Among the top issues consistently mentioned by the Lebanese is access to quality education that prepares their children for the labor market. A startling fact is that more children are enrolled in primary schools run by the NGO sector and the private sector than in public schools in Lebanon, and the government contributes to the upkeep of these schools.
As this article issued by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) mentioned, “In terms of quality, the much praised output of the Lebanese education system is the average of two worlds: A high performing private sector and a laggard public sector. Many Lebanese children terminate their studies ill-equipped at the brevet level and, being unable to emigrate, are thrown into the lowest segments of the informal sector that has always been dominated, and more so recently, by non-Lebanese.” The divide between high and low achievers mirrors the students’ socio-economic status with a gap equivalent to two years of education between the top and lowest quartiles.
This duality has been exacerbated by the tremendous demand on public schools with the influx of Syrian refugees since 2012, leading to the situation that in 2017-18, Lebanon absorbed almost 214,000 Syrians in public primary schools, according to the World Bank. Less than 5% of the Syrian students are able, on the other hand, to attend university, while only 1.4% of eligible refugees are enrolled in secondary school, as detailed in a recent study. Overall, 43% of Syrian refugees do not receive either formal or informal education.
Weaknesses in the system go beyond numbers of students and public vs private institutions. According to international studies such as PISA that comparatively measure student performance globally in mathematics, reading, and science, the performance of Lebanese students has declined. When comparing results from 2011 and 2015, ranking of student math proficiency fell from 73 to 71; in science from 54 to 50; and two-thirds of students did not meet basic proficiency levels in science, math, and reading. These poor results are exacerbated by the fact that less than 16% of eighth grade students have access to any kind of computer-assisted learning, the World Bank study noted.
Lebanon has the highest pre-primary enrollment in the MENA region, some 86%, and the highest number of working hours for teachers in primary education, yet this rate is still less than half of OECD countries. Another challenge is teaching methods and control of the educational process by teachers and principals. There is very little autonomy for principals at all levels through public universities in setting course content, employment practices, acquisition of materials, and introduction of new teaching methods and technologies. Lebanon has taken an important step in preparing principals by requiring a year-long program in leadership and supervision, and an interview process for selection, although there is no data to measure the effectiveness and use of these qualifications.
“Because technology, research, and labor market needs are changing rapidly,” says the World Bank report, “teachers and school leaders must be able to regularly update their knowledge and skills.” Given the constant pressure on Lebanon’s budget, and the need for broad restructuring of the educational sector, resources for this need are scarce. There is scant chance that budgetary pressures will be reduced in the coming years even though Lebanon is supposedly committed under the CEDRE guidelines to reduce the national deficit by 1% annually for the next five years. Already members of parliament are split on raising salaries more than 40% for public employees, with no new revenue sources to fund such a move on the horizon.
A concluding comment in the World Bank report should come as no surprise: that among MENA countries, Lebanon placed first with some 90% in student perceptions that “wasta” or personal connections are essential to finding a job. Given the distortions in government administration and public spending policies resulting from Lebanon’s multi-sectarian power-sharing, it is more than a herculean task to pull together an effective national strategy to address the needs of the education sector let alone the environment, power, housing, health, and infrastructure.