Schooling is not learning: the state of education in the Middle East

Being young is not always easy, but it is even more challenging if you happen to live in the Middle East. In this region, children and youth face more challenges than almost anywhere else in the world. And one of the very things they need to improve their own lives and advance society is what is affected the most: access to quality education.

The facts are distressing. 1 in 4 children in the Middle East are affected by poverty1 and 2 in 5 are living within 50 km of a conflict incident, making this the region where children are most likely to live in a conflict zone.2 Of adolescents who died to collective violence worldwide in 2015, more than 70% lived in the Arab region. Youth unemployment is with 30% the highest in the world, at more than double the global average.3

Quality education

Conflict and instability often lead to compromises on education, which is one the key drivers of inequality and poverty for children.4 Currently, over 13 million children and youth in the Middle East region are not going to school due to lack of safety and financial, institutional, and legal obstacles.5

While this is a shocking number, it is concealing an even worse reality. School attendance does not say everything: if the focus is on putting as many children as possible in school but the education given is not of sufficient quality, it will fail to make a positive difference in a child’s life. Schooling is not the same as learning.

This insight has taken concrete form in the Sustainable Development Goals, which the international community has set out to reach by 2030. In contrast to the previous Millennium Development Goals, the criterion for improving education is not enrollment rates but quality: the aim is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”6

In a 2018 meeting between 19 Arab states it was recognized that, in addition to low enrollment numbers, the quality of education in the region has been steadily deteriorating. This is for example evidenced by declining performances in national examinations.7 In general, “education systems in the Arab region have traditionally been focused on schooling rather than learning, without really focusing on skills acquisition.”

Problems identified include decreased domestic spending on education, underqualified teachers, overcrowded classrooms, negligence of early childhood education, and not recognizing and investing in the role of families in the education of a child.8 Another issue is that many Arab countries are highly dependent on international aid, which makes them susceptible to external changes.9

Palestine country case

The Palestinian Territories form a case in point of the education crisis in the region. In an already highly unstable setting, educational institutions are now facing dramatic international aid cuts. This comes on top of the decreasing Palestinian government’s expenditure on education, which has gone down from 6.73% of the GDP in 2010 to 5.25% in 2017.10

This is happening while in 2017 almost 17% of children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip did not receive secondary education; more than 18% no primary education; and more than 50% no pre-primary education.11 In total, half a million children in Palestine do not have proper access to quality education: an immense number on a population of only 4,8 million.12

What can we do?

In view of decreasing international and government support, there is a great gap to fill for organizations that can respond to this enormous need for quality education. One of these is Tomorrow’s Youth Organization. They have been supporting disadvantaged communities in Palestine for ten years by offering supplementary quality education to the most vulnerable.

The positive impact of Tomorrow’s Youth Organization’s community programming on a holistic level is significant. The numbers show that their work is now more necessary than ever. If you want to help them reach out to more people and expand to other countries in the Middle East, consider donating.


  1. UNICEF press release (2017)
  2. Save the Children report: The War on Children (2018)
  3. Arab Region Outcome Statement (2018)
  4. UNICEF press release (2017)
  5. UNESCO Strategic Framework for Education in Emergencies in the Arab Region (2017)
  6. Sustainable Development Goal Goal 4
  7. Arab Region Outcome Statement (2018)
  8. Ilham Nasser, Arab Center Washington DC: The State of Education in the Arab World (2018)
  9. Arab Region Outcome Statement (2018)
  10. UNESCO Country Profile Palestine (2017)
  11. UNESCO Country Profile Palestine (2017)
  12. OCHA Humanitarian Needs Overview Occupied Palestinian Territory 2018 (2017)