As most schools reopen, much remains to be done to improve children’s education in the Middle East and North Africa

Schools have reopened in 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Most are applying a blended approach combining in-person and remote teaching and learning for children and teachers.

“The reopening of schools is so critical, not only for children’s education but also for their wellbeing. The impact of school closures on children’s mental health has been huge,” says Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Schools across the region were closed for four to six weeks longer than the global average. In total, most schools were closed for two-thirds of an academic year, affecting the learning and wellbeing of millions of children in every age group.

While all countries across the region made at least one online platform available to enable home-based learning during school closures, at least 39 million children (or nearly 40 percent) have not had access to remote learning. This was primarily due to digital poverty - the lack of or the sporadic access to the internet and/or not having enough digital devices in the households. In some countries, including Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, access to the internet is lower than 35 per cent.

Governments across the region spend only 14 per cent of their budgets on education, below the world average, and the international target.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis of education for millions of children in the Middle East and North Africa. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 15 million children were out of school and close to two-thirds of children in the region could not read and understand a simple age-appropriate text at the age of 10.

“It is not enough to simply reopen classroom doors. It is high time to prioritize back to learning across the region, not only through budgets and financing, but also through a focus on life skills and the reduction of digital poverty, including through expanding internet bandwidth and making digital devices and equipment more available and affordable to bridge the digital gap,” adds Chaiban.

UNICEF is working with governments and other partners in the region to support teachers and schools to resume teaching and learning and bring all children and youth into school where they can catch up on lost learning as well as meet their health and wellbeing needs.

To help children recover and accelerate their learning through a return to full, in-person education, UNICEF is working with partners across the region to design and implement a range of inclusive, accelerated and remedial programmes.

UNICEF is calling for the following actions:

• Support all children in the region to resume in-person learning as soon as possible with remedial learning programmes to catch up on what they missed, while teachers get the support, they need for the new norm including on blended learning.

• Prioritize the vaccination of teachers in national vaccination campaigns. Vaccination, however, should not be a prerequisite for school reopening. Additional safety measures are therefore needed in schools.

• Equip teachers with the skills they need, including digital skills. A competent, skilled and motivated teacher is a fundamental element of an education system.

• Education systems to become more flexible and focused on helping children acquire relevant skills including those for personal empowerment and wellbeing, lifelong learning and adaptability, employability and transition into work, participation and active citizenship.

• Increase government budgets to reform education systems.

• Foster partnerships with the private sector, including telecommunications and internet companies, to expand bandwidth and network infrastructure and provide affordable options for families, teachers and schools to reduce the digital gap including in poor, rural and remote areas.

Notes to editors:

• Countries that reopened schools are: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, The State of Palestine, Qatar, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen.

Countries that had not yet opened their schools are: Lebanon (some public schools partially opened the morning shift but not yet the afternoon shift for Syrian refugees) and Libya (announced the reopening of schools for 11 November).

• In support of the Education 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda encourages countries to set nationally appropriate spending targets for education. National contexts are diverse, but the following international and regional benchmarks are crucial reference points: (i) allocating at least four to six per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to education; and/or (ii) allocating at least 15 to 20 per cent of public expenditure to education.

Source: UN Children's Fund