Lebanon promotes ‘back to public school’ drive

Lebanese Minister of Education Marwan Hamadeh

With the back-to-school season in full swing, Lebanon is seeking to woo its school-age population back to public education, a sector traditionally seen of lower quality than private education.
“We want to attract Lebanese students who have been mostly accommodated by the private sector to our public schools, now that they are being refurbished and rejuvenated,” said Lebanese Minister of Education Marwan Hamadeh.
“We are not seeking to compete with the private sector but we want to provide a good quality education to those who don’t have the means to go to a private school,” he said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
Although literacy rates are approximately 99% for young Lebanese, the country has been struggling to increase the quality of public education, notably at the elementary and complemen­tary levels, since the end of the civil war. The tremendous influx of Syrian refugees in recent years has strained the public education system and led some Lebanese parents to move their children from public to private schools despite high tuition fees.
The World Bank said nearly 75% of Lebanon’s 491,455 elementary age students attended private schools in 2015. Transition rates from elementary to secondary education plunged in recent years, as have gross enrolment rates in higher education.
“Lebanese students have been (gradually) deserting the public sector since the war,” Hamadeh said, “but now is the chance for them to return to the public sector as it is being overhauled and because private schools are becoming very expensive.”
Hamadeh said World Bank grants and loans worth $204 million would allow the public education system to become as competitive as the private sector. The focus would be on training teachers, renewing school programmes, refurbishing and building new schools, especially in underdeveloped areas, and reinforcing the structure of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE).
“We have to offer good quality education and have succeeded in increasing the number of Leba­nese students who adhered to the public sector (this year),” the minister said, adding that 160 kindergartens had been estab­lished in public schools across Lebanon.
“Currently, public education is attracting students in secondary classes in view of the good results in official exams but we have some lagging in the elementary and complementary cycles and that’s where we are focusing our efforts,” Hamadeh added.
MEHE’s back-to-school cam­paign this year was launched under the motto of “school heroes.” Hamadeh explained the aim was “to reach all children in Lebanon in education,” including young refugees.
“We are expecting some 25,000 new Syrian children in schools,” he said. “They are basically children born in Lebanon after 2011. They are now in ages eligible to go to school. We don’t know when they will go back to Syria but, for the moment, we are ready to accommodate them for the academic year 2017-18.”
Out of an estimated 480,000 Syrian school-age children in Lebanon, approximately 240,000 are enrolled in schools. Many refugee parents do not register their children for various reasons, often either because they help them earn a livelihood or they have no legal papers.
The MEHE developed a strategy under its “Reaching All Children with Education” (RACE) pro­gramme in 2014 to strengthen the public education system with the priority to increase enrolment of Syrian refugee children. They are mostly enrolled in public schools in an afternoon shift specifically tailored to non-Lebanese.
Alternative education pro­grammes are also offered, including a new accelerated learn­ing programme piloted for both Lebanese potentially dropping and out-of-school Syrian refugees to be taught in public schools to allow them the possibility of catching up to the formal educa­tion system.
As Lebanon is saturated with professionals such as lawyers, doctors and engineers, more students are enrolling in voca­tional schools both in the public and private sectors, Hamden said.
“Every year we have thousands of graduates from vocational schools and these find jobs much quicker than professionals,” he said. “These are skills for exporta­tion because in Lebanon they find competition from cheaper foreign labour, including Syrians and Egyptians.”
Lebanon is home to 42 universi­ties and higher education acad­emies, many of which were established during the civil war and afterward, undermining the standards of higher learning for which Lebanon has been recog­nised.
“There are good universities and others that must disappear,” Hamadeh said, noting that a draft law has been proposed “to establish a national agency for quality assurance in higher education that would hold (private and public) institutions accountable for [services pro­vided] to the public.”
“Definitely, we have been paying the price (in education) of 15 years of civil war and 20 years of (political and economic) instability,” Hamadeh concluded.
MEHE’s budget of $1.2 billion, amounting to 11% of the country’s budget, is the second biggest after the Defence Ministry.
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.