“I feel good about finishing my exams, a feeling of success that a difficult time has passed,” Mohammad tells me in the schoolyard.
The 18-year old from Gaza City just walked out of his final Tawjihi exam and with it, the end of his school years. Mohammad’s results will help determine his future but just reaching this point is a particularly significant moment in the context of Gaza’s high-stress environment.
Regular outbreaks of violence and deteriorating living conditions affect every aspect of life here, including education. Just the week before Mohammad’s final exam, a rapid escalation in hostilities threatened to turn into the next Gaza war – children aged 10 and over have already lived through three rounds of conflict.
We believe they are all our kids, we have to commit ourselves to educate them
The infrastructure is creaking, with more classroom space needed, partly because of damage to existing schools but also because of rapid population growth. More than 90 per cent of schools in Gaza run double shifts to make space but this reduces time children spend in class and the ability of teachers to support those who have learning difficulties and fall behind.
Despite the challenges, many teachers are doing what they can to improve the future of Gaza’s children. Mohammad is one of them, he’s just been monitoring the Tawjihi exams.
“We believe they are all our kids, we have to commit ourselves to educate them,” he tells me. His passion and that of many other teachers is unwavering, he hasn’t received a full salary for the past 18 months. His father was a teacher for 40 years and now Mohammad is entering his 18th year of teaching.
The value associated with education in Gaza and across the State of Palestine is clear to see. A new UNICEF study, ‘State of Palestine Country Study: Out of School Children’, reports that nearly 99 per cent of children are enrolled in primary education (Grades 1 to 4).
However, the likelihood of children dropping out of school almost doubles between ages 12 to 15 and about one in four boys aged 15 is missing out on education.
Reaching those most at risk of dropping out
Children like 14-year old Saleh, who I meet at the child protection center in Beit Lahiya, a thirty-minute drive north through the sprawling suburbs of Gaza City. He attends remedial education classes here.
“My parents separated and the teachers used to treat us badly at school,” says Saleh when asked about the reasons for dropping out.
The new UNICEF report notes that more than two-thirds of children in Grades 1 to 10 report being exposed to violence in school, which is one of the key factors explaining why children drop-out.
After Saleh dropped out, he started working 12-hour days, farming in the fields near his home. But social workers quickly intervened and encouraged him to take catch-up lessons and try and get back to school. His father agreed and he re-entered school without missing a grade.
“My life is better now. This year I got 70 per cent in my tests. I didn’t study hard, I don’t know how I got it,” Saleh says modestly. His story shows what can be achieved with the right support and he’s now focussed on one thing, “For the future? I just want to keep up with my education for now.”
Building skills for a more prosperous future
We find Moussa in a small shed just off a narrow winding road that takes you towards the fence with Israel. The 17-year-old is fixing a motorbike engine in the homemade workshop with his dad.
The transition to a new school was the trigger for Moussa to drop out of school. He was fifteen at the time. “When I started school, I was one of the best pupils in class and then I moved school,” he explains. “It was a new place for me with new kids. I had problems at school with violence, bullying and with peers and teachers, sometimes they would beat me.”
It was a great moment to get in to the vocational training
Even now it’s hard for Moussa to talk about his experience but his young life took on meaning again when he enrolled in vocational training. “It was a great moment to get in to the vocational training, I already had some knowledge,” he says, referring to the time spent with his father in the workshop.
Finding that focus in life is difficult for young people in Gaza, where youth (aged 15-24) unemployment stands at 60 per cent. I think about what Mohammad told me back in Gaza City after finishing his exams. “I’m going to look at what the demand is in the community and to choose a subject based on this, a subject that can lead to work after school, like engineering or nursing.”
His words reiterate the importance of relevant education, including life-skills and vocational opportunities that young people desperately need to have the best chance in life. This could be more important now than ever.
Toby Fricker is a Communication Specialist working as part of the Emergency Response Team, providing support on communication and advocacy in humanitarian preparedness and response.
Read a related story — Finding a way to school in the State of Palestine