Left behind: public schools in Syrian regime control areas

Children attending a class in Syria (UNICEF)

Children attending a class in Syria (UNICEF)

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Enab Baladi- Amal Rantisi

“I am going to sell a piece of  land and use the money to send my children to a private school because public schools are overcrowded with students, and are always lacking teachers.” 

With these words, a female teacher from Eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside relayed local criticism of public schools in areas controlled by the Syrian regime, and the extreme measures that parents are taking to save their children’s future amid governmental inaction.  

On the condition of anonymity, the teacher told Enab Baladi that “there are nearly 60 students in each classroom, with three students stuffed into the same desk. Hygiene and health conditions are deplorable, and no precautions are taken against the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, the students are offered poor ventilation.”

She pointed out that the situation is no less concerning on the level of administration in public schools. The principal and one assistant have to cover for all the responsibilities arising from operating a school, including cleaning at times, for many of these schools cannot afford to hire cleaning staff. 

She said that it is “a luxury” to have computers or a chemistry lab, or even interactive maps for geography classes and models for science materials. “These are out of the question in public schools.”

Manifold crisis

Public schools, whether they are located in the countryside or in the city, share a manifold crisis. The limited accommodation capacity of educational facilities remains a major challenge, particularly amidst a pandemic. This prompted some parents to send their children to private schools despite their high tuition fees. Some private schools demand a yearly two million Syrian Pounds (SYP-607.9 USD). 

Parents are toiling to make sure their children not only get a proper education, but also protection from a fatal viral infection, but pro-regime media outlets continue to report that classrooms have only 30 students.

On 28 March, local radio Melody FM  hosted Salman Younas, Director of Damascus Education, who definitely had some sharp comments on non-government schooling.

Younas told the radio that public schools as efficient as private ones, national top students all attend government-run schools, slamming private education as “prestigious” and unnecessary. He even called forms of schooling such as one-to-one private lessons as unhealthy antisocial trends.

He added that “as a father, I do believe that public schools are no less operative than private ones. However, if I want to offer my child a luxurious education by sending him to a private school, I should be aware that this absolutely has a price.”

Enab Baladi interviewed a teacher from a public school in al-Midan neighborhood in the capital Damascus. According to the teacher’s account, students in the city share the suffering of their peers in countryside schools, particularly crowdedness. 

Asking that her name be withheld for security reasons, the second teacher said that sometimes  40 to 50 students are closely packed together in the same classroom, denying them quality education. The racket is distracting student’s, affecting their performance, and even causing them stress.

She added that one essential shortage has been adversely disrupting education and learning outcomes. That is teachers themselves. Some course materials are taught by unspecialized tutors. In other cases, students have some courses suspended for a month or more because there are no teachers at all.

The teacher stressed that students’ performance is already affected by their low living standards, such as continuous power outage, while many students are forced to share the same residence with other families due to displacement.

“These disadvantageous conditions have a negative impact on teachers as well. Teachers themselves do not feel like going to public schools. Most prefer teaching in private institutes and giving private lessons. Public schools are their last concern.”

At public schools, newly assigned teachers earn around 45 thousand SYP (12 USD) the teacher said, adding that this does not leave any room for enthusiasm. 

Exploitation, another issue in Homs

In Homs governorates too, parents are in favor of private schools. On the condition of anonymity for security reasons, one such mother told Enab Baladi that various reasons contributed to the growing disdain for public schooling.

She said that she opted for enrolling her children with a private school, first because there is not a good public school in Homs.

She added that public school teachers do not motivate or engage students. “Teachers lack passion. They just walk into the classroom and then leave, even their students do not notice them.”

However, she said, some private schools tend to exploit parents financially, citing the school where her children go. “The school asked me to pay for an expensive blazer, around 20,000 SYP (6 USD), which I really did not want to buy. Sometimes the school forces parents to purchase expensive school bags from the school exclusively, priced at 60,000 SYP (18 USD).”

It is students vs. winter in Aleppo 

In the governorate of Aleppo, students had a rough cold winter. Classrooms are left without heating due to fuel shortages. Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Aleppo said that fuel, if available, is designated for the heaters in the principal’s office or the teachers’ room. 

