Making the grade: is the Arab world failing on education?

The latest findings from US think-tank, the Brookings Institution, suggest quality in education is on the slide

Has the urgency to get children enrolled in school left the Arab world floundering when it comes to education? The latest findings from US think-tank the Brookings Institution, suggest so. The Arab World Learning Barometer took an in-depth look at education in 20 Arab countries from 2001 to 2012, ranging from Tunisia, to Lebanon and Kuwait. While the report found that progress has been made on encouraging more children into school, it revealed that attendance does not necessarily equate to good educational outcomes.

In the 13 Arab countries with data on education standards, 56 per cent of primary pupils did not meet international benchmarks for literacy or numeracy. Secondary schools did not fare much better; almost half – 48 per cent – of students failed to reach the same standards in reading and mathematics as their global peers.

The difficulties were not restricted to lower-income countries. Some 36 per cent of primary-age children in the UAE did not meet global learning targets compared to 91 per cent in Yemen. In Lebanon – one of the best performers – nearly a third of pupils in secondary school didn’t meet the basic learning level. Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait and Tunisia call for particular attention, said the study, where between two-thirds and 90 per cent of primary-age students are failing to learn.

But perhaps most worrying was the report’s finding that countries in the Arab world did not match up to nations at a similar level of economic development.

Turning out an educated, highly skilled workforce is imperative for any country, but it is even more pressing in light of the time bomb of youth unemployment in the Arab world, where 55 per cent of the population is 24 years old or younger.

Poor levels of basic literacy and numeracy have contributed to the region’s employment crisis, said the Brookings report. Foundation skills are critical in helping school leavers secure jobs that meet their daily needs and lay the groundwork for further education, technical and vocational training.

So, when the Arab world has made such strides in engaging more children in school, how can this be addressed? According to the report, by tackling a mix of factors: namely the lack of international or national assessments to track pupils’ progress, a regional shortage of teachers and poor quality teaching. The Arab world needs to create 500,000 extra posts and replace 1.4 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2030, according to the UN’s education agency UNESCO.

On the policy side, the study suggests recruiting more qualified graduates and re-training existing teachers. The private sector, as the main beneficiary of a well-educated population and an economic driver, is also key. Not-for-profit organisation Education for Employment suggests involving companies in identifying skills gaps and helping pupils to secure all-important work experience. Recruitment consultancy Manpower Group advocates more corporate investment in education through public-private partnerships.

Though the final shape of the solution may be up for debate, the urgent need for both sides to work together to find an answer to the Arab world's education deficit is not.