Violence against teachers, poorly received educational reforms, conflicts with parents: In Tunisia, the entire education sector is in crisis.
TUNIS — In Sousse, a city in eastern Tunisia, students tried to burn down their school with Molotov cocktails. In Mahdia, a coastal city, an English teacher was dragged before the courts after having given an F to a student. In Ezzahra, in the southern suburbs of Tunis, a student stabbed his history and geography teacher after not being allowed to retake an exam for which he had been absent without an excuse. Another student exhibited female underwear in class to make his classmates laugh.
These are only some of the most salient incidents in Tunisia's schools over the past few weeks. In reality, the malaise of the education system has been widespread for years. But the authorities are in denial. They are stuck in a golden age of education that, after independence, has allowed several generations to climb the social ladder.
120,000 school dropouts
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on November 10, the head of government, Najla Bouden, stressed that "Tunisia has always considered that a solid education remains the only guarantor of the progress of people and the construction of an impenetrable wall against extremism, fanaticism and tendencies to violence."
But there is a long way to go. One parent says, "Every year, we know that we will face strikes and that the students will be the first to suffer from the tug of war between the unions and the government."
This parent adds that the situation has become even worse with the pandemic. The chaotic organization of exams and unfinished programs against a backdrop of union demands have contributed to widening the gap between the school and the students. The figure of 120,000 school dropouts per year out of two million students speaks louder than any attempt at explanation.
"We ourselves are lost," says Rached Frigui, a teacher turned school principal, referring to the rivalry between Lassaad Yaacoubi, secretary general of the secondary education union, and Noureddine Taboubi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Labor Union. The first aggressively fights to obtain wage increases in the teaching profession while the second prefers to soothe tensions, arguing that more urgent priorities are on the table.
From one strike to another, the tone is hardened to the point that families believe that teachers are taking their children hostage. The violent attack in Ezzahra, where the teacher was stabbed, feeds the Yaacoubi union's tendency to overdo things: it's now demanding a law specifically criminalizing violence against teachers when there is already a law specifically protecting public servants.
An Arabic teacher says, "Rather than discussing ways to defuse violence in schools, the union is thinking about sanctions and widening the gap."
The functioning of the education system demotivates those who saw teaching as a vocation
Lack of respect
The more moderate call for a fundamental reform of the education system, but many of the 156,000 secondary school teachers are suffering from "a slow bleeding." They no longer see it as a profession that is respected and fulfilling, and many are nostalgic for the time when a teacher's authority was not questioned.
An administrative executive says that the crisis of the education sector is of a pragmatic nature, but the crisis of the teachers is much more psychological because they have to deal with the toll of a significant failure of schools.
Inadequate programs, lobbies that are undermining the smooth running of the ministry, young people whose creativity is being stifled — these are all problems that have gradually taken away the goodwill of Souad, a mathematics teacher who has been on long-term leave after falling into depression.
Since the revolution, we have been on the front line
She witnessed the consequences of the 1970s reform, which, according to her, deteriorated the teaching of Arabic and French. But she says it was the 1991 reform that brought the quality of the educational system to its knees.
The creation of a basic education composed of a first cycle of primary studies and a second cycle of three years in middle school forced the rapid recruitment of teachers. They were not sufficiently trained to assimilate and teach a new program without pedagogical supervision, as mentioned in a 2013 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report.
Moreover, the introduction in 2002 of the orientation system — which gets students after middle school to choose whether to continue their studies, do vocational training or join the labour market — complicates teachers' work. They must comply with an educational system focused on professional competence.
Saloua, a teacher in Kef, notes a rapid deterioration in relations between educators and students: "Since the revolution, we have been on the front line and have been taken to task by parents who deny us the role of educator and who believe that their children are victims of the teaching staff; they encourage disrespect and do not put any brakes on violence."
Suffering is beginning to define the profession and it eventually turns into disillusioned indifference: The functioning of the education system even demotivates those who saw teaching as a vocation. This explains the figure of 1.5 million absences among teachers every year.
Future educational reforms should first consider what students want
After more than 20 years in public education, Tarek Garouachi, an executive at the Ministry of Education, is one of the many who are discouraged.
"And the students? Are we talking about them?" asks Garouachi. "Those who suffer violence and harassment from their teachers, those who are manipulated by school officials, those who are victims of physical or sexual abuse... there are so many cases."
Future educational reforms should first consider what students want to become after their training, and the conditions necessary for them to best integrate into tomorrow's society. "If this point is clarified, it will be a relief," adds one of his colleagues. "Even if it doesn't please the unions who prefer negotiations to reforms."
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