|Lebanon is a country that puts a great deal of value on education, where the Lebanese take exceptional pride in their trilingual skills and their ability to adapt in any environment — irrefutable proof of the quality of their education.|
However, despite being the second-largest item, after defense, on the national budget (11% in 2005), 96% primary school enrollment and 90% youth literacy rates, the public education sector in Lebanon is plagued by inequalities and high dropout rates, as much as 23% at the intermediate level according to a World Bank report.
High Dropout, Low Result
Most experts agree that the quality of education in Lebanon is not commensurate with the level of investment. Primary education completion rates in Lebanon are lower than in Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, countries with significantly lower GNI per capita.
Dropout rates are also disturbingly high. Between 2001 and 2006 enrollment in elementary public schools dropped by 12% and enrollment in the intermediate cycle dropped by 6% during the same period. During the 2003/2004 academic year, 19% of children dropped out at the elementary level, 23% at the intermediate level and a further 11% at the secondary level.
There is no tangible study on the reasons for students dropping out of school although many reasons may be attributable to it. On the side of pure economics, Lebanese public schools are not completely free, registration and books having to be paid for. In certain areas, especially rural, it may be more viable to employ the children rather than send them to school, which points to a disillusionment with public schooling in particular and a lack of awareness about education in general.
A representative from Rearden Educational, a regional firm that specializes in education consultancy, noted that parents take their children out of schools because they see more advantages to them working than continuing their education. “No awareness is made of the importance of education,” he said. “Sure, there will be short-term economic repercussions to losing a part of your potential workforce, but what they don’t see is that the long-term effects are more beneficial.”
Other experts agree. There is a general disenchantment with the future, they say, a lack of hope in general, prompting these students to seek work rather than continue their schooling.
Lebanon’s performance on the international assessment arena gives no cause for joy either. In international comparative tests of mathematics and science achievement (TIMMS), Lebanon was outperformed in science by Morocco, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan. In mathematics, its students performed well below the international average and, “when adjusted for level of income, significantly below expectations.”
An Inefficient, Inadequate Sector
The problems cannot be attributed to a lack of personnel, however. Indeed, there are too many teachers in Lebanon. A quick glance at the expenditure outlays in the education sector shows that 82% of the budget is used for salaries. In the last 30 years, the number of teachers has increased by 111% while the number of students has only increased by 25%. The education sector employs around 9% of the total labor force, which translates into a student/teacher ratio of 17:1 at the primary level and 8:1 at the secondary level, well above international averages.
Educational establishments are also inefficiently used, with almost a quarter of all schools having less than 100 students.
This inefficient use of resources can be traced straight back to the source. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) itself continues to operate as three separate sub-sectors – general, vocational and higher education – despite their official unification under one ministry in 2000. According to the World Bank, these directorates do not have an integrated vision or a strategic development plan, thus creating gaps and duplications in organizational design, and are manned by a “disproportionate number of unqualified, temporary, or contract staff.”
Who’s Teaching Whom What?
The public education system in Lebanon is creating a vicious circle. Most students attending public schools tend to come from the poorer, more disadvantaged sections of the population. A survey of the total number of general education schools by region in 2005/2006 shows that most public schools are located in the most economically disadvantaged areas of the North and the Bekaa.
Teaching the most disadvantaged segments of the population is an unqualified teaching force: 43% of permanent and 36% of contractual teachers have adequate academic diplomas in subject matters they teach. Hiring and retaining highly-qualified teachers is a challenge, especially in view the low salary base teachers receive (starting at around $560 for teachers with an undergraduate degree, even less for those with vocational training). This means that pretty much any teacher, given the opportunity to move into the private sector locally or in the Gulf countries where salaries tend to be a little higher, does so.
In addition, the Lebanese curriculum, last updated in 1999, does not conform to new standards of teaching that are currently being adopted in most countries in the region. Schools are not properly equipped to provide students with a modern education.
