Education in Idlib: The Kids Aren’t Alright

There is no effective difference between the Syrian state and some of forces engaged in conflict in Syria, despite the different names which they’ve given themselves: the regime in power, revolutionaries, armed opposition, Islamist factions, and so on. Each is trying to hold the country hostage, and none are blameless when it comes to the effects of war. In particular, they do not agree that education—among the most important sectors in the country—should be neutral. Each faction has its own aims, and they vie with each other to control education, heedless of how vulnerable the sector is, and how negative effects can have an exponential impact on the country’s present and future.

In Idlib, there are a variety of ways to obtain an education. Formal education can be divided into two main categories; both use the same curriculum for the sciences, and so the differences lie in educational materials for history, philosophy, and civic education, which each group designs to serve their ideology.

The first category of schools is those affiliated with the Directorate of Education under the Syrian government’s Ministry of Education. They moved their offices to Hama province when the opposition gained control of Idlib province last year. Students study a traditional Syrian curriculum in these types of schools, except for the subjects of civic education and history, which the opposition has forbidden. Exams for primary education diplomas (ninth grade) and high school diplomas (the third year of high school) are conducted in Hama Governorate, where exams for forbidden subjects, like philosophy, are included. While traveling to Hama Governorate to take exams, students are subjected to harassment by security checkpoints throughout areas now under the control of the opposition, which accuses them of supporting Assad’s regime. They are also subjected to harassment by the Assad regime’s security and military checkpoints, who see them as the children of “terrorist regions,” in the regime’s words. To mitigate the chance of students missing their exams because they were blocked at checkpoints, students’ families are forced to send their children to live in Hama a month before exams.

Teachers are also subjected to harassment, as are employees who travel monthly to Hama to receive their pensions, now worth no more than $50 at most. Students often report discrimination in the exam halls and their final results, in contrast to Alawite students, and that they are forced to chant in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite it’s government ties, this category of school was not spared from the aerial assaults that the Assad regime’s planes conducted in regions under opposition control. Many students and teachers were directly killed in strikes that hit these and other schools.

If students with diplomas from these schools want to continue their studies at a university in Syria, they can enroll in government community colleges or mid-level institutes directly. Alternatively, they can enroll in Idlib University, which is managed by the city of Idlib under Jaysh al-Fateh. Idlib University makes incoming students take standardized tests, and announced that it will not accept any diploma issued by an educational entity under the Syrian regime after 2015 (when the opposition seized control of the province).

Most students attend the second category of school, those affiliated with the Directorate of Education in Idlib under the interim government’s Ministry of Education. These schools teach the same subjects as the regime schools when it comes to the sciences. The other subjects require new educational resources, because the opposition is trying to remove the regime’s influence on education and impose its own. In the history textbook, for example, the period between 1616 and 1918, when Syria was under Ottoman occupation, is described as the Ottoman Empire period, and everything in that time period is praised. Books for National Education include images and quotes from figures in the Syrian opposition, just the way images and quotes from Bashar and Hafez al-Assad were included in books for the course prior to 2011.

Islamist sheikhs have forbidden the subject of philosophy is forbidden in these schools. Yet just because the subject is forbidden, it does not mean that students are exempt from exams in the subject. Students take high school exams, and the percentage of students who pass—which is usually all of them—receive documents signed by the interim government, often called “coalition certificates” by local residents. These schools also prevent male and female students from mixing, and make female students wear Sharia-compliant clothing.

It is worth noting how the sheikhs have influenced schools. These decisions emerged in the early days of the Nusra Front’s control over areas in Idlib, before Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was formed in 2016. There were no educational bodies affiliated with the Nusra Front during this period, nor were there specific sheikhs who specialized in issuing fatwas that applied to schools, but they still had influence and power because they were one of the strongest military forces, which allowed them to issue directives regarding education. Nusra had a representative who informed teachers of new directives, like forbidding male and female students from intermixing at any stage, banning philosophy from being taught, and even prohibiting male and female teachers within the system from mixing. This has happened even in government schools, where teachers resisted the imposition of these laws and people pressured the Directorate of Education to not comply, even if it needed to stop paying instructors’ salaries if the decision was implemented.

While Jaysh al-Fatah’s influence (and through it, the Nusra Front’s influence) has become more evident in Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and Ariha, conditions vary in other cities and towns depending on the party controlling the area.

For schools under the opposition’s interim government, foreign organizations pay teachers’ salaries and for materials. The irony is that the funding that the Directorate of Education in Idlib has obtained never goes through the interim Syrian government. The interim government had demanded control over the process, even if only formally, but both the Directorate and the international organizations refused because they have lost all faith in the interim government to manage the schools.  

Neither of these two types of education adhere to proper educational standards or human rights conventions. Despite how easy it is to obtain a degree from either of them, they do not produce truly educated students. Alongside the complex state of education, there are repercussions of war, and struggles over control and allegiance. Both government and opposition schools prize party loyalty over educational qualifications in their staff. Government schools require membership in the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and likewise anyone thinking about getting position in opposition schools must have the requisite revolutionary credentials. These are standards invented by people who manage employment there, which means that teachers must be known for participating in Syrian revolutionary protests. As a result of these standards, competent teachers with years of experience are often excluded from hiring in favor of less capable teachers. In a pattern that holds true across many aspects of life in the province, the leaders and lawmakers of the have significant influence over the hiring process, education, and even exams.  

In the early days of the revolution, young people created special educational initiatives to teach children, for example by volunteering schools. As the war intensified and conditions deteriorated, however, most of these initiatives disappeared.

The only silver lining to this dire situation is that many families have insisted on sending their children to school to receive an education, no matter how poor. Families’ efforts to secure a future for their children and country should be met with a higher quality of education however, because the current and future outcomes of the present state of education will not benefit anyone.

Tirwada Abd al-Haqq is a civilian activist residing in Idlib.

Image: Photo: A defaced image of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is pictured on a wall inside 'Syria, The Hope' school on the outskirts of the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town, in Idlib province, Syria June 1, 2016. The school is partially occupied and it teaches students until fourth grade. The building that is heavily damaged was used by government forces as a base before the rebel fighters took control of the area. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi