Lebanon: Teacher unions committed to delivering quality education amidst worst economic crisis in 30 years

published 29 June 2021 updated 15 July 2021

Lebanon has been hit with two extraordinary crises in the past two years: the explosion of the Beirut port and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, Lebanese educators and their unions have risen to the challenges presented by public health, economic, and refugee crises.

International solidarity

After the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, Education International and its affiliates quickly expressed solidarity with the Lebanese capital’s inhabitants, including educators and students.

Rodolphe Abboud, General Secretary of the Teachers Syndicate of Lebanon (TSL), said the explosion occurred as educators were struggling with the global pandemic. The education sector in Lebanon, especially the private sector, which represents 70 per cent of education in Lebanon, “has been facing a major crisis as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and the economic and financial crisis, which has led many educational institutions to dismiss teachers”, he said.

Education International has liaised with local education unions on how to best assist the affected population, especially the teachers and their students. And, it has endeavoured to ensure that education is prioritised in financial aid from the international community.

“With our affiliates around the globe, we are in full solidarity with the educators and population of Beirut recovering from the terrible explosion,” said at the time Education International General Secretary, David Edwards.

Seven out of 10 need financial support

The explosion and pandemic have further jolted the economy, leading to the “worst economic crisis in 30 years”, according to Manal Hdaife, of the Public Primary School Teachers’ League (PPSTL). “Across the country, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and millions more struggle to buy necessities – all amidst the continuing coronavirus pandemic.”

The severe economic crisis the country was experiencing prior to the outbreak is reflected in the accumulated debt. This had reached 170 per cent of GDP by 2020, making Lebanon one of the most indebted countries in the world. This caused an unprecedented devaluation of the Lebanese lira, which had devastating consequences on consumers’ purchasing power as Lebanon relies heavily on imports for the goods it consumes.

In addition to rising unemployment and the impact of the ongoing pandemic, 70 per cent of the population now requires financial support, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs. The health emergency and its socio-economic consequences have exacerbated unequal income distribution in the country, disparities across regions, and existing difficulties to generate inclusive growth. The economic crisis has also impacted the provision of public services, including education.

Debt cancellation: a key step towards economic recovery and financing quality

Education International’s member organisations in Lebanon support the legitimate demands of hundreds of thousands of activists calling for a radical change of a political system that is said to be characterised by corruption, nepotism, and clientelism.

“We call on the government to show political will and make every effort to stop the endless economic crisis plaguing Lebanon,” stressed Hdaife. “We reject measures such as the imposition of taxes on those with limited income, particularly employees in the public sector and call for alternative solutions.

“Our union movement believes that there is a strategic way to respond to the crisis: cancelling Lebanon’s national debt to support education and other public sectors. Any debt cancellation should be free from conditionality and human rights should be at the centre of any debt restructuring process.”

Overlapping crises in education: COVID-19 and refugee students

Even before the pandemic, the Syrian crisis, and the ensuing large influx of refugees, compounded pre-existing deficits and challenges in the education sector. These included a serious teacher shortage and weak educational infrastructures.

With a population of 4.5 million, Lebanon is home to a large number of refugees. Over two million Syrian refugees now live in Lebanon, in addition to half a million Palestinian refugees. More than 52 per cent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children, and UNHCR figures indicate that around 450,000 refugees in Lebanon are of school age.

More than 137,000 Syrian refugee students attend 1,014 public schools – in all there are 1,396 public schools in the country. In addition, 144 schools are used to teach refugee students in afternoon shifts. Around 4,500 teachers from public schools teach the afternoon shifts and are paid an average of US$10 per hour, with no compensation for preparation or lesson planning. COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation.

Unions highlighting crisis in education

Education unions, through the Union Coordination Committee, comprising all Education International’s Lebanese affiliates, have warned the Ministry of Education on several occasions that students and teachers are facing an education crisis.

Teachers and their unions have condemned their lack of involvement or consultation in the process of securing and providing education for refugee children. This, despite that fact that teachers and union members are the ones in the field, striving to maintain the minimum levels of quality education for Syrian and Lebanese students.

They also highlighted barriers and challenges to learning, including differences between Lebanese and Syrian curricula, classroom size, the different academic levels of students, language barriers, transportation costs, bullying and limited psycho-social support for traumatised children, and the lack of trained teachers to teach children in crisis.

Impact of refugee crisis on girls

The impact of the refugee crisis has also been a gendered one. Girls are more vulnerable with the crisis significantly reducing their access to education. This is because girls are given caring responsibilities, and many are forced into child labour and early marriage to help their families financially. They are also victims of gender-based violence.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on education of refugee children

The COVID-19 health crisis has also adversely impacted the education of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. As schools closed, the Education Ministry introduced distance learning along three channels: television, online, and paper-based. Nationally, school closures affected over 1.3 million students at all levels of education.

The Ministry’s decision to use remote education was not clear in relation to refugee education, especially for children attending afternoon shifts. To fill this void, education unions have stepped up their efforts to ensure that the digital gap is not keeping refugee students from learning. Thus, union members volunteered to prepare televised classes, support parents over the phone, and worked to provide assignments, guidance, and feedback to Syrian refugee children.

Unequal access to education

All these efforts have resulted in distance education being provided in half of the public schools teaching refugee children. Unfortunately, many refugee children did not have access to distance learning programmes due to the lack of support from the Ministry of Education and the lack of infrastructure. Moreover, many teachers working double shifts did not receive their salaries during the crisis.

Education unions have been consistently working to build a better learning environment for refugee students, to demonstrate their commitment to building a better future, and to reduce poverty and vulnerability among refugees. They continue to work with the government to implement the best available solutions and call for solidarity and support for the vulnerable.

Active efforts on behalf of disadvantaged and displaced students

It has emphasised the need for greater solidarity in times of crisis and has called on its members to donate to the COVID-19 fund established by the Ministry of Health of Lebanon. Those who can have been asked to provide food and assistance to those in need.

The union also got involved in the development of the distance education programmes put in place in response to the learning crisis, working closely with the Ministry of Education to provide advice and expertise.

Lebanese educators are determined to keep delivering quality education to all students.

“Before the closures, we had set up a double shift system in my school so that more children could attend. The situation we are facing is challenging but we will not be deterred. We will continue to work so that all children in Lebanon have access to education. No matter where they come from, they all deserve a good education and all the opportunities it brings,” PPSTL’s Hdaife underlined.