Tunisian Schools: Between Glossy Legislation and Grim Realities

2015-10-29    |   

Tunisian Schools: Between Glossy Legislation and Grim Realities

On September 15, Tunisian students returned to school corridors and classrooms as they do every year, despite this year’s difficulties due to serious disagreements between the primary school teachers’ syndicate and the government. By the end of the year, however, thousands of Tunisian children will drop out of school, their lives prematurely cut off from the dream of acquiring knowledge and learning. Left in its place will be unemployment, homelessness, and the unknown; the results of difficult social and material circumstances, and the poverty and marginalization of many of their parents.

The early dropout rate is clearly on the rise in governorates of the country’s interior, far from the coast. Inhabitants of these governorates lack sources of livelihood, and suffer from widespread unemployment and poverty. The number of dropouts increases yearly; according to the Ministry of Education statistics, it had reached approximately 100,000 by the end of the 2014-15 academic year. The reasons for this phenomenon are complicated, doubtless, but the most notable and common factors include social status and the state of endemic poverty in many regions, particularly those far from the capital and the coast.

Education, a Valuable National Resource That Should not be Squandered

Article 39 of the 2014 Constitution establishes mandatory education through the age of 16, stating that “the State shall guarantee the right to free public education at all stages and shall seek to provide the necessary means to achieve quality education, teaching and training”. Although the principles of free and mandatory education were not explicitly stated in the 1959 Constitution, these two principles have been consistently established through Tunisian laws related to education, including both those that have been amended and those still in effect today. The first explicit mention of these two principles dates back to the education reform law passed after the Tunisian Independence. Associated with the intellectual Mahmoud Messadi, the law went into effect in October 1958. It stipulates that the doors of education should be open to “all children, starting from the age of six”, and the same article affirms “compulsory education from age six to twelve”. This was confirmed by Law 118 of 1958 as well as Law 65, registered on July 22, 1991 concerning the educational system.

That law was written to further develop and modernize the educational system and bring it in line with the country’s developmental needs. The 1958 law was revised, primary education was established extending over a period of nine years, and modern goals were set for the various stages of education (primary, secondary, and higher education). The law also established the principle of compulsory education by forbidding the expulsion of a student under the age of 16 from primary education, and setting a punishment for violating that principle. It also consecrated the principle that education should be free, linking it with the country’s social and cultural values.

Law 70 of 1989 on higher education and scientific research consecrated the principle of free education – along with other, related legal provisions that complemented it, such as Law 67 of 2000. According to the fourth article of that law, “higher education is free and open to holders of a secondary school baccalaureate, or a diploma recognized as its equivalent. This is in accordance with general conditions regulating the matter, and the specific internal rules of each institution, as determined by joint decision between the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and a minister determined, according to Article 13 of the law, through consultation of the opinion of the Council of Universities. Institutions of higher education and scientific research may register in their educational programs individuals that have fulfilled the qualifying conditions, including taking the baccalaureate, and which are regulated by order”.

In addition, Tunisia ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, which recognizes the child’s right to education.

Widening the Gap Between Law and Reality

Despite an arsenal of domestic laws, and the international laws the Tunisian state has ratified, Minister of Education Neji Djelloul confirmed on August 13, 2015 that his ministry counted hundreds of thousands of cases of school dropouts. He stressed the need for strict and compulsory laws to prevent girls from dropping out.

Djelloul gave a press statement while supervising a symposium titled “Addressing Early School Dropout Among Girls” in the Ben Arous governorate on the outskirts of the capital. It was organized by the association Tunisia for All on the occasion of Women’s Day. According to Djelloul, dropping out of school need not be viewed as inevitable. He said it was necessary to address the phenomenon and find solutions that would halt dropout rates, which the minister estimated to be about 100,000 cases per year, occurring equally among boys and girls.

The difficulty with this kind of rhetoric is that it continues to support the illusion that reality can be changed through legal means. That may have been a necessary matter at the start of independence, after 80 years of French colonial policy that ignored an entire people. But over time, the issue becomes linked instead to the capacity to act upon reality itself by way of actual, tangible measures and development and educational policies. There can be no doubt that phenomenon of early school dropouts is far beyond legislative measures alone.

As we have mentioned, Tunisia enjoys a legislative framework that is perhaps among the best in the world. However, the real issue lies at the heart of the problem of social marginalization, poverty, and destitution – all of which the Minister of Education, as usual, avoided discussing, preferring to hide behind legislation and the law.

The phenomenon of school dropouts in Tunisia first appeared several years ago, and has worsened year by year, with the age of dropouts ranging from 13 to 19 years old. The reasons they drop out are due to several factors. But the most significant are social reasons, like destitution, policy, and differences in social class between rural students on the one hand, and students from the capital and coastal areas on the other. This leads to weak educational results among rural students year after year, in the context of a corrupt educational system in which passing is practically taken for granted, not based on merit. This eventually results in the learner’s inability to keep up with the various subjects and their subfields, leading to feelings of inferiority, deserting the classroom, and despairing at the thought of returning to their studies.

In addition to these reasons is another that ministries are aware of and practically condone: the isolation of rural areas and their distance from educational institutions. This means students must travel long distances on foot where there are no paved roads or rural tracks that connect the places where they live in the mountains and valleys. Typically students must leave home in the darkness of dawn on winter days (when girls in particular are at risk of assault), not returning until the evening sunset, and their weak bodies completely worn out from the journey.

And this is if we can even talk about educational establishments in the first place: in many cases, the buildings are falling apart and have no teaching equipment, adequate funding, drinkable water, or walls to keep out boars and wolves. Instructors teach multiple levels in a single room, without an instructional framework.

Because of these factors, many students feel a disinclination towards learning. These feelings gradually develop into a key factor behind their leaving school early. A 2015 study conducted by the Citizens Association of the Gafsa region (located in the south of Tunisia, 500 kilometers from the capital) examined the reasons that girls dropped out of school in three governorates in the interior: Jendouba, Gafsa, and Kasserine, states that were the cradle of the Tunisian Revolution. According to the report, the reasons behind dropout were due to social factors:

Lack of means of livelihood;

Difficulties in providing school supplies;

Early marriage of rural girls;

Rural girls’ working to provide additional income for their families (domestic labor, agricultural work);

A preference for boys to complete their education when resources are scarce;

Families’ difficult material conditions and low cultural awareness;

Distances between places and lack of school transportation;

Sexual harassment of girls; and

Dangers on the roads that lead to remote schools (i.e., predatory animals, seasonal floods).

According to an investigation published by a Tunisian daily newspaper on back to school day, many rural Tunisian families consider “girls as free labor to help bear life’s burdens, whether with housework or raising livestock, or sent as domestic servants to wealthy families in the capital. Despite their young age, they have transformed the governorates of Kef, Jendouba, Kairouan, and Sidi Bouzid into a gold mine of laborers” (al-Sabah, September 15, 2015).

We’ve Begun to Feel Ashamed

Given the arsenal of laws that we talk about, and the dismal situation described above, it begins to feel shameful to talk about free and compulsory education. The non-affluent cannot afford the expenses of education because of the misery of social reality afflicting all parts of the country, along with the rising costs of school supplies, transportation, and the costs of private tutoring. When it comes to higher education, many students are forced to leave university because they lack adequate resources for living and housing.

For all these reasons, the revolution that some speak of has no meaning if the situation has worsened since January 14, 2011. There was great anticipation that development would be realized, along with employment and social justice. It is a strange irony that the places that set off the revolutionary fuses are the regions in the country’s interior that today are the most damaged and destitute.

The spread of illiteracy and ignorance throughout much of the country will leave it without meaning, without democracy, and without any progressive political life. The impoverished citizen, who subsists on the promises of politicians during campaigns and elections –and which always start with battling poverty and marginalization– will not be able to distinguish between one party and another, come tomorrow. They will find themselves forced either to despair of any reform, to boycott political processes entirely, or to take part in a democratic process of whose rules and requirements they are ignorant. Their worsening situation has deprived them of the capability to make any distinction.

The revolution begins when school is truly accessible to everyone, a vehicle for social mobility and a dream that attracts children and parents everywhere in the country. It begins when colleges of medicine, pharmacy, and engineering are not merely the preserve of children from privileged areas, something the Ministry of Higher Education statistics about the chances of children from various regions at gaining acceptance in medical colleges indicate.

The state is required to provide schools with all necessary supplies and conditions, infrastructure, and within its economic, geographic, and family context. Therefore it must do so in accordance with the policy of positive discrimination stipulated by the Tunisian Constitution itself, as stated in Article 12: “The State shall strive to achieve social justice, sustainable development, and balance between regions, with reference to development indicators and in accordance with the principle of positive discrimination. It shall also work to ensure the proper exploitation of national resources.” Such is the right of the impoverished regions of the country, forgotten by successive politicians, generation after generation and ministry after ministry.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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