The Battle of School Curricula (1): Oppression and Mayhem

21 February 2016

Maya Abyad

Syrian journalist and trainer, PhD candidate in media.

During 40 years of Assad-Ba’thist military indoctrination in compulsory public schools, Syrians, who were force-fed the triad slogan of “Unity, Liberty and Socialism” slowly watched as all 3 of them collapsed by 2011. As some areas were declared “liberated” from the control of regime land forces, one of the first school books to be dropped out of curricula was that of Socialist Nationalism. Even though socialism had all but disappeared out of in the early 2000s --it’s current official name is Patriotic Education according to the regime’s Ministry of Education--it is still marred with its old name amongst Syrians.

However, as things progressed over time and different ideological factions appeared, changes to school curricula increased. Starting with specific politically-charged changes in social science subjects such as history, geography and philosophy, then to Arabic literature and religious education. Four years later, curricula became a battlefield of influence and control, the impact of which is yet to be seen.

The Setting

General challenges facing education are similar in most rebel-held areas: increased risk of commuting to and attending classes under shelling, lack of heating, electricity, teaching materials and healthy classrooms, lack of funding for teacher salaries and the consequent loss of qualified staff, as well as the constant interruptions due to displacement, military attacks and donor and curricular policies. Maintaining a long-term process such as school education appears to have become nearly impossible in some areas.
As a result, enrolment levels have been hit hard. With at least one quarter of school buildings rendered unusable due to damage or use as shelters or military centers, there has been a huge decrease of more than %50 in school attendance. The most severe cause behind this has been repeated targeting of school buildings, mainly by regime airforce, but also recently by Russian bombardment. This has made sending children to school a life or death decision for parents in rebel-held areas. It has also pushed many schools underground, literally moving classrooms to building basements and adding safety and evacuation plans to their classes.

Economic reasons also play an increasing role, with the surge in prices, inflation and decrease in job opportunities, more families have resorted to child-labor to provide basic needs such as food, heating and rent. Begging and child-marriages have also increased for the same reasons

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are now more than 5 different curricula taught to Syrian students outside regime schools, as too many sides have decided to chip in each with their own curricular standards.

  1. Syrian Opposition Interim Government Curriculum: Taught mainly in the rebel-held north and mid-northern areas. It is very similar to the regime curriculum, with pro-Assad content removed and selected religious classes amended. Similar, locally-carved up textbooks are also taught in areas hard to reach by the Interim government, such as the besieged Ghouta in rural Damascus. They sometimes include additional practical trainings on safety and first aid, as well as extra-curricular activities for emotional and social skill development and psycho-social support.
  2. Islamic Opposition curricula: Such as that of al-Tawheed Front or Al-Cham Committee. These curricula include an increased amount of religious classes, both theoretical and practical. They are also free of pro-regime content but have occasionally also cancelled classes viewed as unorthodox from a conservative religious perspective, such as music or philosophy. More extreme Islamic groups such as Al Nusra Front have “secret” curriculum in their schools with little information available about its content to anyone outside those schools.
  3. UNICEF “Virtual School for Education in Crises”: A project still under development, “designed to provide children and adolescents affected by conflict in the region with the opportunity to continue their education and receive certification for their learning”. Apart from the obvious access challenges to Internet, electronic devices and electricity altogether, it is still unclear what the content of this curriculum will be exactly, as it has been stated that it will focus only on “Arabic, English, Math and Science”.
  4. Kurdish curriculum: In northern areas under the rule of Kurdish autonomous government and “Syria’s Democratic Forces” of the PYD party, new textbooks for the first 3 grades of elementary school have been printed in Latin alphabet Kurdish. The possibility of learning Arabic at schools in those areas still vary from one town to the next. This curriculum is the first to introduce Yazidi religious classes in its religion curriculum, alongside those of Christianity and Islam. However, much opposition has faced this curriculum from both Kurds and non-Kurds due to the overt PYD/PKK ideological indoctrination in it, as well as the consequences of the Assad regime closing down public schools that teach this curriculum by cutting off staff salaries and denying them accreditation.
  5. ISIS schools: Accurate information about education under ISIS is scarce. Back in 2014, the organization used amended regime curriculums in public schools of areas under their control, sometimes completely omitting entire subjects like music, arts, philosophy, history and even chemistry. It was later rumored that they have designed and printed their own curriculum from scratch, the cover front pages of which were leaked recently from their stronghold town of Raqqa through twitter by the media activist group “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently”. The visual aesthetic quality of those books surpasses anything ever published by Assad regime, while content, as the Raqqa group told SyriaUntold “is nothing but blatant warmongering. A simple math problem for grade school would be something like this: If we had 5 Kalashnikovs and 3 grenades, how many weapons do we have in total?”
    Other sources indicate that ISIS are only teaching religious subjects, in addition to practical lessons in martial arts and basic weapon use. Public school teachers were discharged at first, then they were made to attend a “repentance” course of ISIS theological indoctrination as a condition to returning to their work. Those who refused are then declared as infidels, “legally” charged and in some cases have even had their property confiscated or risked facing imprisonment or execution in an attempt to drive them all out. Even private lessons are facing encroachment by ISIS, which puts a whole generation of children in grave danger in these regions.
    Amar, a refugee from Raqqa now living in Europe, told SyriaUntold: “School was closed and my 13 year old brother was spending his days playing football with the kids on the street. Then ISIS people came offering them some training, $200 in their pockets, a gun and a new macho name. Little Hammoudi next door suddenly became Abu Qutadah. My brother wanted to be like his friends so my parents took him and left Syria. They trained Hammoudi for about six months, then we heard he blew himself up in a suicide attack somewhere in Iraq...”

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