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Education System in Northwestern Syria: A Long Road Ahead

The education sector in northwest Syria currently faces various obstacles and gaps caused by the decade-long conflict, but also the country's worsening economic crisis and difficult living conditions.

The education sector in Syria has suffered great damage during the conflict, which affected its structure, facilities, staff, and students alike. Bombings carried out by the Assad regime and its Russian ally have killed 24,962 children and destroyed 1,199 schools since 2011. The violations committed by the Syrian regime have also caused the large-scale displacement of millions, resulting in great damage to the education system across all its different levels.

This article provides an overview of education in northwest Syria, in an attempt to identify the main obstacles and gaps that the education sector suffers from. It is worth noting that Northwest Syria refers to the areas controlled by the opposition, which amount to about 10 percent of the country, and includes the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a political and armed Sunni Islamist organization, controls the Idlib governorate and parts of the northern countryside of Aleppo, while the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army controls areas in the north and northeast of the Aleppo governorate.

Great challenges and unsustainable solutions 

Schools were not safe from the Assad regime’s attacks on civilian targets. Between 2019 and 2022 alone, the regime forces along with Russia carried out more than 138 attacks on educational facilities in the region. More than 40 percent of the facilities’ infrastructure was destroyed, resulting in depriving hundreds of thousands of children from completing their education. The damage was not limited to educational facilities, as the regime’s bombing forced people to move from one area to another, leading to students having to leave school due to repeated displacement.

The number of students in operating schools reached a staggering low of 553,472 students in August 2022, while 44 percent of school-aged children, about half a million children, are outside the education system.

Currently, there are 1,834 schools in northwest Syria, 10 percent of which are out of service. The number of students in operating schools reached a staggering low of 553,472 students in August 2022, while 44 percent of school-aged children, about half a million children, are outside the education system. Of these children, many were simply unable to enroll in school or dropped out for financial or security reasons. In addition, the country is experiencing a serious economic crisis which has rendered more than half of Syria’s population food insecure in light of unprecedented levels of inflation.

In addition to the above challenges, the education sector is facing other difficulties, such as the lack of support for the sector, poor infrastructure, outdated teaching methods, frequent power outages, and overcrowded classes. 

In Idlib, there are approximately 950 schools run by the education ministry of the HTS-led Salvation Government, distributed over seven educational complexes: Termanin, Jisr al-Shughour, Salqin, Ariha, Idlib city, Maarat Misrin and Qah. They include primary, elementary, and secondary schools and there are about 213,000 students with 12,500 teachers and administrative staff. Primary school is mostly funded by the Manahel grant, a financial grant mostly provided by the European Union to support education. As for elementary and secondary schools, they are funded by education-oriented organizations such as Violet, Ihsan, and People. However, this financial support is irregular and only covers 50 percent of the academic year expenses.

This led to the development of the private education sector in Idlib, and about 450 private schools were authorized by the education directorate by October 2022. Despite attracting a significant number of students, however, private schools did not fill all gaps in the education sector due to various obstacles, notably the high fees that prevented a larger number of students from attending. Tuition fees at private schools range from $200 to $800 annually, which constitutes a great burden on parents, as the average per capita income is about $100 per month, sufficient for only 30 to 40 percent of the basic needs for living.

In addition, teachers have been leaving the education sector in favor of other jobs, largely due to their low salaries, when they do get paid, which cap at a maximum of $150 per month. This is nowhere near enough to meet their basic needs. Consequently, teachers have become stuck between their belief in providing an education to others on the one hand, and the need for a more stable career which does not put their livelihood at risk on the other.

Children outside the education system

Over 2.1 million children in Syria have dropped out from schools and two out of three of the students in northern Syria are no longer receiving a formal education as the economic burdens and difficult living conditions have made it hard for them to continue. Students are forced to drop out and head to work at an early age in order to contribute to securing their family’s income needs, not to mention the burdens of school fees and expenses. Currently, child labor is widespread among more than 75 percent of Syrian families, and nearly half of the children provide a joint or sole source of income for the family.

In addition, the increase of child marriage plays a significant role in keeping children away from school, especially girls, as some parents marry off their daughters before they reach the age of 18, claiming to secure the girl’s future and protect them from exploitation. Other factors such as lack of awareness, poverty, displacement, the decline of the quality of education, and sometimes the death of one of the parents force the family to marry off girls at an early age to alleviate the family of ‘additional’ burdens. According to a report by Syrians for Truth and Justice, child marriage rates have increased in the past few years in several regions in Syria, especially in the Idlib governorate, reaching the unprecedented rate of 73 percent of the total number of marriages in the governorate.

More than 50 percent of children with special needs are not enrolled in schools, and rehabilitation and training centers are still unable to meet their needs.

Moreover, more than 50 percent of children with special needs are not enrolled in schools, and rehabilitation and training centers are still unable to meet their needs. This problem has existed for years, but has worsened during the war. According to a report by the Assistance Coordination Unit, there are 4,038 students with special needs in the operating schools. The report’s findings showed that only 3 percent of the operating schools covered by the report are equipped to receive children with special needs, and only 1 percent, 30 schools, of the total operating schools have competent specialists to deal with students with disabilities. The lack of facilities and services for students with special needs represents an added challenge to the difficulties faced by this category of students, which led to a large number of them dropping out of schools.

There are 1,633 camps of internally displaced people in northwestern Syria, with 1,811,578 people displaced from various Syrian regions during the conflict. The school dropout rate in these camps continues to rise: according to a report by the Syrian Response Coordinators organization, around 78,000 students have dropped out due to poor living conditions and the economic crisis, but also the long distance between schools as some camps are located in mountainous areas or far away. In addition, around 67 percent of the camps do not have educational centers or schools on their premises. In this context, several humanitarian organizations are working on preparing programs and equipping private schools in northern Syria to enroll dropouts. For instance, the Syrian Forum has 41 projects in the education sector focused on supporting and renovating schools and on supporting education staff, and the organization Takaful al-Sham, launched in late 2017, has helped children return to school, and reached 78,100 children through projects implemented in 220 schools.

