• Social Issues
    Oct 11, 2023

    Public School System in Crisis: Interview with Rima Bahous

    • Rima Bahous
    Public School System in Crisis: Interview with Rima Bahous
    Credit: Joseph Eid - AFP
    In light of the ongoing crisis in the Lebanese public school system, LCPS asked education expert Rima Bahous what is undermining the school year and what needs to be done in order to stop the dangerous decline of public education in Lebanon.


    The school year has begun but public schools across the country have yet to open their doors. What are the causes of this delay?


    Let me start by saying that it is about time we separate education and politics. Let the education experts deal with education and let politicians deal with politics. The interference of influential people in the education field is affecting the education system in Lebanon. Unfortunately, some of these interferences have a negative impact on the education system as a whole. Appointment of administrators, teachers, and staff in the public schools should be based on qualification and experience and nothing else.


    The main issue with public schools is funding. In principle, the public schools should have opened in September, but due to many challenges, mainly the lack of funding, the beginning of the school year was postponed. Public schools should now start on October 9, but if there is no money to pay the salaries of the teachers, then most probably, no matter how dedicated the teachers are, they are going to go on strike. 


    In a recent meeting in parliament, Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) officials laid out a long list of obstacles in the way of public schools opening, including a shortage in books, teachers either taking a leave of absence or moving to private schools, a mass migration of students from public to private schools, and dilapidated school buildings due to a lack of maintenance. Can you elaborate on these issues?


    All these obstacles exist because of a lack of funding.


    Let me tackle these issues one at a time:


    Shortage in books: I do know that all textbooks are going to be available as pdf books (these may be downloaded and printed). The copyright belongs to the Center of Education Research and Development (CERD), so there are no copyright issues, and this might help a bit.


    Teachers taking a leave of absence or moving to private schools: Can you blame them? They are still paid in Lebanese pounds. It is worth noting though that salaries have been readjusted lately amounting to 7 times the basic monthly salary. Some experienced teachers used to be paid around LPB 1.8 million before the raise. Teachers in private schools are paid in both fresh dollars and Lebanese pounds (of course, each private school has its own specificity, but I do know that in Greater Beirut, school teachers are paid more than outside the capital). 


    Mass migration of students from public to private schools: This has always been the case. Check the history of education in Lebanon—parents prefer to send their children to private schools if they can afford the tuition. Ever since public schools opened in Lebanon, they were labeled as “schools for the poor.” Unfortunately, not all private schools provide quality education.


    Dilapidated school buildings due to a lack of maintenance: I believe it is about time we close these schools. Why do we need to have so many public schools in one town or in every single village? We talk about social cohesion, yet we do not do anything about it. Close the schools that require major repairs, that are rented, and that have few students. Keep the schools that are not rented and that do not require major repairs, invest in small buses to transport the children from one village to another, and make sure that children from different villages attend the same school. 


    Some argue that the root cause of the crisis is the deterioration in the quality of education in public schools, and unless this is addressed, no amount of funding will revive the public school system. Do you agree?


    Funding is important. But then, a lot is happening behind the scenes, and the public is not very much aware of it. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to look at one side of the issue, jump to our own conclusions, and criticize for the sake of criticizing. We do not think of the amount of work and effort others are providing to train teachers and secure a better education for all. Maybe for a change, we should look into all the initiatives that are taking place and inform the stakeholders about each and every one of them. 


    Let me dwell a bit on this. Some of the initiatives are the following: public school teacher training, curriculum development, workshops for trainers and for trainers of trainers, material development, and reviewing and validating books and stories to be used in public schools. Most of these initiatives have been implemented by employees/teachers at CERD. Of course, funding is provided by many entities. I am naming here the ones I know of, so my list is incomplete: World Bank, UNICEF, USAID, AUF, Institut Francais, and Kitabi, to name a few


    Last year, public schools also struggled to remain open with little success, and according to some recent surveys, public school students are falling behind in all skill levels. What kind of impact will this have on the country in the long run and can it be compensated, as some are arguing, with a longer school year to make up for lost time?


    The economic crisis has affected everybody. Do you really expect public schools to remain open when the teachers are paid peanuts? 


    Unfortunately, this has had a very negative effect on the quality of education provided to students—there is definitely a “learning loss” and something should be done about it. Studies have been conducted, but unfortunately the data is not available to the public yet.


    Training public school teachers is ongoing. Donors, NGOs, employees/teachers at CERD, among others, are providing training to teachers. They are trained to check what the learners already know, use diagnostic tests (formal and informal ones), provide remediation, and analyze the results accordingly. 


    As I mentioned earlier, there are many initiatives, and some of them are successful, so maybe we should look at their impact on the teaching/learning process.


    Will a longer year make up for lost time? I am not sure. Are the schools equipped with good ventilation and air conditioning? Are teachers willing to teach in July? Maybe we should rethink the structure of the academic year and revert back to longer school days.


    What kind of short-term solutions would you offer to save the current school year, as well as longer-term recommendations for the public school system in the coming years, particularly in light of the ongoing economic crisis?


    Funding is important. The government should seek private funding.


    Short-term solutions: Provide practical professional development for current teachers to help them deal with the “learning loss” (and follow up on the training as well). Initiate literacy and numeracy programs for “learning loss.” Work with NGOs and ask volunteers to spend time at the school with the children/learners with the goal of reinforcing what the students learned during school hours, but through fun and play. However, in order to keep the teachers and ensure their well-being, MEHE should provide incentives to those who are willing to attend the training and implement the new approaches in their classes. 


    Long-term solutions: Restructure the education system and revisit the curriculum—principals, coordinators, teachers, and staff at schools should be accountable and should have continuous professional development as one of their goals to provide the best education to the learners.  They should use differentiated instruction to reach every single student in their class; use active learning methods and get away from rote learning (by the way, they are being trained to do so); and teachers should use different assessment techniques (get away from standardized and paper-pen tests).


    Stop the negative criticism and look at the initiatives that are taking place and build on them (the media plays a huge role here).

    Rima Bahous is an Associate Professor of Education at the Lebanese American University. She has more than 30 years of experience in teaching at the tertiary level and has published extensively in the field of education.
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