The Battle of School Curricula (2): Tampering with Syria’s Future

29 February 2016

Maya Abyad

Syrian journalist and trainer, PhD candidate in media.

Complex disputes and lack of communication and coordination work marred the different stages of Syrian political life in the past few years. After 40 years of being force-fed the same propaganda no one really bought, the result seemed almost like Syrians lived in different countries according to their secret perspectives and convictions, hushed down from regime surveillance. Now that the pressure has been lifted, all the different voices, as well as new ones in their text books, have emerged.

The Money

With the Assad regime continuing its systematic abuse of public services as a pressure tool against the civilian populations, a huge gap has opened up for all sorts of chaotic alternatives. As is the case with most external aid being provided to Syrians, funding for education has too often come with a very high price of ideological influence. In addition to it rarely being a top priority for any of the main donors, the chaotic and fluctuating nature of that aid goes against the stable nature of education. Formal opposition bodies such as the Ministry of Education in the Interim Syrian Government never had the financial nor the logistical means to harmonize these processes.

The good news is, almost all schools outside of regime control are open to the public free of charge. The bad news, however, is that often comes at the expense of quality and sustainability, as Mohammad, a French language teacher in the besieged Damascene Ghouta told SyriaUntold, “we still try to give classes every day, even if just for a few hours. I wish my salary was only that irregular…”

Of course teachers’ job stability is not the only thing at risk in this process. The ongoing systematic military destruction of infrastructure has rendered the mere physical existence of schools a challenge of life and death. Trauma and fear amongst both children and staff has become another problem in the long list including shelling, disruption, displacement, lack of heating, energy, teaching material as well as all other economic strains of inflation, siege and the collapsing economy that have all pushed more children into child-labor, child-marriage or worse.

Content and Accreditation

Disputes over curricula content are both short and long-term issues, not only because they have the potential to further and institutionalize the fractures in Syrian society, but also because changes to content can discredit the entire educational process without officially certified accreditation. As with passports, only governments have the authority to provide verified accreditation. In the Syrian case, public documents have become another mass-punishment tool the regime uses against its people.

The fight for diploma accreditation has gone down varying stages since 2013, when civil society activists reopened schools after the long disruptions of 2012. At first it was the regime using mobility restrictions as a tool of collective punishment against selected areas and villages, according to how much it wanted to cut off or maintain ties between the different rebel-held territories. For instance, in the 2013 final exams, regime forces applied strict roadblocks during exam periods to prevent students from some neighborhoods in Aleppo city reaching the national test classrooms that are in areas under government control. While for the same period, students in some rebel-held Damascene neighborhoods were allowed to sit their tests.

Formal Opposition institutions attempted to provide an alternative by arranging for exam s to be taken within liberated areas and their diplomas formally accredited by other governments, such as Libya, Sudan or Turkey. These solutions have never proven sustainable nor reliable, and at least in the Turkish case, certifying history courses that included classes about the Ottoman occupation of Syria remains a sensitive issue.

Even worse, the Assad-propaganda-free alternative curriculum provided by these opposition institutions was sometimes made compulsory by some opposition forces on the ground in a few areas, through pressuring or even preventing school teachers from using the formal regime curriculum, even when the reasons were simply their inability to source opposition-approved textbooks for their students in time for the school year to start. The result was that students trying to attend classes in their neighborhoods on a daily basis, and then sit national tests in regime-controlled areas now had to catch up to curriculum gaps on their own with very limited access to its textbooks.

While curricula disputes have not lead to much decrease in enrolment in primary education classes in rebel-held areas, they have had a detrimental influence on secondary education. Since the aim for most students pursuing that stage is to gain a recognized high school diploma which enables them to apply for employment or continue university education inside Syria or abroad, the battle of curricula and the consequent withdrawal of accreditation of some schools’ diplomas has rendered their attempts futile.

Adding Corruption to Injury

Another important reason in the decreased recognition of Syrian academic diplomas is shared by both regime and opposition schools. The security chaos has brought along even further corruption than was already common pre-2011. This has led to the emergence of official document forgery as a new black market in the shadow war economy. It started with the need for fake identity cards and travel documents, to maneuver through regime checkpoints that trapped in entire villages, neighborhoods or families. As violence escalated, so did chaos, and forgery became possible for all kinds of official documents, including school and university certificates. Cheating during the exams and test questions being leaked in advance to students also became prevalent. With armed militias roaming everywhere, many school teachers have found themselves forced to turn a blind eye or pay a very high price. This has added yet another burden to students that are still trying to make it through despite all the other challenges. As of 2013, even if they succeed in passing their tests, that is no longer a guarantee that their diplomas will be accepted abroad in foreign universities or other institutions.

Guinea Pigs

As Zaid, an administrative officer in one of the Syrian NGOs working with schools in opposition-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo told SyriaUntold: “It has turned into a field of experimentation. In one neighborhood in Bustan Al-Qaser there are 6 schools each teaching a different curriculum! There have also been cases where donors would follow their fiscal calendar year rather than the academic calendar and cut off the funding mid-term. There was one case where the donor tried to enforce a black-Islamic dress code on all the female teachers at the school. Refusing to abide by that, the administration had to find alternative funding halfway through the first term. This is a reckless tampering with Syria’s future. Our strongest support actually comes from the teachers that improvise solutions despite their poor salaries and total lack of job security.”

Only time will tell what effects those fractions will have on social and political life in future Syria. For the moment, most teachers struggling to survive the raging death, are glad they can still light any sort of candle in this darkness.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad