About 21 million of children and adolescents across the Middle East and North Africa region are either out of school or at risk of dropping out, according to a recent joint report by UNICEF and UNESCO.
The report comes as a part of the “out of school children” initiative by UNICEF and UNESCO institute of statistics, which seeks to better understand the nature of children deprived of a school education, their environments and the barriers that lead them to be excluded from schools.
Children from poor families, girls and those living in rural communities or in conflict areas constitute the majority of out of school children, the report said.
“At a time of such change and turmoil, this region simply can’t afford to let 21 million children fall by the wayside,” said Maria Calivis, regional director for UNICEF MENA in a statement. “These children must be given the opportunity to acquire the skills they need through education in order to play their part in the region’s transformation.”
The report said about 12.3 million children and young adolescents in the region are already out of school, and 6 million are at the risk of dropping out. Another 3 million don’t go to school in Syria and Iraq due to the conflicts in those countries—this number could rise if the conflicts intensify.
Djibouti and Sudan have the highest number of out of school children, scoring 41.7 per cent and 48.5 per cent respectively for children of primary school age. Tunisia and Morocco had the lowest rates—about 0.1 per cent and 1.3 percent for children in the same age group.
Some think the situation won’t change anytime soon because of poor and inefficient policies adopted by Arab governments.
“In Arab states, education doesn’t serve developmental needs,” said Abd El Hafeez Tayel, the director of the Egyptian Center for the Right to Education. “There is no link between educational curricula and the labor market, and no developmental return can be achieved from such [a situation]. As a result, families think of pulling their children out of school to save on the high costs of education, especially in Egypt where families spend a lot of money on private lessons.”
Egyptian families spend about 42 percent of their total expenditures for their children’s education on private tutoring, said UNICEF Egypt, while 54 per cent of children currently out of school in Egypt said their parents don’t want them to go school.
Tayel said that if dropout rates continue, it will negatively affect development in the region. Rates of violence will rise, he said.
Meanwhile, the report says “on average, a girl in the MENA region is 25 percent less likely to be in school than a boy,” mainly due to social attitudes, early marriage and a lack of female teachers. This proportion varies sharply from country to country and in some countries girls have a higher enrollment rate.
Although enrollment rates are rising in the region—the number of out-of-school children was reduced by 40 percent over the past decade—school children are getting a low quality education putting them at the risk of dropping out, the report said.
A newspaper columnist, Rami G. Khouri, who is also senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, wrote in Lebanon’s Daily Star that the lack of educational quality was “the most frightening finding of the report.”
Khouri emphasized that “about half of all school children in the Arab world actually are not learning,” according to worldwide tests on literacy and numeracy skills of primary and secondary school students.
The report recommends that governments should “scale up efforts to prioritize education needs of vulnerable families,” improve education standards and tackle drop out and gender disparity issues.
But that isn’t happening, says Tayel.
“Governments view such reports about education but don’t respond positively,” said Tayel. He says it’s in the interest of Arab leaders to keep the status quo. “Arab leaders depend on the notion that ignorant people are much easier to rule than educated ones.”
But unless all children have access to free and high quality education, where curricula should be designed to stimulate the student to think critically and creatively, that goal will backfire, Khouri wrote.
“If this does not happen, these tens of millions of uneducated young Arabs will prove to be our own homemade weapons of our own mass destruction,” Khouri said.