Palestinian economy - The struggle to raise educational standards

16 May 2008

The Palestinian Authority has identified a need to improve the education system if today’s pupils are to become the nation builders of tomorrow. But effecting change is proving difficult.

Palestine is a young nation. The Palestinian Education Ministry estimates that 53 per cent of the population is enrolled at school or university. This represents both a blessing and a curse for the Palestinian Authority. With such a young population across the Occupied Territories, education will play a critical role as the economy works towards expansion and stability.

If these students can be trained adequately and sufficient work opportunities can be provided, they could become a huge asset to the country. If not, they could become a burden, reduced to supplying cheap labour to Israel, and stifling the emergence of the entrepreneurial middle class required for a sustainable modern economy. As a result, renewed emphasis is being placed on Palestinian schools and universities, and on training teachers.

A March report compiled by various stakeholders in the education system identifies an urgent need to improve teachers’ salaries and working conditions. However, achieving this will take time and is partly dependent on a corresponding improvement in the security situation. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain the best teachers.

Retaining staff

The culture of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that has emerged across the Occupied Territories has tempted many educators away with improved salaries. Many professors have launched their own NGOs to cash in on the international aid flooding into the West Bank and Gaza. Others have been lured away by offers of better-paid work in the Gulf. At the same time, the Education Ministry has been accused of promoting too many civil servants internally, while neglected teachers drift away.

Education & Higher Education Minister Lamis Alami has pledged to reverse this trend and to revisit teacher training, but it will be a long and arduous process given the limited resources available.

Meanwhile, Professor Maher Hashweh, dean of the faculty of arts at Birzeit University, identifies broader cultural issues that need to be addressed if the Palestinian education system is to reach a standard to equip its pupils to lead their country forward. “The authoritarianism in schools reflects the culture and serves to maintain it, thus not preparing students adequately for a democratic society,” he says.

The quality of education is under constant pressure from the many interested parties and is the subject of a new initiative under the Palestinian Reform & Development Plan (PRDP).

“Considering the situation we are facing, it is a success to be able to provide educational services at all,” says Alami. “The population growth in Palestine means we have to deal with an increasing school population, providing additional classrooms or school buildings. The economic hardships make this very hard. We are heavily dependent on donor contributions.”

Resources remain scarce. In Gaza, where the problem is most acute, 60 per cent of schools operate on a ‘double-shift’ basis, with the same buildings serving two school administrations - one using the facilities for the morning, the other in the afternoon.

The clear knock-on effect of this is to reduce the amount of time Palestinian children spend in the classroom, and Alami is candid about her concern that education’s vital role in their social development is weakened as a result. “Sometimes the influence of the street is stronger than the influence of school,” she says.

Providing facilities

Education is compulsory in the Occupied Territories up to secondary school year 10 (age 16), and compared with other developing countries, the government and the aid community have been successful in providing access to school facilities for Palestinian children. The drop-out rate up to the age of 16 is only 1 per cent. “When you compare this with neighbouring countries, this is a great success,” says Alami.

The system’s weaknesses, however, lie in the poor quality of the education provided, which the government, educators, and international institutions all recognise is still below the standard needed for nation building and economic development.

“There has been criticism of the emphasis on rote learning and the neglect of the development of critical and higher-order thinking skills,” says Hashweh. “Palestinian children do not learn sufficient life skills or receive adequate preparation for work. The education system is seen by many as too bookish.”

Alami agrees that change is needed. “We need to revisit the curriculum for science in particular, along the lines of the TIMSS [Third International Mathematics & Science Study] exam,” he says. “We need much greater teaching of applied science. Our current system is much more academic and is not of such practical use.”

Proposed investment

  • Health: $106m

  • Finance: $135m

  • Agriculture: $78m

  • Education: $10m

Value of projects to be put forward at the Palestine Investment Conference, 21-23 May. Source: Palestine Investment Conference

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