By Dr Philip Powell-Davies – Education and Social Development Consultant.

Significant and growing numbers of young people across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are being inadequately educated and are emerging from education systems with little or no employment prospects as a result of poor teaching, antiquated curricula and a lack of practical skills both hard and soft.

The evidence of underperformance in education systems in many countries in the region is well documented: low literacy rates; poorly trained and demotivated teachers; an over-reliance on rote learning and memorization; low secondary and higher education enrolment; high drop-out rates and high levels of unemployment.

Basic schooling that is taken for granted elsewhere is falling short. Education systems struggle to attract and retain good teaching staff and use out-dated pedagogies with traditional models of learning, which leave students poorly equipped to function in more modern knowledge-based economies.

The issue is of critical importance because good quality education is a contributor to sustained economic growth. However, it is not in itself a sufficient condition for strong economic performance and employment opportunities especially since the advent of the Arab Spring. Explanations for this might be the low level of quality of schooling and educational outcomes, but an equally plausible explanation is that it is symptomatic of structural imbalances in MENA economies. The absence and under-performance of a vibrant private sector is critical in this regard. The scale of the problem is huge and growing, and unlike more mature developed economies, MENA does not have an ageing population but one that is dominated by a very large proportion of young people [two thirds of the population across the region are below the age of 25.] What this means is that millions of young people across the region are not being well-served by their governments in general terms and by their education systems most specifically. The largest numbers, unsurprisingly, are in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Expectations and payback

In spite of increasing levels of spend across the region over many years, expectations have not been met. Basic schooling has not delivered the levels required in mathematics and literacy, meaning many young people are unemployable in any occupation requiring basic numeracy and communication. Greater emphasis is required on science and mathematics, as currently almost two thirds of students graduate in social sciences and humanities. There is insufficient supply of students with competencies best suited to the economic development needs of the region. Also, the mismatch between expectations and economic return is most acute for those who stay in the system the longest. For those who have progressed to higher education, there is insufficient payback; the returns to higher education are low, and unemployment has disproportionately impacted on those who have graduated from higher education.  This is a topic that will be addressed by a number of speakers at the Cairo Symposium.

As a result of these failures, many young people feel not only disillusioned and economically disenfranchised, but also powerless to influence change for the better.

What is required?

Better outcomes at primary, secondary, technical/vocational and tertiary levels are all essential – primarily improvements in quality, but accompanied by the necessary increases in capacity and capabilities especially in the development of technical skills. An education system needs to be able to respond to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as government. This is the major systemic weakness observable in education systems across the countries of the MENA region.

There are three dominant components that can help improve quality and develop a system that is responsive to the needs of economies:

  • Performance management - the need to link rewards and incentives to educational outcomes is a growing imperative. This type of mechanism is more familiar to those in the private sector than the public sector, and necessitates the availability of timely and accurate information. The same applies to the professionalisation of school management and to those in supervisory positions throughout the system.
  • Resources – multiple studies reinforce the need for high calibre teaching staff as one of the main drivers for successful outcomes. Experience often needs to be imported in several of the countries of the region – this is often expensive to attract and transient in nature. It is also clear that simply increasing the spend on education does not necessarily ensure better student outcomes in the long term. What is required are strategies which prioritise investment and sequence those investments appropriately to help to build a well-integrated education system as a whole – and one that increasingly works in partnership with employers to understand the needs of the market.
  • Accountability to stakeholders - Herein lies what is perhaps one of the key issues at the heart of the Arab spring; the opportunity to influence how systems such as education and health are constructed and financed. In many MENA countries, such mechanisms are either very weak, non-existent or actively resisted by governments.

What are the options for effecting change?

More of the same will not deliver positive results, that is clear. Reform should consider a wide range of options to generate change, options that are contextually appropriate and not simply ‘bought in’ from outside.

Effective education institutions are needed in order to foster and encourage good teaching. This in turn facilitates the kind of effective learning that enables children and young people to develop their full potential. They do this by acquiring knowledge and skills which they can translate into their daily lives.

In order for educational institutions to be considered effective the community has to be involved in the work of the school and hold it accountable;  teachers need to be trained and supported to develop their skills in the classroom so that they become professionally fulfilled and carry out their roles appropriately; students need to attend school/college regularly and learn in a student-centred environment; schools and colleges need to be managed well on a day-to-day basis; and finally, the government has to provide strategic leadership to the system as a whole, ensuring all the various elements are considered and functioning.

