Arab world’s education systems need radical reform
The Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt, is about to roll-out a program handing a million specially designed tablets to 10th grade students. Eventually every single schoolchild will get one for free. Of course this is a different type of tablet to the wooden ones used in ancient Egyptian schools thousands of years ago — it is a bespoke electronic aid running a centralized curriculum and teaching materials. The Egyptian school textbook is not quite ready for the rubbish tip, but it seems just a matter of time as its classroom presence will only be maintained until students are at ease with the new system.
For a country with limited resources and a decrepit education system that is much in need of reform, this is going to be some roll-out. The World Bank has just announced a $500 million injection of funds for Egyptian educational reforms. But will it solve or start to solve the problems of the education sector in Egypt — a country that still has an illiteracy rate of 20.1 percent? Does technology hold the answers for a region that so desperately needs to develop its knowledge economy, trigger research and nurture creativity?
Tablets in schools around the world are a growing trend. About three-quarters of Britain’s schools use them. Many teachers report that this online generation does appreciate them and become more enthusiastic learners. Uruguay was the first country in the world to give all primary schoolchildren laptops, but this is a nation with a much smaller population. Thailand was another country to do it early.
Yet in Egypt the tablet scheme is going to be far more dominant, with each one able to access the internet with a SIM card. This should certainly help in upgrading the 21st century skills that students will require and, if deployed well, can be a huge asset even for problem-solving and writing.
Education by rote learning is still in fashion in much of the Middle East, but this does not place a premium on critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving or leadership.
This techno-takeover of the classroom may have its pros, but there are cons. The human element of teaching is thus reduced, even bypassed. On one level this might work, as the quality of teachers in Egypt is sadly not of the highest standard. One teacher told me that males in particular are largely not keen or motivated, having never been inspired to do the job and not holding the role in high esteem.
Education by rote learning is still in fashion in much of the Middle East, but this does not place a premium on critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving or leadership. Will a tablet solve this? Possibly, but human input is still vital and so, therefore, is improved teacher training. This is what Egypt and many other countries in the region so desperately need.
This is one reason why many Middle Eastern nations are joining the rush to entice international schools to set up in their countries; to bring their brands, experience and know-how. More than 600,000 students in the UAE are now enrolled at such schools, and more than 200,000 in Saudi Arabia. They are becoming increasingly popular as trust in the state sector diminishes. But many will argue that fee-paying schools just benefit the elite and more privileged sectors of society. The challenge of high-quality universal primary and secondary education remains.
For those countries in the midst of intense conflicts, like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, whole generations face missing out on an education. According to UNICEF, a jaw-dropping 22 million schoolchildren in the Middle East have dropped out of school or are on the verge of doing so, largely due to these wars. Around two million of these are Syrian. But, even in a country like Algeria, which is not facing conflict, reports suggest 400,000 schoolchildren drop out of the education system every year.
Wars have dented some progress in the Arab world, where primary school enrolment had improved drastically and literacy rates were way above where they were 50 years ago. But none of this should mask the deep-rooted, systemic problems in many state education systems. One has to question why no Arab university figures in the world’s top 150 and why the brightest and best academic and scientific talents still make a beeline for Western universities and centers of learning. Arab states accounted for 1 percent of global research and development expenditure in 2013 — a figure that has to increase massively if the region is to advance on the world stage.
Many do go to university but find themselves as graduates without job opportunities and are often ill-equipped for the employment market. Moreover, educational systems have a poor record in turning out creative talents and entrepreneurs that can help grow economies.
Radical and deep-rooted reform will require far more significant state funding and investment. Starting with schools is the way forward, not least as research demonstrates that the first five years of a child’s education is so crucial. Technology helps but must not be a substitute for human input. Egypt is trying with its tablet initiative to do this and one hopes that, in 10 years’ time, the country will see the benefits.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech