by Ibtisam Abu-Duhou
Education is the largest sector run by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). It caters for the social, educational and employment needs of more than 38 percent of the population. Prior to its transfer to the PNA, this sec¬tor was stultified and hampered by obstacles, as external political forces were impeding its development and dictating its course.
Palestinian education in the 1950s and 1960s was subject to both Jordanian and Egyptian policies, and later to Israeli ones. In the last 27 years, Palestinian educators had to struggle to overcome the many severe problems created by the Israeli Occupation. They had to fend against academic restrictions, frequent and prolonged closures, the banning of textbooks and educational material and the severe measures targeting educational institutions during the Intifada. The impact of such policies has been immeasurable and will be felt for many years to come.
Education under the Israeli Occupation
During the 27 years of Occupation, Palestinian educational institutions suf¬fered a drastic decline in quality and growth. No new schools were built during the first 10 years of Occupation and very few have been built since then. Thus the expansion of school facilities and the hiring of additional teachers did not keep pace with the dramatic growth in the student popula¬tion. Classrooms became increasingly overcrowded, with an average class size in government schools reaching 40 to 60 students per class.
Most government schools lacked basic facilities, such as vocational workshops and audiovisual teaching aids. Science laboratories had a shortage of the necessary equipment for carrying out experiments. Meager funding and the high number of banned books limited the schools' capac¬ity to provide adequate libraries for their students. Extracurricular activi¬ties, vital for students' academic, social and cultural development were prohibited by the Israeli authorities, as were science clubs and cultural lectures. In a survey carried out by the MEHE, it was found that many schools still lacked such essential facilities as proper toilets.
Additionally, the continued restrictive measures taken by the authorities against government school teachers had deprived schools from reaching sound educational standards. For example, graduates of West Bank univer¬sities could not be hired to teach in those schools. Low salaries compared to those paid to their colleagues in Jordan, Israel, UNRWA and private schools, had made it difficult for these government schools to keep their good teach¬ers or attract new ones. Low pay had sapped teachers' morale and com¬pelled many of them to seek a second, supplementary job elsewhere.
The severity of the educational situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip reached an acute level during the Intifada. The extended and repeated clo¬sures of schools by the Israeli authorities, impacted negatively on the schools' ability to proceed normally with a structured learning-teaching process.
Unfortunately, there are no objective data or studies to inform judgment about the quality of education or skills imparted to Palestinian children under the Occupation. In 1990, an attempt was made to fill this vacuum, and an initiative to assess the skill levels of about 3,000 elementary schoolchildren was carried out in the central region of the West Bank.¹ This unprecedented study found that elementary school children had great difficulties acquiring even basic skills in Arabic and mathematics. A num¬ber of randomly selected results among fourth-graders showed the fol¬lowing: only 24 percent tested could accurately measure [with a ruler] a given line segment that was five centimeters long; 73 percent could not add ½ + ¼. Only 2.3 percent of fourth-graders tested and 22.8 percent of sixth-graders were able to produce the required number of sentences, and those they wrote lacked relevant ideas, correct grammatical structure and appropriate vocabulary. Sixth-graders' answers in the reading compre¬hension sections were fully correct no more than 30 percent of the time.
The situation at the other end of the education ladder, i.e., secondary education, has always been a concern for Palestinian educators. Prior to 1967, students prepared for a Jordanian-based matriculation examina¬tion, "Tawjihi," in the West Bank, and an Egyptian-based one in the Gaza Strip. The exam depends heavily on rote learning; it does not measure critical or independent thinking; and is limited in scope and content, as it is based on the final year of schooling. In addition, the exam does not test students' ability in the practical application of knowledge gained in the sciences and vocational education courses.
The relevance and quality of this exam have always been questioned by Palestinian educators. First, the school curricula are directly controlled by the Israelis and indirectly by the Jordanians and the Egyptians, while the Tawjihi examination itself is directly controlled by Jordan and Egypt. Second, the severity of the exam, the average pass rates and the grading levels are set each year by the Jordanian-Egyptian education ministries in relation to their own educational plans and their own universities' needs. This, naturally, affects the results in the West Bank and Gaza as well, even though the student population in the territories may not fit into Jordan's and Egypt's educational planning.
Development under the MEHE
On the eve of the transfer of the Education power to the PNA in the West Bank and Gaza, the deterioration in Palestinian education had reached emer¬gency proportions. The situation called for an urgent intensive program of measures to arrest such degeneration. The Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE), however, made a strategic decision to go on, during the first year, with the management of the system as it was inherited from the Israelis. This, the MEHE thought, would curtail any loss of time and would avoid any unnecessary upheaval and disruption in the system. It would also give the MEHE the needed breathing space for a closer acquain¬tance with the system, in order to draw the necessary work plans for improvement and for moving towards quality building in education.
A major challenge the MEHE faced in its first year was the existence of two different educational systems in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: the Jordanian one in the former, and the Egyptian in the latter.
Thus, the MEHE took some important steps towards unifying the two systems and bridging the gap between the two geographical areas by stan¬dardizing the nominal tuition fees and textbook prices.