What is required, therefore, is a planned approach to educational reform which is aimed at enhancing student learning outcomes as well as the system’s capacity for managing change, supported throughout by the government authorities. This underlines the importance of an enabling environment as well as processes and activities that have to be in place in order to make schools (and the system as a whole) more effective and achieve improved performance.

It is clear that in the countries of the MENA region this implies a dual focus on effectiveness and improvement, whether at the level of student learning outcomes or service delivery more generally.  A joined-up approach to achieving a well-managed system includes a focus on both school-level factors as well as broader contextual factors, recognising that educational outcomes do not depend solely on educational institutions alone. They are influenced by a range of factors including poverty, economic performance, stability, gender, access, equity, social context, family circumstances, and health.

When we think about contextual factors, a holistic approach to achieving a well-managed system which provides students with the skills needed for employment needs to consider a number of issues:

  • what is providing the pressure to become more effective (eg. market mechanisms and demand issues; the participation of the community in education, social change and so on);
  • how integrated reform interventions operate at all levels: national, provincial and school, to align resources with policy priorities, ensure that groups of schools are mutually supportive, and develop the capacity of, and provide the time for, all the relevant actors to work collaboratively;
  • the effectiveness of current systems of monitoring and accountability in ensuring the performance of teachers, head teachers and others in the system
  • what resources are made available to facilitate school development (financial, decision-making, administrative and so on); and
  • the educational goals being set for enhanced access and equity, better quality education, improved student learning outcomes and enhanced opportunities.

When we think about the school-level factors, a holistic approach to making the system more effective and better planned and managed should include:

  • the levers of change and improvement – i.e. the students, teachers, head teachers, local level administrators and mentors;
  • how these individuals contribute to an institutional culture that supports integrated planning and delivery;
  • a definition of what that culture looks like in terms of internal pressure to change and improve; leadership; ownership of a shared vision which defines a learning organisation; motivation to change and improve; training and mentoring; peer teacher support mechanisms; staff stability and so on;
  • a structure or roadmap which outlines the process involved from needs assessment to the setting of goals; detailed planning of interventions and activities supported by an implementation timeline; and with adequate opportunity to take stock, reflect and evaluate progress and outcomes; and
  • setting clear goals that are understood by all stakeholders in terms of improvements in the quality of the school, the teachers, the school managers and, ultimately, of student learning outcomes.

Based on the factors outlined here, the options that leaders and policy makers should consider for education reform in MENA include:

  • Giving more power to the people, ceding control to the local or institutional level, and allowing people to influence the shape of education institutions, the ownership of institutions, and to play a role with schools that enables them to influence what education is delivered and how;
  • Playing the role of market maker, by acting as a regulator and a buyer of services, not simply as a provider. Governments should consider extending the role of the private sector – not just in infrastructure but in the full education value chain – in order to embed in the system the incentives that will help to drive change;
  • Developing closer ties to industry and commerce and becoming more responsive to their needs. This may mean, for example, being prepared to partner in new ways. Government can be the coordinator of contributors, rather than the benefactor and provider.
  • Focus on delivering more technical and vocational training that delivers enhanced pathways for increased numbers of students as well as increased employment rates in the longer term. Such provision needs to examine options other than the traditional 3-4 year academic commitments of a university degree and provide a wider range of apprenticeship schemes, modular and part-time study and so on;
  • Be radical in thinking about performance management. Incentives; improved use of data for decision-making; better quality data; and systems for measuring and ensuring quality will all be necessary if anything is to be achieved in a short timeframe.

 The imperative to accelerate appropriate reform on a regional scale is a unique challenge. Although  many of the initiatives and approaches suggested have precedents in international markets from which MENA governments can learn, it is important to build contextually appropriate and tailored approaches that can work. Too many countries, especially in the GCC, have become hostages to fortune as a result of buying in external models of market-driven education provision and advice from management consultancy companies – the majority of which have not delivered the results that were expected. Governments and their partners across the MENA region need to think and act radically in reforming and investing in their education systems to secure positive long-term change and provide real opportunities for the millions of young people who pass through these systems.