A new interactive report called the Arab World Learning Barometer was recently shared at the Center for Universal Education. The report focuses on the challenges in providing high quality education in the Middle East and North Africa — challenges that may be threatening the area’s economic growth and political stability.
Expert panelists discussed the links between education and employment, with a special focus on the region’s youth bulge and its particular implications.
CUE Fellow Liesbet Steer shared her ideas on how to expand the focus on getting children into school. She said three things are needed, the focus needs to be on those children in disadvantaged groups that are being left behind, more attention needs to be spent on the quality of education, and that secondary and post secondary education needs to be looked at, particularly skills that are relevant to preparing children for the labor market.
Two facts about the Arab World Learning Barometer were noted by Steer, the data in some countries and the variety of socio-economic backgrounds was scarce. She said that out of the 20 countries studied, only 13 had an international learning assessment at the primary, or secondary level, seven of the countries had assessments at both levels.
The good news, Steer said, is that “children are getting into school” and “over 90 percent are completing their primary education.” But like the diversity of income, enrollment ranges throughout the region, from 40 percent (secondary school enrollment) in Yemen to 95 percent in Oman.
Steer pointed out one major worry, the grim reality of combining income and location disparities with gender disparities. She said that when it comes to learning, it is bad “across the board”.
According to Steer, more than half of primary age children are not reaching basic learning benchmarks. This means that a primary aged student who has attended four years of school may not be able to add or subtract whole numbers, or read a sentence.
She said there is also a strong relation between learning and employment. Forty percent of Arab employers say that there is a serious shortage in skills. And education is listed as a major constraint to economic growth. Adolescents are not able to find jobs, and many are not even looking. The unemployment rate for this group is 20-30% in most countries.
She says that girls tend to do slightly better in school and are transitioning to secondary school at a higher rate than males. They are also learning more, but the labor force participation rate for girls is only 20% compared to 40% in boys. The unemployment rate for girls is 35% compared to 27% in boys. Steer says that this data was “quite striking”.
Steer highlighted five areas to explore to address this learning crisis: access to early childhood education, engaging the private sector, obtaining better data, teachers, and the challenges of conflict, particularly Syria.