A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Separate but equal? Assessing Lebanon’s “dual” education system

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 11, 2009

Just checking in to clear out the spam bucket, respond to a few comments, and post this bit on public education:

Oxford Business Group’s latest piece on Lebanon, published last week, focuses on the need to put greater emphasis – not to mention political will – on strengthening its public education system. Its a pretty accurate assessment of the state of public education – low enrollments speaking to its poor reputation among parents and Lebanese citizens in general, and lack of vision speaking to the political challenges of developing and creating a standardized curriculum.

The UNDP report mentioned in this piece, “Towards a Citizen’s State”, was issued last summer. Its one of many, many, many reports of various kinds published about Lebanon, but I like its focus on the role of citizenship. And to be honest, I like the cover: it takes up the frequent appropriations of the Lebanese flag and puts it in service of citizenship rather than politics. (Well, to the extent that the UNDP can be seen as outside politics …) If you haven’t read it, you can download the report here.

According to many key indicators, Lebanon’s education system receives excellent marks, ranking among the best in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The country has some of the highest retention rates throughout primary and secondary levels, some of the region’s best student-to-teacher ratios, and university enrolment levels far above the MENA average, World Bank figures show.

However, increasingly it is the private sector that can claim responsibility for this success, with standards of state schools apparently slipping, despite most of the 10% of budgetary expenditure being directed to the public component of the system.

Lebanon is failing to gain full value from its schools, with a lack of faith in state-provided learning and little cooperation between the public and private sectors combining to weaken the system.

The latest national human development report issued by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) cited a number of problems with Lebanon’s education system, in particular the public segment. These included high dropout rates of 10.7% at basic education levels and repetition rates of between 20% and 24% in public schools.

The report, titled “Towards a Citizen’s State” and released at the end of June, said there were significant disparities when it came to comparing state and private education in Lebanon, reflecting problems of equity and efficiency. Importantly, the report said that many poor students dropped out of school because they believed that they would occupy the same level of jobs irrespective of their educational achievements.

“This is not to say that all private schools are superior to public ones, as there are differences in the quality of education provided by private institutions as well,” the report said. “However, overall as a sector, it seems to be functioning more efficiently.”

The apparent loss of faith in the public education system has seen a further shift to private schools, always popular in Lebanon due to the multicultural nature of society and the right of religious-based learning enshrined in law.

Though there was a slight shift back to public education in the years following 1990, a reflection of a strengthened state, this trend was soon reversed. Having peaked at 34.5% of enrolments at the primary school level in 2000, the most recent World Bank studies show that student numbers at Lebanon’s state schools have now slipped to 32.4% of total enrolments.

By contrast, some 67% of primary students in Jordan, 95% in neighbouring Syria and around 90% in more affluent Saudi Arabia attend state schools.

While state secondary school enrolment rates in the country are closer to those of the private sector, accounting for around 46% of the total as of 2007, roughly the same as seven years before, it still means that well under half of all Lebanese school students benefit from the massive outlays by the state. The gap between public and private is far wider at the tertiary level, with just one of the Lebanon’s 41 higher education facilities being a public institution.

Though public and private education at the primary and secondary levels is supposed to be carried out under a standardised curriculum, there are widespread deviations from the regime issued by the Education Ministry. Added to this has been the inability of various factions to agree to universal textbooks on some subjects, such as history.

According to the economist Charbel Nahas, the Lebanese government has failed to delineate a strategic vision for education. In a paper dealing with the issue of financing higher learning in Lebanon, published in April, Nahas said the country’s education system was theoretically structured around a dualist system, under which both the private and public sectors were supposed to work hand in hand to bridge the gaps in the overall education of the country.

However, this was far from the case, with no real partnership having been established between these two systems to put in place institutional bridges and allow cooperation to take place, he said.

“Consequently, the most accurate description of ‘adjacent sectors’ is more exact than a ‘dual system’, since the two sectors function independently from one another, with minimum bridges and coordination,” Nahas wrote.

Given that private education is the preferred choice of the majority of families in Lebanon, if the government wants to make the dual system work, the provision of services in the public sector needs to be enhanced.


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