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General History

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Palestinian Education
submitted by This Week In Palestine

By Mahmoud Amra

After 1948, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) was annexed to Jordan, and Gaza to Egypt. Accordingly, the schools in the West Bank became part of the Jordanian educational system, whereas schools in Gaza followed the Egyptian curriculum. This same situation continued after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. The two educational systems, the Jordanian and the Egyptian, are known to be holistic systems and strongly centralized. All students have to follow the same prescribed curriculum for each grade level.

In 1994, the educational system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was transferred to the newly established Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The PNA immediately started to develop and gradually implement a new Palestinian curriculum. This process was completed in 2005/2006, and in 2006/2007 all schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were using the newly developed Palestinian curriculum from grade 1 through grade 12.

The Palestinian educational system under the PNA is very similar to those systems in neighbouring Arab countries. Grades 1 to 10 are compulsory, and all students follow the same curriculum. After that, students have the choice to either go to a vocational school or to continue the academic track. At the end of grade 12, all students are required to sit for the centralized school matriculation exams (the Tawjihi). These exam results are the sole factor that determines whether a student will be admitted to universities in Palestine or in most other Arab countries.

Palestinian schools, with close to 1.2 million students and more than 48,000 teachers, are divided into three sectors in terms of ownership: public schools that belong directly to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education MOEHE (70 percent of all students); UNRWA schools that belong to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (24 percent of all students); and private schools that belong to various charities, religious organizations, or Christian churches (6 percent of all students). The latter are located predominantly in the cities of Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.

During the years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, all public and UNRWA schools were under the close and complete supervision of Israeli military governance. The military governance strongly censored school books, employed and dismissed teachers, controlled the budgets for education, and even issued orders of school closures in cases of political disruptions. During that long period of occupation, the Palestinian education system suffered from neglect, poor infrastructure, and a deteriorating quality of education. The private schools, on the other hand, were less dependent on Israeli military governance and therefore had more flexibility. This flexibility, as well as the long history of many of these schools, has qualified them to play a major role in maintaining and developing the Palestinian education system.

Together with some non-governmental educational organizations, the private schools conducted teacher-training programs, developed educational enrichment materials, and organized international campaigns to support Palestinian education. The significant role of these private schools in serving Palestinian education has earned them respect and credibility within the Palestinian community. With the approval of the Palestinian Ministry of Education, the private schools are teaching various foreign languages and additional academic subjects. Some of these schools are even teaching the Palestinian curriculum in English to accommodate students whose first language is English. Some of these schools have also adopted international educational programs for the last two years of school as an alternative to the national curriculum. The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is implemented by several private schools, among which are the Freres School in Jerusalem and Al-Mustaqbal Schools in Ramallah. Some other schools prepare their students to sit for the American SAT exams.

One of the most well-known schools is the Friends School in Ramallah/Al-Bireh, which was founded in 1869 by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The school offers a bilingual curriculum and a value-led Quaker education for grades K through 12. It is the only school in Palestine that is accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB DP) for students in grades 11 and 12 as an alternative to Palestinian Tawjihi matriculation. The IB DP is, according to many scientific studies, the best high school program to prepare students for university. The vast majority (95 percent) of the Friends School graduates go on to American, European, and Arab universities, and many of the most prominent Palestinian figures today are graduates of the school.

Students who join these international programs receive accreditation from the Palestinian MOEHE and the equivalency of the national Tawjihi exams. Adopting such programs allows Palestinian students to compete internationally with thousands of students around the world, and it qualifies them to be admitted to the world’s leading universities. Such programs are continuously developed through an ongoing process of curriculum review. They also provide regular training opportunities for teachers and school administrators. Students enrolled in these programs are encouraged to learn skills that are crucial for their university studies and professional future. They develop critical thinking skills, self-learning skills, and a strong sense of their own identity and culture as well as an understanding of other cultures.

Despite all the work of the MOEHE, the UNRWA, the private schools, and the non-governmental educational organizations, there is still much to be done to overcome the damage that was caused to the education system by the Israeli occupation. Hundreds of new schools are needed to solve the problem of crowded classes. The curriculum needs to be regularly reviewed, developed, and updated. The teacher-centred approach, which emphasizes rote learning, needs to be replaced by a student-centred approach, which promotes critical thinking and creativity.

Mahmoud Amra is head of the Friends Boys School in Ramallah/Al-Bireh.

This Week in Palestine
September 2007

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