Of the 1,399 public schools in the country, 35% do not have computers and more than 50% have less than 10 computers. More than 96% of schools do not have LCD projectors, Internet availability or a website. The result is a graduating labor force unable to compete on the national job front, let alone the international scene. A sad state of affairs for a country once touted as a potential informatics and technological hub in the region, and for a section of the population that is already at the lower end of the scale.
“Lebanon is as far as can be from innovative teaching methods and technological teaching,” says Rearden. “Even if the material is physically there, which it is not, no one is trained, or receives the training, to use it.”
What to do?
In order to address these deficiencies in the Lebanese public education system, the ministry has formulated an Education Sector Reform Strategy Action Plan for 2007-2009 with the following objectives:
- Ensure equitable access to education services for all students
- Ensure a universal and better quality basic education for all
- Enhance the efficiency, effectiveness and competence level of the teaching workforce
- Develop and align curricula with global and ICT trends, job opportunities and labor requirements
What Lebanon can learn from the Singapore model
In the mid-1960s, Singapore, a tiny nation with four ethnic groups and devoid of natural resources, embarked on an educational reform program under the banner “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”, with the aim to produce a competitive labor force able to compete in the global market and in industries increasingly relying on Information Technology. The main pillars of the program included:
– Decentralizing of the educational system to allow schools to reply to local needs
– Creative thinking rather than rote learning as a cornerstone of the educational system
– Attract and retain qualified personnel in educational institutions
– Massive introduction of computers and technology in the classroom
– Ability-based merit system allowing students to be streamlined into university, technical or vocational education based on their ability.
Although not without their critics, the results have been impressive: school dropout rates were down to 4% in secondary sections in the late 1990s from 19% twenty years before, and in primary schools to less than half the 11% of the 1980s; per capita income grew to almost $27,000 from $530 in 1965. And to top it all off, Singapore has consistently ranked highest in international assessment tests since 1995.
This plan seeks to enforce the law on compulsory education at the intermediate level, provide at-risk students with the needed support, to implement a professional development and continuous training program for teachers, a content-enhancing curriculum, career counseling services based on the capabilities and needs of students as well as the needs of the labor market and available opportunities, implement an ICT literacy program in all public schools, and the diversification of higher education to adapt curricula to global and ICT trends.
These initiatives are all highly commendable but beg the question: how did the public education sector came into this state of being in the first place? Years of civil conflict, neglect and aborted reform programs have not offered the sector a promising future. Viewing the current state of a stumped government and continual political bickering, it is unlikely that the Strategy Action Plan for 2007-2009 will be seen through to its conclusion.
“There are no ingredients for reform, no financial incentives, no professional development,” explains Rearden. “Unfortunately, for us the position of the Minister of Education is a highly-politicized one. Ministers in general lack the experience and the ability to carry through a reform program.”
This is also unfortunate for the disadvantaged student receiving a disadvantaged education, as this attempt at a reform initiative is not the first to be stalled and most likely, will not be the last. “Not much has happened to public education in Lebanon since the 1960s,” said Rearden, “except that it has stayed firmly rooted there.”
Sources close to the ministry, however, disagree that the plan is not moving. They argue that several changes have already been implemented and that the Education Sector Strategy document was sent to the Council of Ministers in September 2007 for endorsement.
Show Me The Money
There is no shortage of assistance to the Lebanese educational sector, although exact figures are difficult to come by. Following the Summer 2006 war, aid and soft loans from the World Bank and the European Union, American-based IT companies and several Arab countries poured in to rebuild damaged schools, reform the system and create a networking system in schools.
The problem is not the money, say experts, but how it is disbursed. Aid also tends to be in the form of technical assistance, the drawing up of networking plans, teacher training sessions or, as in the case of the World Bank loan, assistance with a reform program.
“Some critics say it would be better if the money was going to, and distributed by, NGOs rather than the government, for the fact that NGOs just pay where there is a need, whereas in the government, it ends up going through this whole system and payment becomes a whole delaying issue.”
The government will have to work very hard to push through a successful educational reform program and revamp the image of the public school system as being an inadequate, free-for-all institution. In the meantime, it is the future of a whole population that hangs in the balance. For the sake of Lebanon, one should hope it succeeds.