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Education Crisis in MENA
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By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 23-12-2020

In many MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries today, virtually everyone’s education is suffering, owing to decades of conflict, displacement, and economic malaise. In South Sudan, for example, at least 2.2 million children are not in school which is one of the highest rates globally, according to a new report by the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children. In many parts of the region, particularly rural, deprived, and overpopulated areas, even children who are in school do not receive a quality education.

Also, in Morocco at present, some 220,000 5-year-olds who should be in pre-primary are out of school (26%), along with nearly 83,000 primary school aged children (2%) and over 255,000 lower secondary school aged children (16%) are out of school.

Education has the potential to shape the development trajectory of nations, boost growth and spread prosperity but in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) it is not achieving its potential, according to a new World Bank report.

Although, education, has been at the heart of the Middle East and North Africa region’s (MENA) history and civilizations for centuries yet, it has a large untapped potential to contribute to human capital, well-being, and wealth. Despite the region’s large investments in education, young people are not learning the skills they need to compete in the labour market, contributing to one of the world’s highest rates of youth unemployment. Investments in education, impressive growth in enrolment rates, and gender parity at almost all levels of education, have not been able to translate into increased human capital and wealth, failing to meet the aspirations of 435 million people in the region.

Affordable education has not necessarily reduced the number of uneducated children as a result of the population boom. Also, the educational system proved to be inadequate as classrooms, led by overworked and often underqualified teachers, are crowded with children.

In the MENA region, teachers are not selected for their competence, creativity, and teaching performance. Rather, they are identified by virtue of their educational attainment. However, salary scales do not differ between teachers at different levels of experience. This very fact has discouraged proactive improvement of teaching and subsequently has reduced the quality of teaching in general. An effective solution to such a challenge could be to introduce continuing evaluations and examinations in order to assess teachers’ performance in the classroom. Instructors who succeed in these evaluative examinations may move to a higher salary scale. This process would not only motivate teachers to perform but would positively influence the quality of education in general.

Also, in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, there is a general consensus that educational facilities are rare and inappropriately used. However, due to the changing nature of market demand, there is an urge necessity to provide students with professional and technical skills. Indeed, introducing computer software educational programs should be encouraged, organised and implemented. It is suggested that such a process would produce an up-to-date educational system that produces an internationally competitive labour force. Consequently, this does not only improve the quality of education but also creates a valuable and efficient work force.

A push for learning requires a focus on the early years and early grades of the child to build the foundations for learning. It also requires qualified teachers and school leaders, new pedagogical practices, better assessment of learning, and reaching all children regardless of gender, race, background or ability. There are some positive signs in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates commitment to universal pre-primary enrolment by 2021, and Egypt’s education reform 2.0, which is embarking on a system wide transformation using technology to deliver, support, measure and manage learning and the professional development of teachers.

For 2019 and beyond, a push may not be sufficient without a stronger pull for skills from the labour market and from parents demanding skills, not just credentials, from the education system. Moreover, reforming the education system must be accompanied by other sectorial reforms. For example, civil service reforms are necessary because teachers are selected and recruited through the civil service function of governments. Labor market reforms are also important because labour market policies create incentives for employers to use open channels to identify skills.

The pull for skills also requires curricula to be modernised to move away from rote-learning, and instead promote critical thinking and creativity. It is also essential that students learn digital skills to be ready for the jobs of the future, and that teachers can draw on the benefits of technology to improve the learning environment. With the push and pull for learning and skills, governments and societies will need to rally around a renewed vision for education and establish a new pact where everyone is responsible, and everyone is accountable.

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“Accumulating years of schooling is not enough; what matters is how much children are actually learning. Having a credential or a certificate will be increasingly less valuable if it’s not accompanied by the skills young people need to be more productive,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Senior Director for Education.

“The region needs to dramatically improve the quality of education. This will require a concerted effort to give teachers and schools the tools to equip students with fundamental skills while fostering inquisitive minds that are essential in an ever more challenging world.”

“Despite the reforms, all MENA countries, regardless of geography, demography or economy have untapped education potential,” said Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali, World Bank MENA Education Practice Manager and author of the new report.

“Unleashing this potential requires a shift in mindset and tackling deeply held social norms, reforms that go beyond the education system, and alignment of interests among all stakeholders on a shared vision of the goals of education.”

MENA has remained stuck in a low-learning, low-skills level. Students in the region have consistently ranked among the lowest on international learning assessments.

Unleashing education’s potential requires a ‘push’ for learning, a ‘pull’ for skills and a new ‘pact’ for education. Some challenges that could be holding back education in the region may include credentials and skills, discipline and inquiry, control and autonomy, tradition and modernity.

These challenges are deeply embedded in the region’s history, culture, and political economy and reflected in schools and classrooms. To realise the potential of education, MENA countries would need to tackle these challenges and establish an education system that prepares all students for a productive and successful future. If not addressed, MENA may continue to operate below its potential.

But a concerted push for learning that starts early for all children regardless of background, with qualified and motivated educators, that leverages technology and uses modern approaches and monitors learning can help address some of the challenges. Another approach is a stronger pull for skills by all stakeholders in the labour market and society that involves coordinated multi-system reforms within and beyond the education system.

Also, new pact for education at the national level with a unified vision, shared responsibilities and accountability could help unleash the potential of education in MENA. Education is everyone’s business and not just the responsibility of the education system.

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These offers an opportunity for MENA to charge forward and reclaim its heritage of a learned region and meet the expectations and aspirations of its people.

“Education is the key to turning the drive and aspirations of the region’s young people into an engine of growth,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa.

“What is now a source of frustration for the millions of unemployed graduates could become a launch pad for innovations that transform the region’s economies. The goal is not to catch up with other education systems, but to leverage new technologies and the creativity of young people to triple-jump into the future.”

The current situation in MENA requires a renewed focus on education for the forthcoming year and yonder, not just as a national priority for economic growth and social development but as a national emergency for stability, peace, and prosperity.

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