The academic year 2019-2020 has been the most dysfunctional one Lebanon has experienced in recent memory. It has also highlighted discrepancies in the quality of education that high-income families have access to versus that which low income families can afford. This inequality needs to be addressed and rectified if Lebanon is to place its hope of a brighter future on its well-educated human capital.
Discrepancies in access to quality education were most apparent in two aspects this year, the first being distance learning programs implemented when all schools were mandated to close due to the outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of February (see article on distance learning). Schools that cater to high-income familiars tend to follow international programs that are technology-based and hence made a smoother transition to interactive online learning and assessment. On the other end of the spectrum, distance learning in private schools in remote areas of Lebanon as well as public schools across the board, i.e. those schools that cater to medium- to low- or low-income students, was largely reliant on having students watch their teacher on YouTube or television (with no monitoring or assessment of knowledge involved) or, at worst, non-existent.
Secondly, discrepancies occurred due to the ongoing economic crisis, with low- to medium-income parents finding themselves no longer able to afford their children’s tuition in private schools and many switching them to less expensive and low-tier private schools or public schools (around 100,000 students are estimated to have made the switch to public schools this year, see school financials article). If this trend continues in the 2020/2021 academic year, as expected according to those Executive spoke with, then the education gap in Lebanon could be further deepened as those who can afford it enjoy schools with a holistic approach to learning and those who can’t are stuck with rote-based learning. The implications this has on Lebanon’s human capital once all these children graduate and become adult members of society is disheartening.
But this does not have to be the case. While it is sadly expected that there will be a variation in the quality of education provided in elite private schools versus public schools or low-tier private schools, it is the job of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) to sincerely strive and provide the largest number of students possible in Lebanon with the best possible education. Executive realizes that having very high-quality education across all the schools in Lebanon may not be feasible, but all students in Lebanon should have access to a good quality education that allows them to develop into well-rounded human beings.
It is high time that education gets a seat at the table and is earnestly discussed with the goal of developing an integrated national strategy that would cater to all Lebanese. Through this strategy, a pathway to improve the quality of education provided in public schools needs to be outlined and ideas to reduce the cost of private school education should also be addressed.
For this strategy to truly be comprehensive and inclusive it needs to involve a wide scope of stakeholders, under the MoEHE’s initiative and guidance, starting with the students themselves and the parent committees and moving on to teachers and school administrations. It should also include representatives of nonprofit organizations, tech startups, and academics involved in education. The role of these stakeholders would be to pool their expertise into forming this strategy, which, frankly, has a lot of ground to cover.
A national strategy on education should have, as its base, a restructuring of the Lebanese curriculum, which has not been updated since 1996. This means critically evaluating what Lebanese students are learning now and bridging the gap between the current curricula and 21st century skills, such as research and coding, currently being taught in the country’s best private schools.
In line with that, the integrated strategy should improve the MoEHE’s distance learning initiative and make it more accessible to a wider number of Lebanese by, for example, strengthening internet connections across Lebanon or providing public school students with cheap phones for studying through WhatsApp. Distance learning can also be made more effective by introducing mandatory monitoring and assessment techniques, which are currently lacking from the MoEHE’s initiative, thereby reducing the efficacy of distance learning in the public and private schools that follow the initiative
Reducing the cost of education in private schools should also be on the agenda as well, with discussions on the merits of ideas like continuing online learning for a set number of days per week—the theory being that it would reduce expenses on parents (such as cost of transport to school, school lunches, physical cost of books if they can be bought online) and schools (cost of water and electricity and transport for their teachers).
Executive is aware that developing and then implementing such a strategy comes with a hefty budget. It is not within our scope of knowledge or expertise to estimate the cost of such a strategy but Lebanon has many potential partners, nations like the UK (see interview with ambassador) and multilateral organizations, which are already supporting MoEHE and from whom it could continue to benefit.
What the strategy ends up looking like does not matter so long as the main outcome is making affordable and good quality education accessible to as many students in Lebanon as possible. The future of Lebanon relies on its well-educated citizens and youth contributing to rebuilding and reshaping the nation as we pass through the crises of today.