanon, regardless of their nationality, religion or ethnicity, and literally to save public schools.

The Lebanese civil society viewed the recent influx of Syrian students as an opportunity, rather than a burden – the government and mainstream media’s preferred term for both Syrian refugees and Lebanese public sector workers. The marginalization of the public sector goes beyond threatening the student body.

As Salameh warned, such policies endanger the identity of the public sector and the Lebanese identity more broadly.

“The public school, as far as we are concerned, is for all the Lebanese students. In the future, we hope it opens up to all students living on the Lebanese territory. At the end of day, there is a citizen, Lebanese or other, that you need to work with. [It is through education] that we develop the national identity, a sense of belonging, and the correspondence between rights and obligations. Our role, therefore, is crucial,” Salameh said.

"We are at a crossroad right now. I still believe that, even if it will take us more years, we should never abandon the public sector. There is an identity there, and a history. By sidestepping the public sector, we are erasing our own history, which is very dangerous,” she concluded.

Comments

Jack was 3 months old when I became his nanny , I left him 3 years later.
In that time I taught him to do puzzles, the alphabet, to write words, cut with scissors, eat with a knife & fork, at 2 I taught him to ride a tricycle, at 3 he was riding a 2 wheeler bike with trainers, we went to the pool for swimming lessons, he liked classical music, spoke words in Italian & French, knew the names of all the flowers & trees in the surrounding streets - as we walked every day I pointed them out to him.
HAt 2 1/2 years old, would sit on the floor & turn the pages of a book & mutter quietly to himself, " you can't read yet" I would say to him "yes I can" he would reply with confidence - so eager was he to have that skill. I read many stories to him & sang many songs to him every day for 3 years - he is 16 now & an accomplished student.
Before him there were 4 children.

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