Last month, one unfortunate teenager had a taste of how unforgiving high-school exams can be in Syria. Adel arrived to take his physics exam without his student ID card. By the time he went home to fetch it, the examiners told him it was too late to enter. Adel got so upset that he turned his cell phone off and disappeared. "He will have to repeat the entire year," said his mother. "He is not picking up his phone and we have no idea where he is."
Adel is not an isolated case. The stress of high-school exams in Syria is so pervasive that a recent BBC4 series on education here described this month's atmosphere as follows: "The whole city seems in a state of panic, from teachers to parents and pupils." The tension will continue to build until the end of July, when every passing student's grades are announced in the local media. This month, as exams continue, you are also likely to hear about teenage suicides over bad grades.
The cause for such panic is that grades determine the future of a child. Ninth graders who do not pass with good grades end up in vocational learning, unable to attend a state-funded college later in life. Those who do go to college have to study a field determined solely by their grades. High grades mean a choice of medical school, followed by dentistry, pharmacy and so on. Low achievers must choose between literature or the social sciences, with no chance of changing course.
This system is so rigorous and nerve-wracking that overachievers are pushed to the brink of perfection. No wonder, then, that the second largest group of medical students going to the United States to specialise comes from Syria. "Syrian students score near perfect scores, and we don't understand how," a US Embassy official once told me, referring to the medical school entrance exam applicants must take.
But for the rest of Syria's students, the stress they undergo to earn their Baccalaureate may not pay off so well, in spite of ongoing government efforts to improve things. In 2005, the country increased expenditure on public education for all levels from 2.7 per cent to 4.3 per cent of GDP. This is still low. Compare it to Yemen's 9.5 percent, or even Cuba, which spends almost one fifth of its GDP on education, according to UNDP data.
This might explain why Syria's eighth-grade international achievement in maths and science is barely average when compared to other Arab countries. In 2004, the latest year Syria entered into TIMSS - the annual international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study - it scored seventh out of eight in maths and fifth in science. Ask any Syrian adult about their own experience with the Baccalaureate year, and you are likely to solicit a big sigh and a roll of the eyes.
"Don't remind me of those days," is the usual remark I have been hearing. People complain that their education was bogged down with rote memorisation, that it was rigid and at times "terrorising". It was also plagued by the academic corruption that still bleeds family finances dry. Teachers, for instance, have become notorious for commanding private lesson fees, which they promote during regular class time. Many parents complain that teachers do not even go through the trouble of delivering their lesson in class so as to "force" parents to hire them privately.
Even private schools offer little escape. Unless the school is affiliated with an embassy, students of Syrian origin must pass the same rigorous tests to advance to the next grade. Private students must pass the government exams as well as the school's. That is why parents such as Suha, (not her real name), try to send their children to one of the embassy schools for a year or even the final semester, so as to be eligible for the less rigid "expat" set of Syrian-mandated exams. Otherwise, failing the government exam would prohibit them from continuing their education. "And that would be a disaster," says Suha, echoing the thought of parents throughout the country.
Rasha Elass was a reporter for The National. She now lives in Damascus