UN moves to counter deteriorating Gaza education levels

In an attempt to curb deteriorating standards of education in the Gaza Strip over the past year UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, has announced a plan to reverse the high failure rates of students.

[Read this story in Arabic]

"Current failure rates of 80 percent in Arabic and 40 percent in mathematics, especially dire in the boys' preparatory schools, are largely due to the devastating situation in Gaza which has adversely impacted the lives of residents," John Ging, UNRWA's Gaza director, told IRIN.

UNRWA is working to hire an additional 1,558 remedial teachers, Ging said, with one to be placed in every classroom in grades two, three and four to help improve learning.

During the second semester of 2007, UNRWA hired over 1,500 new teachers to assist students in grades 1-3.

A further 2,000 UNRWA teachers were mobilised to implement the "Summer Learning" programme to teach students who failed Arabic or mathematics.

However, due to the turmoil Gaza has undergone in the first half of 2007, it is too early to predict the success of the programmes, UNRWA said.

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"School attendance has been seriously disrupted due to inter-factional fighting, repeated military raids and unprecedented poverty, where children come to school hungry and unable to concentrate," said Ging.

"If the present situation continues, poverty among Palestinian refugees in Gaza will soon reach 'unconscionable levels'," Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA's commissioner-general, recently said in Cairo.

UNRWA's 213 schools in Gaza educate some 197,000 students, all registered refugees. However, overcrowding has become a problem.

Building project

The agency is now hoping to build 160 more schools in order to abolish a two-shift system designed to address the overcrowding, but says doing so will require an increase in funding for its education programmes.

''School attendance has been seriously disrupted due to inter-factional fighting, repeated military raids and unprecedented poverty, where children come to school hungry and unable to concentrate.''


The two or double shift system involves two different schools using the same facility on two different shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

"The new programme will cost millions of dollars more than our current budget, which for education is US$90 million a year," Ging said.

However, money is not the only impediment. Since the June takeover of Gaza by the Islamic movement Hamas, crossings into the enclave remain sealed for raw materials and UNRWA cannot import cement and similar products for building projects.

For now, the agency will reduce the size of classes to at most 30 students in the preparatory boys' schools and introduce two additional classes per week in both Arabic and mathematics, as UNRWA considers them building block subjects.

UNRWA said it also plans to work with its current teachers to improve the levels of instruction.

Overcrowding

In Palestinian Authority (PA) schools in Gaza during 2005 and 2006 the failure rate remained fairly static at only 2.9 percent for students from grades 4-11. However, this is due to regulations that allow only 5 percent of children to fail.

"Due to the chronic overcrowding of classes, the shortage of schools and the limited educational funds available, if a higher number of students were failed we would be unable to cope logistically as there would be no places left for new students," Haifa Fahmi El-Agha, the Education Ministry director-general of education in the Gaza Strip, told IRIN.


Photo: Mel Frykberg/IRIN
A UNRWA school in Jerusalem

She said the UNRWA failure rate is far more realistic and that they had higher education standards than Palestinian Authority (PA) schools.

"To counter the declining standards of education over the years, we implemented a special remedial educational programme for grades 1-6 in 2001, with some success. Teachers reported an improvement in Arabic and maths among their students," said El Agha.

However, the success of any educational programme will be tied to improvement on the economical and political fronts as well as an overall secure environment.

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