Lebanon's education sector suffers from chronic problems that date back decades, to before the country's civil war. There have long been enormous disparities between Lebanon's public and private schools. The crisis worsened in 2012-2013, when the mass Syrian displacement brought a flood of Syrian students into Lebanese schools and pushed even more Lebanese students to opt for private schooling.
According to statistics from the Center for Educational Research and Development published in 2014 and 2015, private and UNRWA schools in Lebanon accommodate more than 70% of Lebanese students, and only 28% of Lebanon's students go to public schools. The public education sector is plagued by curricula problems created by the influx of Syrian students, particularly to the rural areas close to the Lebanese-Syrian borders where the refugee camps are located and to some cities that have attracted large numbers of Syrians like Tripoli, Akkar, Nabatieh and the Bekaa cities.
Head of the Private Schools Teachers Syndicate Nehme Mahfouz told Al-Monitor, “Around 20 years ago, students were equally distributed between private and public schools. But the balance has tipped in favor of private schools in the past few years, despite the significant increase in tuition every year.”
The head of the media department at the Public Primary Schools Teachers League in Lebanon, Adnan Bourji, told Al-Monitor, “Syrian students reached 123,000 during the school year 2015-2016 and increased to 200,000 in the 2016-2017 school year. With that, their numbers grew even with Lebanese students in public schools.”
The union had warned early on that the Syrian influx would strain the public school system to the breaking point.
Bourji explained to Al-Monitor that when the number of Syrian students in public schools reached 45,000 in 2014, it prompted former Minister of Education and Higher Education Elias Bou Saab to open an afternoon shift of classes for Syrians with foreign funding. Donor countries would pay 240,000 Lebanese pounds ($159) for each Syrian student enrolled in public school and 90,000 pounds ($59) for each Lebanese student.
Members of education committees in both the public and the private sectors told Al-Monitor that the Syrian displacement has aggravated an already serious public sector crisis. It began after Lebanon's independence in 1943, when the role of foreign missionaries broadened to compensate for the state's lack of action, and was worsened by the repercussions of the 1975 civil war. The state redistributed teachers among Lebanon's public schools based on the demographic changes resulting from the war. Beirut was crowded with teachers, while Akkar in the north suffered from a shortage. Teachers in public schools were also paid low salaries, especially with the weak Lebanese pound in the 1980s. In 1996, a pay raise improved the situation of teachers, but inflation soon hit them hard and many left the sector, leaving a severe shortage of competent instructors.
As a result, more Lebanese students moved to private schools, and several factors emerged to further damage and weaken the public school system.
For one, the additional students enrolled in public schools under Bou Saab’s system implemented in 2014 increased the overall number of students by too many for the extra shift to absorb.
Also, the new Syrian students do not speak French, the second language taught in Lebanese schools, preventing teachers from following Lebanon's educational curriculum. Teachers at all levels have been forced to begin with beginner French, thus halting the progress of the Lebanese students.
Teachers have become overburdened by the extra afternoon shifts instead of resting to prepare for the next school day. Bourji noted that 300 public schools out of 990 open their doors in the afternoon to Syrian students.
Lebanon's private schools are divided between religious schools, both Christian and Muslim, and secular schools. While public schools cost parents 240,000 Lebanese pounds ($160) per student per year — a number set by the Lebanese government — private tuition varies from 1 million pounds ($663) to more than 15 million pounds ($9,946) per year. The average tuition for private schools is about 6 million pounds ($3,979), according to Mahfouz.
Mahfouz said that well-off Syrian families, a small percentage of the population, have long enrolled their students in private schools. But now, "Middle class and poor Lebanese families are also choosing private education for the aforementioned reasons.”
Joseph Bteich, a parent committees coordinator for Lebanon's Catholic schools, described the educational situation in Lebanon as catastrophic. Parent committees in private schools have repeatedly objected to the increasing tuition fees, Bteich told Al-Monitor. Around 40-60% of private school tuition remains unpaid, and the fees are accumulating, burdening poor and middle-class families.
Bteich said that parents do not trust public schools, especially now that so many displaced Syrian students have been crowded into the system, so they opt for private education despite its high cost. He warned that even if the salaries of Lebanon's chronically underpaid teachers is adjusted only enough to compensate for inflation, private tuition is sure to increase dramatically. The disaster will have unknown repercussions for the future of Lebanon.