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Improving the education of Arab youngsters in Israel & the Middle East

Two new reports focus on the issue of how to improve education among Arab youngsters in the Middle East.

The first, “Back to Basics: Israel’s Arab Minority and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” touches on the underachievement of Arabs within Israel. Published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent, not-for-profit organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, the ‘Back to Basics’ report looks at education as just one key area where development and equal resources could improve livelihoods and encourage a sustainable peace.

Arabs make up around a fifth of Israel’s population, but as a community, feel marginalised and treated as second-class citizens. For example, in education Arab schoolchildren represent around a quarter of all school pupils (at around 480,000 children). However, the Ministry of Education allocates a much smaller percentage of the education budget than this to their schools. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, one expert said Arab schools were facing a shortage of 6,000 classrooms and that the school drop-out rate among Arab children was two times higher than that for Jewish students. Educational achievement was unsurprisingly much lower among Arab youngsters, only 30% of whom took the national matriculation exam required for university entrance in Israel, compared to 75% of Jewish pupils.

Inequalities in education also arise from the inability of history teachers to cover topics such as the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 or of English teachers to include Palestinian poetry and literature on their courses. Since there are no Arab educators inside the decision-making functions of the education establishment, it is unlikely that changes can be affected. The ICG report concludes that it is essential for Arab children to feel “they belong” so that wider problems about national identity and inequality can be addressed.

A second report sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – “2010-2011 Arab Knowledge Report” – looks at the wider issue of how the education of Arab children across the Middle East region needs to be reformed. The report’s authors highlight the need for youngsters to become part of the “knowledge society”. This means encouraging pupils to become skilled at problem-solving, written communication, use of technology and information seeking. Arab children often score low in these skills, which are essential if they are to find employment in a competitive worldwide economy.

Though Arab youngsters are increasingly using the internet, the report concludes that more needs to be done in schools to develop information technology learning, encourage innovation and generally improve educational achievement. In the past, too many countries have apparently discouraged the use of technology and freedom of thought, worrying about the political consequences of a more educated populace. One Egyptian educationalist has called on Arab nations to end what he calls “cultural backwardness” and “make sweeping reforms”. The report’s authors make it clear that in order to change the culture across Arab countries, the young will need to be at the heart of finding the right solutions.

Laurinda Luffman signature