SOM301107DA002By Jabeen Bhatti

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 in spite of 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 MENA 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 the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report—Inclusion: All Means All, released this week. The report was accompanied by the release of a website, PEER, that reveals 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 related article "The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.")
These inequalities need to be urgently 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."
Definitions Are Key
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 policy, law and practice, that ensures "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. The definition often only includes 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, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine. But only five countries—Bahrain, Somalia, Jordan, Palestine 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 law that covers inclusion for all learners. Globally, 19 countries including as Denmark, Bolivia and Ghana, do.
Laws in at least three countries in the region say that children with disabilities should be educated in separate settings, while fewer than 10 countries had laws calling for mainstreaming disabled children together with all children. Educators generally agree that mainstreaming has better educational outcomes, whenever possible, according to the report.
Among the countries that have a definition of inclusive education, just slightly less than half define it in a way that covers all learners, without exception.
One-third of the countries in the Arab region only target 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 language.
Arab Region Is Data Poor
There is a chronic lack of quality data on those excluded across the globe but the Arab world is by far the worst, the report says. That's 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, Gulf Cooperation Council countries has been restricted, the report said.
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. "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 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, including Iraq and Tunisia, according to Unesco data.
To create more transparency on progress, the GEM Report on June 23 launched the new website called PEER.
"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."
"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 the new PEER site 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 in this crisis is opportunity, in particular to rebuild back 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."

Photo: Yemeni children who escaped civil war in their home country are now getting access to basic primary education for the first time in Somalia at the Yemeni Community School. There, they are provided with meals to boost enrollment.
Credit: Doreen Ajiambo/ ARA Network Inc. (11/30/17)

Story/photo upload date: 06/24/20

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar.