Jordan's schools close to breaking point amid refugee influx

A Dubai organisation is working to support teachers, many of whom work double shifts to educate pupils in difficult circumstances

EdTech expands opportunities for learning to be more personalised. Courtesy: Dubai Cares
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Loris Al Ghoul runs a classroom with 53 pupils and one working microscope. They line up to peer through its lens. When grading papers, pupils swap and mark each other's.

This is not an exercise in learning but a necessity.

Ms Al Ghoul is a biology teacher at Sukaina bint Al Husain Secondary School in Amman, Jordan. Her work begins before dawn and often ends late at night.

“It’s a pressure,” said Ms Al Ghoul, a teacher of 21 years. “I have to let them grade their own homework. I just can’t do it.”

I have to let them grade their own homework. I just can't do it

She is one of 1,350 educators to receive teacher training and psychological support under a five-year programme with Dubai Cares and Jordan’s Ministry of Education, in collaboration with Save the Children Jordan, Community Jameel and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dubai Cares has invested in three educational initiatives launched this year, costing more than Dh26 million.

When a delegation from Dubai visited for the September launch, teachers greeted them but no classes were in session that day. Amman’s teachers had just begun a month-long strike over low pay and overcrowded classrooms.

The strike was resolved and the teachers' pay demands met. But the Jordanian school system is at breaking point.

Jordan hosts the second-highest number of refugees per capita in the world, including more than 1.3 million Syrians. Almost half of Jordan’s refugees are under age 15, including 125,000 born in Jordan. Most are settling in for the long term, with four out of five Syrian refugees integrated in urban communities.

This has led to severe overcrowding in city schools, double shifts for teachers and pupils coping with trauma from conflict and displacement.

To ease the pressure, Dubai Cares has invested in early education, high-school graduation and psychological support for teachers.

The first project is a Dh5.5m commitment to give 1,620 principals, teachers and counsellors training in teaching and mental health, through an app developed by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab.

The initiative, which cost just over Dh20m, will help teachers on the front lines of education, said Tareq Al Gurg, chief executive of Dubai Cares.

“The first solution is training the teachers. If teachers are not happy in their life and their work, morale declines," he said.

For teachers like Ms Al Ghoul, it is a significant step.

“You must take care of teachers because they take care of students,” she said.

Secondly, Dubai Cares has dedicated more than Dh5.8m for a two-year programme preparing 4,000 children aged between 5 and 6 for Grade 1. The investment includes the refurbishment of nursery classes and the development of teaching apps for parents and teachers by UAE-based education tech companies.

Finally, Dubai Cares dedicated Dh14.7m for an app that helps teenagers pass high-school final exams. The app is designed for teenagers who cannot, or do not, want to attend school, due to financial pressure, bullying, transport costs and early marriage for girls.

Dubai Cares connected the creators of the Miyamiya app with Questscope, an NGO in Jordan that works with out-of-school youth.

The app will be rolled out over three years with lessons adapted to the Jordanian national curriculum in Year 11 and 12 maths, physics and English.

“The main three reasons why people drop out, is the school itself,” said Ma'en Rayyan, a project manager at Questscope.

“It’s the curriculum, the teacher and the teaching methods. The main reason [people leave] is because they don’t want to go to school not because they want to labour. It's not an attractive or safe environment.”

Samar Mamdoh with her oldest son Khaled, who continued his education after fleeing the civil war in Syria, before bullies forced him to drop out. Anna Zacharias / The National
Samar Mamdoh with her oldest son Khaled, who continued his education after fleeing the civil war in Syria, before bullies forced him to drop out. Anna Zacharias / The National

Mother's regret over refugee daughter married off at 14 

Each of Samar Mamdoh’s four children faced a different set of challenges on the road to education.

The eldest, Khaled, left school when the Syrian war began in 2011. When the family moved from their farm to Al Kiswa city, Ms Mamdoh decided against enrolling her children after two explosions hit the local school.

Khaled continued his education against her wishes.

“I was very worried but I couldn’t tell him 'no', because it was his dream” Ms Mamdoh says.

On the day they moved to Jordan, Khaled discovered he had passed his Year 9 exams, a milestone in the Syrian education system.

In Jordan, he worked part-time at an internet cafe and studied for the high-school final exams. But on exam day, he was beaten up by bullies and he has not returned to re-sit the tests. He received a scholarship to study multimedia at a college but he quit due to transportation costs.

Ms Mamdoh’s second son Hamza, 14, has a Grade 1 education. He began work when the family arrived in Jordan at the age of 10 to support his family. He works as a baker.

Yes, it was wrong but it wasn't intended. This was not the plan but the war changed the whole family's destination

“There were bills to pay,” Ms Mamdoh says.

“He doesn’t get enough money to help us much but he doesn’t take much from us.

He’s very young to be supporting himself, to buy himself pyjamas, trousers, shirts. He has needs and as parents, we can’t give him anything. I want my son to get an education, to get even the basics. I want him to make up what he missed.”

Ms Mamdoh’s daughter was married a few months after arriving in Jordan at age 14 to a man from Homs, who was 21. They live in Turkey and have two young daughters.

She hasn’t seen her daughter in person in five years. Marriage was the only way she saw a better life for her daughter, Ms Mamdoh says.

“Yes, it was wrong but it wasn’t intended. This was not the plan but the war changed the whole family’s destination by 180 degrees.”

Ms Mamdoh’s youngest child Ahmed, 7, joined a daycare renovated by Dubai Cares and Plan International Jordan last year. He started Grade 1 in September.

“The only hope I can see now is Ahmed,” says Ms Mamdoh.

“He’s in school now. I hope he can do what his brothers couldn’t do.”

Ms Mamdoh’s hopes are pinned on immigration to Europe. Ahmed hopes to fulfil his brother Hamza’s dream and become a vet.