Lack of a unified curriculum threatens the education system

School curricula differ depending on the region, the ethnic groups present in the region, and the political factions that control these regions. In Idlib and its countryside, and in the villages of the northern Aleppo countryside affiliated to the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government (Termanin, Darat Izza, and Atarib), a unified curriculum is adopted for both private and public schools. It is the same Syrian curriculum from before 2011, minus deletions related to the Assad regime or contradicting the Islamic Sharia, and all schools in these areas follow the local plan issued by the Salvation Government’s education ministry.

As for the schools run by the Interim Government in the northern countryside of Aleppo (from Afrin to Jarabulus), an English language teacher working in these areas, said that these schools fall under the so-called “Turkish supervision,” as they are directly linked to the Turkish directorates of education. The schools of Afrin, Jandiris, Bulbul, Sheikh Hadid, and Sharran are linked to the Directorate of Education in the Turkish state of Hatay, while schools of Azaz, Soran, Mare’a, Akhtarin, and Al-Rai are linked to the Directorate of Education in the Turkish state of Kilis, and the schools of Al-Bab, Bazaa, and Qabasin, Ghandura, and Jarabulus are linked to the Directorate of Education in the Turkish state of Gaziantep. The changes that occurred in the teaching curricula in these regions can be summarized as such: the Turkish language was introduced for all academic levels and is considered a main subject, while mathematics and physics were added as subjects to the literary secondary school, an automated system for exams was adopted, and the Turkish education directorates supervise the development of exam questions in these schools. 

The difference of curricula has become much more apparent between the different Syrian regions, as the Syrian regime has its own curriculum, and the Autonomous Administration of the northeast has its own as well. 

University education: high hopes, but poor effectiveness

The suffering of university students is similar, if not greater, to that of students in schools, as university students have to shoulder many obstacles during their academic journey, including tuition fees, travel cost, and university courses. 

The scarcity of job opportunities after graduation and the non-recognition of university degrees outside northern Syria also play a major role in the reluctance of some people to enroll in universities. A survey conducted by the Syrian Center for International Relations and Strategic Research found that about 55.7 percent of graduates from northern Syria participating in the survey did not find a job after graduation. As for the issue of the degrees not being recognized by entities outside of northern Syria, it is related to the degrees issued by universities founded during the civil war in opposition areas only, while universities in regime areas are mostly recognized internationally. 

Despite these obstacles, there has been a considerable increase in the number of universities in the region: in 2022, there were 12 universities, while there was only one university in 2015. In comparison, there are 29 universities in the rest of Syria. The increase in the number of universities in northwestern Syria is, in the first place, due to the high population density (4.5 million citizens) in a relatively small geographical area. Additionally, these universities are considered as the only way for residents of these areas to obtain a university degree and increase the chances of finding a job, in light of the impossibility of pursuing their study in the regime’s regions.

The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Free Aleppo University, Dr. Ahmed Al Omar, told TIMEP about the obstacles of receiving higher education in the region, which are identical to the obstacles faced by students in schools too. They include security concerns, the post-earthquake destruction, a lack of financial resources to support staff and operations, and the poor financial conditions of most students. Also, most universities do not have on campus housing, causing an additional financial burden to students with housing and transportation fees. Additionally, staff and professors receive low pay—around $700 a month for PhD holding staff—due to the inability of students to pay high tuition fees. 

Al-Omar believes that the university tuition does not meet the needs of the university, while students consider university tuition high and have trouble affording it. For example, the average tuition for social sciences and humanities colleges at the Free Aleppo University is $150, while it amounts to $200 for STEM and business colleges, and $400 for medical schools. These tuitions constitute the main source of income for the university. 

As for private universities, the tuition fees are relatively high compared to the income of the people in the northern regions: tuition fees of medical colleges at Mari University and Al-Shamal Private University range between $1,500 and $2,000 annually, which prevents a large number of students from enrolling in these colleges.

In the event that semi-public universities do not obtain the necessary support to continue their work, their problems will continue to increase and it will be difficult for them to compete with private universities.

An uncertain future

The deterioration of the education sector in Syria is a pressing issue that must be addressed by the international community immediately, as it plays an important role in supporting social and economic development locally. 

Poor economic conditions threaten the continuity of education, and if the conditions of teachers, whether in schools or universities, are not improved, they will not be able to carry out their jobs properly. Furthermore, educational institutions need international support to provide students with a safe environment and meet their essential needs, such as expanding facilities, building university accommodations, and providing financial support or scholarships for students. Additionally, cooperation with universities in neighboring countries must be encouraged, as it can be a major lifeline for local universities to survive and gain the international expertise that they desperately need. In this regard, there are limited but important attempts that pave the way for greater international cooperation in the future.

On the other hand, local actors in opposition areas must work to unify educational curricula by adopting a unified Syrian curriculum devoid of any ideological orientations, and work to attract qualified teachers, as well as build new schools and colleges, especially in poor areas, and provide them with the necessary supplies.

It is also very important to work on re-integrating dropouts into schools as soon as possible so that their education gap can be bridged and they can catch up with their peers. As for older dropouts, they must be provided with access to educational programs compatible with their circumstances and capabilities, such as virtual or evening education programs, so that they can continue their education without having to leave their jobs that provide them with their daily sustenance.

Aamer Almustafa holds a PhD in linguistics and translation and he writes on language, society, and education.


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