A major achievement during the 1994/95 school year was the con¬ducting, for the first time under full Palestinian control, of the secondary school matriculation exam (the Tawjihi), simultaneously in the West Bank and Gaza. The exam papers were graded and the results computed and announced by the MEHE without any interference from abroad. The Tawjihi's credibility as an important exam was regained after the many difficulties it had faced during the Intifada.
As noted earlier, the absence of in-service training for teachers during the Occupation had led to the employment of a significant number of unqualified teachers. Their knowledge in certain disciplines was obsolete. Consequently, the MEHE appreciates the need for teacher-training workshops for the improvement of subject matter knowledge and the upgrading of teaching skills. Child-centered and learning-by-doing meth¬ods are encouraged. In addition, outside reading and the use of school libraries are promoted as part of the training programs now planned and conducted by the MEHE. These last for more than 800 working days, and include school supervisors and administrators as well.
Most public secondary vocational schools and post-secondary voca¬tional and technical colleges were on the verge of total collapse and clo¬sure when the MEHE took over the Education authority. The programs they offered were obsolete and, thus, incompatible with Palestinian soci¬etal needs. Student enrollment was continuously dropping.
The MEHE has organized meetings and international workshops and contacts to set new policies for the development of vocational and technical education programs. Efforts to develop the vocational and tech¬nical institutions cover the following areas: maintenance and supply of equipment and furniture, program development, training and upgrading of skills of administrative and teaching staff, and qualifying Palestinian academics in curriculum design and development.
After long years of neglect and denial by the Israeli authorities, student extracurricular activities in schools have witnessed a speedy take-off dur¬ing the school year 1994/95. Plenty of student committees and clubs have been set up and various forms of activities, including big national fairs and exhibitions, have been organized. The result was a great sense of collective achievement and accomplishment.
In an endeavor to attain educational excellence, some urgent and persis¬tent issues on quality need to be addressed. These relate particularly to mathematics and science, general thinking skills, more effective school management, overall delivery system, and efficient utilization of educational resources.
Taking these issues as challenges for the development of both the edu¬cational and the economic systems, in the context of quality manpower preparation for Palestine, the MEHE will be introducing reforms in the areas of education management and administration in general. Particular attention will be given to school management styles and administrative practices to generate innovation and quality productivity in the system. One of the most important features advocated in the education manage¬ment reform is the integration of the corporate management concept in strategic planning and problem-solving techniques. Educational policy¬makers and planners are encouraged to depart from "technical rationali¬ty" to "reflective rationality," or from "linear" to "non-linear." Other main strategic issues targeted by the MEHE in the short term are improving access to schooling, quality of learning and relevance of educa¬tion to societal needs. These entail the adoption of the international Jomtien Declaration of five years ago, which called for making education available to all by the year 2000. While it recognizes that formal access is not enough, the MEHE's policy is to assure all students access to educa¬tional experiences. All children and young people are entitled to a full pri¬mary and secondary schooling, yet many are discouraged or diverted from taking full advantage of those opportunities. Real access requires that pro¬grams take account of differences in social and cultural backgrounds and that teaching methods provide for differences in pace and style of learning.
The immediate and long-term education strategies are very much influ¬enced by the urgent need to rehabilitate the education system in line with that of more advanced and developed countries. At the same time, these strategies will be very much governed by any national development plan, particularly the Palestinian economic and social development policies. Consequently, the challenges facing Palestinians in education are many, and the following goals and strategies are geared towards meeting them.
The first challenge is to achieve an integrated Palestine with a sense of a shared and common destiny. The first goal then is to establish a national system of education acceptable to the people of Palestine as a whole, capable of satisfying their needs and promoting their social, economic, democratic and political development as a nation. The ultimate objective of educational policy must be the total integration of the children of all the different communities in Palestine. At the same time, two of the funda¬mental requirements of this policy are to orient all schools in Gaza and the West Bank, both primary and secondary, toward one common curriculum and to ensure a common content in all school syllabi.
The second challenge is to create a psychologically liberated, secure, and self-confident Palestinian society. Hence, the second educational pol¬icy goal is to assure access for all Palestinian students, irrespective of their gender and/ or socioeconomic background. Educational expansion and development policy will ensure classroom space for every child to start grade one in primary schools at the age of six. At the same time, the pol¬icy will ensure that the school-leaving age for all children is 15. This will be made possible through automatic promotion throughout primary and lower secondary levels and the institutionalization of compulsory educa¬tion through national legislation. Other means will be the removal of all barriers to a student's decision to remain at school, and the promotion of the value of education to all.
The third challenge is to foster and develop a mature democratic society.
The fourth is to establish a progressive, innovative and forward-looking society, not only as a consumer of technology, but also as a contributor to the scientific and technological civilization of the future. Finally, there is the challenge of ensuring an economically prosperous and equitable soci¬ety, with a competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient economy.
The above challenges have various implications for the educational system, especially with respect to quality manpower preparation at the various levels of the school system. Meeting them will usher the Palestinians into the new millennium.
1. Tamer Institute for Community Education, "Assessment of Achievement in Arabic and Mathematics of Fourth and Sixth Grade Students in the Central Region of the West Bank," East Jerusalem, 1991.