Despite the constant demands by students’ parents to replace broken window panes in classrooms, the school administration made no repairs. 

Mahmoud, a father of two students at Adham Mustafa school in the al-Ethaa neighborhood, told Enab Baladi, “My children were sick the whole school year. There was no heating in classrooms, in addition to extreme overcrowding. There are 55 and sometimes 65 students in the same room.” 

Mahmoud said, “With the job I have, I cannot afford a private tutor because one session costs 8,000 SYP (2.4 USD) for one or two students.” 

Daraa, residents restoring destroyed schools themselves  

In Daraa, a large number of schools were either completely or partially destroyed during the active fighting or the shelling. As the regime relevant authorities neglected these schools, parents took the matter into their own hands and financed school repairs and restoration work. They do not want their children to be denied their right to education. 

Muhammad Diab, a 45-year-old school teacher in Daraa, told Enab Baladi that pressure on Daraa schools is increasing, for there are barely any schools left to accommodate the increasing number of students. He added that over 30 students are forced into one classroom, draining teachers’ energy and disrupting their ability to channel information to all the students before them. 

Furthermore, several teachers were dismissed before the so-called settlement agreement was signed between the Syrian government and the opposition. Therefore, school administrators rely mostly on substitute and inexperienced teachers, who are either university students or fresh graduates.

Students are hostages

The General Coordinator of the Syrian Digital School in the Turkish state of Gaziantep, Abdullah Zanjir, told Enab Baladi that government education in Syria is experiencing an unprecedented downturn while most Syrians cannot afford private tutors or private schools.

Zanjir described the new generation of learners in the Syrian regime’s areas as “the passengers of the hijacked plane. They are just hostages held by bankrupt hijackers. These hijackers have no money, capabilities, or even ethical solutions.”

Zanjir added that the Syrian authorities have not taken any measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus within the schools. No attention has been given to teachers’ needs. Besides, the authorities did not repair or rebuild schools after the demolition of more than a third of the country’s schools. 

Zanjir said that the quality of education is closely related to health and epidemiological developments, as well as the deteriorating political and economic situation; however, the government is busy with other issues, such as conducting business and pandering to Russians and Iranians.  

Social researcher Muhammad al-Salloum called Syria’s new generation a lost generation, except for those children who were offered a second chance in European countries where they sought asylum.

He added that the Syrian education system is today deeply flawed and corrupted, and students are aware of the sub-standard education they are receiving. Today’s generation  needs to keep pace with technology, not the outdated teaching methods of the 20th century.

Reality is stark, however, Zanjir believes that there are various solutions that the Syrian government can take into consideration to salvage education. Like many countries worldwide, Syria has to embrace online schooling as an alternative to reduce overcrowding at schools. Besides, the government can provide graduate teachers with training on online teaching skills that the UN can finance. He added that schools could also remove unnecessary subjects from the syllabus.

Zanjir, nevertheless, said that the government is unlikely to opt for any of these solutions “due to general paralysis in thinking and management.”

Syrian regime bears the responsibility

Over the course of the conflict, schools were a target to Syrian regime forces, either destroyed during hostilities or used for military purposes.  

On 21 January, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) published a sample of Syrian government documents, showing the conflict’s destructive impact on the country’s education system.

The report says, “In the documents, the government clearly acknowledges its use of schools for military purposes, and recognizes the widespread destruction of schools, specifically in the Idlib region.”

The military use of school buildings is a balatant violation of children’s rights. Deploying militants to schools might lead to closure, denying children access to education, or place children in dangerously close proximity to armed factions, exposing them to possible exploitation and recruitment.

The UN affirmed that education is a right that must be protected and called upon the combatants in Syria to refrain from attacks on educational facilities and personnel throughout the country.

The UN documented nearly 700 attacks on education facilities and personnel in Syria since the verification of grave violations against children started. In 2020, 52 attacks were confirmed.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated, on 24 January, that over two million children have been denied access to education in Syria during the decade-long war. 

The Syrian educational system is at the brink of collapse; it also suffers a lack of funding. The system is fragmented and unable to provide safe, fair, and sustainable services to millions of children, according to a joint statement by the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Muhannad Hadi, and UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ted Chaiban.

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