As Lebanon continues to suffer under both, its rudderless political deadlock and a dire economic crisis, concerned parents are yet again worrying over the sorry state of their country’s education sector. Following the sudden and unexpected cancellation of this year’s Brevet exams in June, many are questioning whether they will be able to send their children back to school when the new academic year begins next month.
The cost of education in Lebanon is projected to rise to an average of $550 per child for the coming school year, driven by adjustments to school fees, increased tuition costs and an overall move towards ‘dollarization’ as the country moves away from the highly volatile Lebanese pound. However, the average monthly salary in Lebanon has decreased to less than $200 dollars.
Lebanon education standards
Meanwhile, deep deficits within the education sector have been eroding the once celebrated high standards of Lebanon’s schools and universities for years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of a crushing financial meltdown broke the back of an already sick system.
“Lebanese students [are] actually scoring lower [than a decade ago], below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average,” UNICEF Deputy Representative Ettie Higgins told Al Arabiya English. “These are pre-existing problems of the education sector that have worsened with the ongoing economic crisis.”
“There is a very strong private sector presence in education, but there is a consistent lack of investment in public education, particularly in primary education,” she added. “The resources coming from the government are insufficient to meet their needs.”
Relying on fundraising, alumni
Since the beginning of the economic crisis, many schools in Lebanon – out of necessity – have undertaken fundraising campaigns, relying upon their own alumni or the Lebanese diaspora to provide them with the means to continue with their operations. Parents of students are also frequently being asked for additional contributions on top of the usual fees for their wards.
This situation has been exacerbated by strict capital controls, which force those with pre-crisis US dollar bank accounts to now make withdrawals in Lebanese pounds at unfavorable exchange rates, far short of what is available on the black market.
“We lost our contract with the New England Centre For Children because the bank took all our money and wouldn’t let us transfer our funds – and then we started losing the kids,” said Sarita Trad, Founder and General Manager of the Beirut-based 123 Autism School, specialized for children with autism-related learning difficulties. “I was also losing teachers due to low salaries,” she added.
“There are so many Lebanese who cannot afford to pay the school fees for their kids,” she lamented. “How can a man who makes $40 a month pay for his son or daughter’s school fees?”
Schools unable to meet their funding requirements are forced to make drastic spending cuts to avoid shutting down. Extracurricular activities have been stopped. Snacks and drinks for students have been removed from the classrooms. Even necessities such as electricity and heating are under threat, due to widespread power outages and high fuel prices.
This circumstance led teachers to stage strikes that closed hundreds of schools across Lebanon for months early this year and lasting until mid-March. Negotiations are still on between the teachers’ unions and the Ministry of Education over working conditions and pay, casting a shadow over whether some schools will be reopening next term without a clear resolution.
International agencies, NGOs providing aid
International agencies and NGOs are currently providing a vital aid to Lebanon’s embattled educators. UNICEF alone has dispersed almost $14 million to more than 1,000 public schools, as well as delivering in-kind donations – such as books and stationery – and providing cash assistance to the families of approximately 100,000 children to cover transportation costs.
They have also initiated a new Productivity Allowance scheme – funded jointly by donors, UNICEF and the World Bank – to secure the pay of more than 13,000 special contract teachers and administrative staff. This initiative also supports an extension of school services into the summer, hoping to redress the severe disruption to children’s education in recent years.
“We are keeping the schools open for at least six weeks to run summer schools,” explained Higgins. “It’s absolutely essential that students try to recoup some of their learning losses.”
She further said: “Many children [who were] supposed to be getting ready for school and going to preschool during the COVID years [have] missed out on critical years of their development. [These children are] unable to recognize letters. They are not able to communicate properly [and] are very anxious in groups of other children. They’re definitely suffering from the lack of consistent access to education.”
The Lebanese government insists that it is doing everything in its powers to keep the schools open and find resources for the coming academic year. However, UNICEF maintains that there are urgent reforms that need to be undertaken before Lebanon’s education system is truly fit for the purpose again.
“We’re working to help [implement] measures such as reducing the number of teachers in areas where there is a surplus, opening new classrooms where they are needed, and closing classrooms where they are not,” explained Higgins.
“We’re [also] funding important policy work such as launching an inclusive education strategy and providing world-class technical assistance and support to the Ministry.”
The crisis has also afflicted many economic sectors across Lebanon – including education – with an alarming level of ‘brain drain,’ as large numbers of graduates and skilled professionals exit the local employment pool in search of better prospects and job security elsewhere.
Other countries in similar situations have historically struggled to attract back young, qualified emigrants but, without them, Lebanon’s future looks bleak.
“We are losing good teachers [because] they are going abroad,” said Trad. “Lots of teachers have changed their jobs or even their careers. They started working as waiters and that is going to be a very big risk for the future.”
“Even when schools get back on their feet,” warned Higgins, “it’s going to be hard to find graduates, teachers and education practitioners who have the experience to help get the schools back up and running again.”
Lebanon’s Ministry for Education was approached by Al Arabiya English, but it declined to comment.