Sitting in a small barren classroom in the village of Fnaydiq, in northern Lebanon’s remote Akkar region, 11-year-old Zeynab is eager to tackle the new school year.
But the odds are heavily stacked against her even making it to high school.
Zeynab’s is a story by no means unique in Lebanon, where public schooling is largely synonymous with poor quality education and where the state for decades has all but turned its back on the sector.
“The situation of public schools in Lebanon is way beyond catastrophic, it’s horrible and sad,” said Hassane Kobeissi, professor of education at the state-run Lebanese University and a member of the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies (LAES).
“The state cares little for that sector… and there is no political will to change things.”
Nowhere is the picture gloomier than in rural regions like Akkar where a good portion of the population lives below the poverty line and kids, however motivated, face an uphill battle to succeed at school and beyond.
Teachers, students and principals interviewed at several schools in the mainly Sunni Muslim area describe a hopeless situation which forces them to cope with the bare minimum, with such basics as heating, school desks, maps, or even a proper playground, toilets or teachers’ lounges often lacking.
That’s not to mention lab equipment, computers or extra-curricular activities like sports, theatre or music, which are non-existent.
“The state has turned its back on us and we have become the leftovers of society,” said Khaled Issa, principal at Fnaydiq Gharbyeh primary school which has around 200 students.
“Imagine, I have been calling around for three months trying to find 20 desks,” he lamented, standing in a classroom where pupils are crammed four to a desk designed for two.
In the tiny village of Deir Dalloum, teachers raise their hands in despair when asked to describe conditions at the local public school where some 230 students are enrolled.
“We keep pleading and pleading for help but no one answers,” said Shafiqa Kanj, who teaches French.
“We are not offering children an environment where they can excel and school has become a sort of punishment for them,” she added.
“For example we are supposed to encourage children to read, but we have no library, we teach them science but we have no labs, and the list goes on.”
The dire conditions, experts say, result in poor academic scores, especially at the primary level, and a high drop-out and repetition rate.
“Sometimes there are bloomers but in general it’s not a question of whether or not the students drop out but rather when,” said Raouf Ghusayni, professor of education at the American University of Beirut and president of LAES.
Kobeissi said statistics show that between 20 and 30 percent of children in primary schools — which normally should have a 100 percent success rate — either drop out or fail and repeat classes.
Compounding the problem is the fact that teachers and school administrators are usually under qualified and underpaid, especially at the primary level.
“The state is not hiring specialised teachers that graduate from the faculty of education,” Kobeissi said. “They would rather hire unqualified teachers on a contractual basis for a mere 8,000 Lebanese pounds ($5.30 or 4 euros) an hour.
“That way they don’t have to declare them to social security or pay them a pension.”
Of the 35,000 teachers in the primary sector, some 15,000 are hired on a contract basis, he said.
As for school inspectors, there are a total of 60 nationwide who are tasked with overseeing 45,000 teachers — one inspector per 750 teachers — at the primary and secondary level, Kobeissi added.
The ministry of education acknowledged that much was needed to improve conditions but pointed to a five-year plan launched this summer to rehabilitate all public schools.
“It is clear that there are schools with great needs but there are also others which are excellent at all levels,” said Fadi Yarak, the ministry’s director general.
He said public schools face many challenges in part due to the 1975-1990 civil war which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and led to a proliferation of private schools operated by Lebanon’s various sects.
According to Yarak, the annual budget for public schools has amounted to no more than 1.2 billion Lebanese pounds ($800,000 or 600,000 euros) annually for the past five years, nearly 90 percent of which goes to cover operational costs.
Organisations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have meanwhile stepped in to fill the void.
With the assistance of the Italian cooperation, UNICEF in 2009 launched a three-year project to refurbish schools in three municipalities in Akkar, supplying them with school buses and much-needed equipment and training.
“Education is a human right in itself,” said Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF’s director in Lebanon. “We are here to support the government… to improve quality education of public schools and guarantee the same chances to the most marginalised children and protect them from violence and exploitation.
“In this way, quality education becomes essential in breaking the cycle of poverty and deprivation and to open doors of opportunities for a better future.”
Meanwhile the children of Akkar continue their uphill struggle to succeed academically.
“I’d like to become an accountant and do better than my parents,” said Jad, 16, a high-school freshman at Deir Dalloum whose father is a tile fitter.
“But I don’t think I will get that chance.”