According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the illiteracy rate in Gaza and the West Bank for persons aged 15 years and over was 4.7% in 2011; this is an average of 4.5% in Gaza and 4.9% in the West Bank. Illiteracy rates have been dropping since 1995, signaling an improvement in both the standard of living, and governmental support among other factors. In fact, literacy rates in the Palestinian Territories are among the highest in the world.
However, these percentages are not indicative of a successful education system. Being literate neither guarantees the completion of basic and higher education nor the quality of education. Compared to security, funds allocated to the education sector remain embarrassingly low. Of the $890 million Hamas-prepared Gaza budget for 2013, only 10% is expected to be invested in education compared to 30% in security.
The Palestinian education system relies heavily on traditional means of teaching where students are silent receivers. In line with worldwide trends, sharing the learning experience with a wider audience using social-networking websites, technology and the internet have become an imperative. But Internet-empowered technology and computer systems are hardly employed in any of Gaza's schools. The internet continues to be stressed as a source of distraction rather than a platform to develop a broader outlook on all kinds of subjects.
Although technology is a basic subject at public and private schools alike, it continues to be presented in theoretical terms. The topics discussed in this subject range from information systems to engineering, and even carpentry. Naturally, these topics stress practical applications and experiments, but students do nothing beyond memorizing the theories so as to answer the questions in the exam.
Study visits are also lacking and considered to be optional activities which no school seems to apply. "We do not go on study visits," said Mayada al-Shuafa, a 14-year-old secondary school student, in a phone interview. "On the margins of our books," she continued, "there are instructions for our teachers to take us to factories, but they do not take us."
But Marwan Sharaf, the vice chairman of Measurement and Evaluation at the Gaza-based Ministry of Education and Higher Education, does not agree that applied teaching methods are inadequate.
"Our schools, in the West Bank and Gaza alike, follow modern teaching and evaluation methods," he said, adding that "we train our teachers and design the activities according to the needs of our students."
The "methods," Sharaf announced, include "brainstorming sessions, discussion, work teams, and problem-solving techniques."
However, when I asked several primary and secondary school students about whether they have ever participated in one or more of these methods, the students denied Sharaf’s statements.
Isra Migdad, a recent graduate of Business Administration from the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University and former member of the Student Council, thinks that the university "is trying to apply some good teaching methodologies," but that they are "very slow" and "need to be faster."
Although books and study materials are continuously updated, the content itself is usually irrelevant to the Palestinian context. For example, Business Administration and Accounting study materials are entirely American and hardly highlight the Palestinian economic, business, and accounting problems.
"I think that our university teachers are able to construct business books that suit the Palestinian society," Migdad wrote in an email interview. "This will have," she added, "countless benefits starting from making the students more focused on the economic and business problems their society faces to applying the theories they learn and bringing solutions to them."
Following the bloody infighting between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Hamas assumed full control over all government institutions in the Gaza Strip leaving those in the West Bank under the control of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. It seems, however, that education is the sector that is least affected by the internal rift.
"We do not feel that there is gap between our ministry and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in the West Bank," Sharaf asserted, "we are continuously communicating with them to organize our work in a unified form."
Educational institutions in Gaza and the West Bank function according to a unified curricula. Schedules of senior examinations are also determined by both sides, and their results announced at the same time.
The issue of the imposition of religious education has also come to light with Hamas' rise to power. Many people accuse Hamas of focusing on religious subjects while disregarding scientific courses. As a matter of fact, there is only one religious subject for every grade, every year. Christians are not obliged to attend the subject's classes and are exempted from undertaking Islamic religion exams. In addition, there are three Christian schools in Gaza: the Greek Orthodox School, the Latin Patriarchate School, and the Rosary Sisters' School. Muslim students are free to enroll in any of these schools.
During the first years of its rule, Hamas imposed the Islamic dress code on all female students. However, the decision did not last and was overturned shortly after its brief implementation. Today, girls are not obliged to put on a head scarf or abide by any dress code — except that of the school uniform — in order to go to school. Educational institutions are interested in a healthy mental, emotional and physical upbringing of the children, says Sharaf.
Despite this, everyone in Gaza seems to be satisfied with the Ministry's newest proposal. The Ministry of Education has decided to teach Hebrew language in some of its schools as part of a trial program. According to the Ministry, the decision to teach Hebrew language came because many medical and commercial documents are usually written in Hebrew, and because Israeli products with Hebrew packaging fill the market.
Rana Baker, 21, is a student of Business Administration in Gaza. She writes for the Electronic Intifada.