Editor’s note: This article is part of an editorial package that includes another article, “How Some Arab Children Are Shut Out of School.”
In Jordan, one-third of children go to schools without sanitation facilities at all, a barrier to education for girls who begin menstruation. In Lebanon, school officials often shut children with disabilities out of regular classes despite laws ensuring their right to an education. In Morocco, some disabled children don’t even bother trying to go to school as they know they won’t be let in.
Meanwhile, more than half of gay students in the Arab region are afraid to be in school.
Across the Middle East and North Africa region and the rest of the world, millions of children and young adults are excluded from education for reasons of gender, religion, ability, sexual orientation, poverty and other factors, according to Unesco’s 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report: Inclusion: All Means All. The report, released this week, was accompanied by the launch of a website, PEER, with information on the laws and policies regarding who is included and excluded in education in every country in the world.
And over the past few months, the effects of Covid-19 have shut out millions more young children and adolescents everywhere, deepening the inequalities, the report said. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
These inequalities urgently need to be addressed, said those responsible for the report.
“To rise to the challenges of our time, a move towards more inclusive education is imperative,” said Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay in the report. “Rethinking the future of education is all the more important following the Covid-19 pandemic, which further widened and put a spotlight on inequalities. Failure to act will hinder the progress of societies.”
Step 1: Define ‘Inclusion’
The report explores the issues behind exclusion and offers some solutions.
The starting point for inclusion is having a broad, ambitious definition, the report says; otherwise, a country starts with a flawed foundation. This definition is key to creating policies, laws and practices that ensure “every learner feels valued and respected, and can enjoy a clear sense of belonging.”
Across the Arab region, however, inclusion is often narrowly defined—when it is defined at all. Often, the definition includes only those learners with physical or mental disabilities, the report notes. Researchers found that nine out of the 22 Arab countries have a definition of inclusive education, including Bahrain, the Comoros, Djibouti, Jordan, Palestine and Tunisia. But only five countries—Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates—have definitions that cover all marginalized groups. Policies in Tunisia and the Comoros, for example, only cover those with disabilities. Meanwhile, no Arab country has a law that covers inclusion for all learners. Globally, 19 countries do, including Denmark, Bolivia and Ghana.
“To rise to the challenges of our time, a move towards more inclusive education is imperative.”Audrey Azoulay
Laws in at least three countries in the Arab region say that children with disabilities should be educated in separate settings, while fewer than 10 countries have laws calling for mainstreaming children with disabilities together with all children. Educators generally agree that mainstreaming whenever possible has better educational outcomes, according to the report.
Among the countries that have a definition of inclusive education, slightly less than half define it in a way that covers all learners, without exception.
One-third of the countries in the Arab region include people with disabilities in their definitions of inclusive education, but do not mention other groups.
More than three-quarters of countries in the region have laws referring to people with disabilities, while about one-third refer to gender, ethnicity and indigeneity, and less than a quarter refer to the language.
Arab Region Is Data Poor
There is a chronic lack of quality data on those excluded across the globe, but the Arab region is by far the worst in that regard, the report says. That makes it difficult to design policy or measure change, researchers said.
In Egypt and Sudan, for example, no data on educational inclusion has been available since 2014. Public access to data from Morocco, Turkey and, especially, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries has been restricted, the report said.
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The lack of data in the region is unsurprising to many education-policy experts. “Politicians here don’t want you to know everything,” said Hana Addam El-Ghali, director for the Education and Youth Policy Research Program at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. “The problem is that numbers are power, information enables you to make a certain argument and use it. … So if you don’t disclose the information, then you have a lot of power, and the information will not be able to be used against you.”
Some countries in the region have taken steps toward full inclusion of students in mainstream schools, the report notes. Some, including the Comoros, are making inclusive education a distant goal.
So far, 14 of 22 Arab countries are “promoting” inclusive education in their education or their general strategic plans, or both. These include Iraq and Tunisia, according to Unesco data.
To create more transparency on progress, the team that produces the Global Education Monitoring Report also launched the new PEER website.
“We felt that the world needs a better understanding of how different countries are approaching this issue,” said Manos Antoninis, director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, “so we have uploaded a description on how every country in the world approaches inclusion in education, with a profile for each on how their laws and policies are addressing this issue. This offers us a baseline.”
“I think what Unesco is proposing is good, especially for inclusion, and especially now during the pandemic, because a lot of things were uncovered. This is when you have to rethink inclusion and policies for inclusion, because you are leaving a lot of kids behind.”Hana Addam El-Ghali
Director for the Education and Youth Policy Research Program at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute
“The website is called PEER because we want countries to learn from their peers,” he added. “We want peer learning to take place because it’s better if you know what others are doing.”
Jamil Salmi, an author and higher-education expert formerly with the World Bank, says PEER should be a good resource for countries looking to enhance educational inclusion.
“It could allow you to do benchmarking of what other countries that you are interested in or that you’re following are doing,” he said. “Having this can push countries in the region to try to do what other countries are doing. The quality of the data and the accuracy of the data will determine how useful it is.”
Some were cautiously hopeful.
“I’m not sure to what extent Arab countries can benefit from this,” said El-Ghali, explaining that the socio-economic and political context among countries in the region varies greatly. “Even so, I think what Unesco is proposing is good, especially for inclusion, and especially now during the pandemic, because a lot of things were uncovered. This is when you have to rethink inclusion and policies for inclusion, because you are leaving a lot of kids behind.”
Covid-19: Crisis and Opportunity
With more than 90 percent of the global student population affected by Covid-19-related school closures, the world is experiencing the most unprecedented disruption in the history of education, the report said. In the Arab world, Covid-19 shut out 17 million children and adolescents mainly due to poverty, exposing and deepening the inequalities. That’s because 20 percent of countries in the region did not target the marginalized in their education response to pandemic, the report said.
Still, the report adds that amid this crisis there is also opportunity, in particular to rebuild more-inclusive education systems.
Antoninis says while the pandemic was a major crisis for learning for the world’s poorest, he sees opportunity, especially in how teachers responded.
“The one piece of hope, perhaps, is that many of these conscientious teachers—we’re talking about millions of teachers who tried very hard to maintain contact with their students—also came in contact more directly with the adverse conditions in which these students live,” he said. “That may have actually triggered a lot more empathy and a greater understanding of the challenges they need to overcome.”