This year, public school students are well behind schedule for the Lebanese baccalaureate exams.
At the end of a chaotic school year, marked by a teachers’ strike of unprecedented length, public school students are at a clear disadvantage compared to their private school counterparts who had a timely year.
“I almost gave up hope. I was deeply worried that I did not gain a firm grasp of the basics that would enable me to pass the Lebanese baccalaureate easily,” Abdel Rahman, a General Science student at Tripoli’s Saba Zreik public high school said.
The school principal's determination to hire substitutes and hold makeup sessions enabled students to prepare for lighter load exams.
“I'm ready for the exams, as far as I can be. What is missing is confidence,” Abdel Rahman said.
Besides losing two to three months of school time, the return of public school teachers’ in March was scattered, due to rebellion in the teachers’ union movement.
A chemistry teacher was missing here, and a math or Arabic teacher was missing there. Some schools remained closed entirely, with teachers refusing to teach because their salary in Lebanese lira was no longer worth anything despite adjustments in civil service pay, or because they found better opportunities in the private sector.
Taking public school students into consideration, Caretaker Education Minister Abbas Halabi cut 40 percent of the curriculum on which the official exams will be based. He also set the baccalaureates exams for July 10, 11 and 13, to give students in public schools time to complete the lighter load.
“I had to take one of two decisions: cancel the official exams or organize them, even with the minimum. I opted for a lighter exam load,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.
“This will allow students to continue their studies and join higher education,” he added.
To guide the minister in his decision, the Ministry of Education's Center for Educational Research and Development (CERD) carried out a survey among schools to identify the teaching received.
“We concluded that public high school students were the most disadvantaged, particularly senior year students,” Hyam Ishak, acting president of CERD, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
The CERD decided to take into account 60 percent of the curriculum and 13 weeks of teaching, knowing that all students benefited from eight schooling weeks before the strike.
“We streamlined the content of the testing program, removed optional subjects and left it up to students to select the subjects within their concentration,” Ishak said.
This solution “does not solve the problem or restore teaching standards,” but is “an acceptable compromise given the situation,” she continued.
After the fiasco that ensued after certificates were granted by former Education Minister Tarek Majzoub at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, officials do not want to see students rejected by universities abroad.
Immeasurable drop in standards
The quality of the Lebanese baccalaureate, on the other hand, is a matter of concern. Consequently, the same applies to the level of the 44,585 students graduating, including 21,490 from public schools, according to the CERD’s stats for 2021-2022.
The minister seeks to be reassuring. “If we take June 22 as the end of school date, students in the official school system, apart from exceptions, benefited from 110 school days. This is the same as last year,” said Halabi.
This is around two months less than in Europe for instance, where the average school year lasts 180 days.
“We resumed classes for the senior year at the end of March, after a three-month strike. However, we suffered from teacher absences. We were forced to merge classes and omit some subjects altogether,” said one public school official, on condition of anonymity.
“In practice, public senior high school students would have completed 60 percent of the curriculum,” said Maysoun Chehab, education program specialist with UNESCO. “What's most regrettable is that the strike took place from January to March, a peak period for acquiring new knowledge, whereas autumn is usually devoted to revision.”
According to another expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, despite the lifting of the strike in March, "some 1,000 public school teachers abstained from returning, including 400 in secondary education."
The drop in standards is undeniable. “If the outbreak of COVID-19 is an important stage in the collapse of educational standards in Lebanon, the repeated strikes have further undermined education and the Lebanese baccalaureate,” added Chehab.
“Yet, in the absence of evaluations, it is impossible to quantify what is only a general hypothesis for the moment,” she said.
The Lebanese education system's downfall began more than ten years ago. It intensified with the outbreak of COVID-19, the Beirut port explosion, teachers’ strikes, and the collapse of the Lebanese lira.
In its 2020 report on education, the World Bank said that Lebanese students were on average approximately four years of schooling behind those in the OECD countries. At the time, the organization pointed to the lack of reform in an unequal education system.
Three years on and inequalities between the most privileged and the most disadvantaged students continue to grow.
Admissions to foreign universities in jeopardy
Georges, a final-year student at the private Antonines Sisters School in Roumieh, said he’s “more than ready,” for the exams that will take place in a month and a half.
While his fellow students in the public school are working hard to complete the reduced curriculum, he has already finished his classes. He has even been admitted to a private university.
“We had the chance to work throughout the year. We've seen and reviewed the baccalaureate program several times, thoroughly and without rushing,” he said.
In contrast, Karim, a senior year student at Tripoli's Saba Zreik public high school said that “In the wake of the load-cutting baccalaureate program, important math chapters were skipped.”
“We didn't even get through them,” he said.
Karim’s aim is to obtain honors, which would enable him to win a scholarship to study at a renowned private university specializing in artificial intelligence. “If I don’t get a distinction, I’ll have to make do with the Lebanese University, the country’s only public university, which is undergoing the same crisis as the public schools,” he said.
For Lebanese baccalaureate holders, apart from those with the French baccalaureate [between 3,000 and 3,300 students to graduate in 2023] or the international baccalaureate (IB), the consequences could be dramatic. Their admission into a university abroad could well be compromised.
“Foreign universities are now questioning the level of students from Lebanon. They might give priority to students from other countries,” said Chehab.
And even if they decide to continue their studies in Lebanon, students will face major difficulties if they don't take matters into their own hands.
“There is no doubt that the first academic year will be problematic, as students will not have acquired the essential knowledge,” the president of the Lebanese University, Bassam Bedran, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
If the institution is ready to “do part of the work,” it’s up to the students to make “intensive personal efforts,” Bedran said.
The other potential victim of this situation is Lebanon’s public schools. With less than a third of students now attending school — 336,301 out of a total of 1,072,325, excluding Syrian refugees who attend school in the afternoons, again according to CERD— public schools are at risk of being deserted, little by little, by students in search of quality and by teaching staff in search of jobs that pay well.
“If you have fresh dollars, you have access to private education. The poor, on the other hand, have little chance of learning,” said Sabah Moujaes, head of the official Dhour Shweir secondary school.
“Give priority to public schools," insisted Moulouk Mehrez, headmistress of the Saba Zreik public secondary school in Tripoli, while denouncing the "cosmetic solutions and the absence of public policy."
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.