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Daraa communities foot the bill for public education

Facing a teacher shortage and little government support, communities in Daraa are turning to alternative solutions: providing financial bonuses to keep underpaid teachers in classrooms and repairing school buildings themselves.

10 June 2024

PARIS — Abu Hussam, a 40-year-old high school teacher in Inkhil, a city in Syria’s southern Daraa province, receives two salaries a month. One is paid by the Ministry of Education in Damascus, and the other by the city’s residents through a local committee.

In September 2023, Abu Hussam went back to teaching at the high school at “the families’ request,” he told Syria Direct. He had not taught for around five years. Abu Hussam began his career in Inkhil in 2008, and taught at the Damascus-run public high school until 2013, when opposition factions took control of the city and he kept teaching under the umbrella of opposition institutions. 

Because of that, the regime’s Daraa Education Directorate fired Abu Hussam and refused to reinstate him after the summer 2018 settlement agreement with opposition factions that returned southern Syria to regime control. Many teachers like him were left in a similar position, he told Syria Direct

Today, Daraa desperately needs teachers. Some of the province’s educators have migrated or been forcibly displaced, while others have left their jobs due to low salaries or been fired by Damascus. In an effort to fill the gap, residents of several cities have had to find alternative solutions: shouldering the burden of paying monthly bonuses to keep teachers in the classroom at public schools where official salaries are extremely low. 

Abu Hussam returned to work at the start of the 2023-2024 school year through an initiative launched by the civil committee in Inkhil to address the city’s teacher shortage. He is a contracted teacher, not a fixed employee, and the committee is responsible for paying him a salary of 500,000 Syrian pounds (SYP) a month ($33.70 at the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 14,800 to the dollar). This sum is in addition to his official salary of SYP 400,000 ($27) a month. 

Teacher shortage

In Inkhil, the teacher shortage at the elementary school level stands at around 20 percent. For scientific subjects such as physics, math and chemistry, the shortfall is around 80 percent, Khaled (a pseudonym), a school administrator in the city, told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“More than half of the teaching staff at Inkhil’s high school are not fixed staff from the education directorate. They are paid by the neighborhood committee formed by students’ parents,” teacher Abu Hussam said. “The total salary, from the education directorate and the committee, ranges from SYP 800,000 to SYP 900,000 a month [$54 to $60],” he added. This is twice the pay of a public school teacher only making the official salary. 

In Busr al-Harir, a town in eastern Daraa, the shortage of teachers employed by the Daraa Education Directorate has reached more than 70 percent. To fill the gap, local residents and schools rely on “former teachers who were fired or retired, short-term contract teachers and university students,” al-Hariri (a pseudonym), a school principal in the town and a member of its civil committee, said. The town is particularly short on English, French, math and science teachers, he added. 

Read more: ‘A government job is a burden’: Syrian regime institutions bleed staff

Low government salaries are among the biggest problems facing education in Syria, Khaled, the school administrator in Inkhil, said. “After the [latest public sector pay] increase, the salary of a fixed-term teacher reached SYP 300,000 [$20], which does not match monthly expenses,” he added.

“Those who do not find a job are the ones turning to short-term teaching positions. Most are women, who make up 99 percent of contract teachers in Inkhil,” Khaled said.

To attract and retain teachers, a “neighborhood committee” was formed by local notables and parents for every school in Inkhil at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. These groups collect funds from people in the city, or who have moved abroad, to support the education sector. As a result “all contracted teachers started to receive a second salary,” Khaled said. 

At the city’s high school, residents pay around SYP 6.5 million ($430) a month to eight teachers who are not fixed employees of the province’s education directorate, one member of the school’s committee told Syria Direct.

An official at the regime-affiliated Daraa Education Directorate acknowledged that the body has “ceded a portion of its tasks to the community to make up for the acute staff shortage and pay financial bonuses to improve teachers’ living conditions.” Low pay “drove many teachers and administrators to quit their jobs with the directorate,” he told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

Daraa “faces a true crisis in providing teachers, especially for English, French, physics, chemistry and math at the secondary level,” the official said. 

‘Figure it out’

At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, one school in Inkhil remained without an English teacher for three weeks in a row. The principal contacted the Daraa Education Directorate, but the response was to “figure it out,” Abu Hussam said. The principal “told the students they needed to pay SYP 10,000 a month each to contract a teacher.”

In Jassim, a city seven kilometers west of Inkhil, education also “relies on the people to run it, whether compensating for the lack of teachers, providing security and transportation or paying good salaries,” Wassim Hassan (a pseudonym), who teaches both there and in Inkhil, told Syria Direct

Inkhil’s committee contracted Hassan to work at one of the city’s schools for SYP 900,000 ($60) a month. A school in neighboring Jassim also contracted him, but to accept he stipulated it “provide me with a letter issued by the education directorate to allow me to pass through military checkpoints without being detained or conscripted,” he said. 

“The Ministry of Education is incapable of improving the education sector due to the lack of support and powers [granted to it] by the government,” Hassan said. For education to improve, “the government must support the ministry with a dedicated annual budget and give teachers decent salaries so they can live with dignity.” 

The role of Daraa’s civil committees is not limited to supporting teacher salaries. They also shoulder the responsibilities of repairing and maintaining schools, as well as providing supplies. 

In Busr al-Harir, the education committee oversees repairs, provides supplies and secures teachers, even if that means “bringing them from neighboring towns,” an official source at the town’s municipality said. The committee “pays them near-monthly bonuses, while providing transportation to and from schools,” he said. 

Finding teachers for elementary schools is “less difficult than the secondary” level, the official said. Committees in his town have contracted with teachers “from neighboring villages to teach at the high school and cover the staff shortage.” In addition to paying additional salaries, the local community provides transportation or travel stipends. 

The situation is not much different in Umm Walad, a town in eastern Daraa. There too, the local community pays salaries and provides transportation, Abu Muhammad, a former teacher in the town, told Syria Direct

But paying salaries and bringing teachers from other towns is a financial burden. This school year, Umm Walad’s committees sought to “make do with the educational staff in town, even if they did not hold specialized degrees or were university students, whether currently studying or cut off from education,” Abu Muhammad said. 

While civil society is playing an important role to patch over gaps in Daraa’s education system, relying on alternative community solutions contributes to the central state’s abandonment of its responsibilities. “The state drives every village or town to take on the operation and continuity of the schools,” Abu Muhammad said. 

Worse, a lack of human resources in the education sector results in “hiring unqualified people to teach, which affects the quality of education,” the former teacher added. 

Education decline

Despite local efforts, education in Inkhil “is heading for the abyss, due to the severe shortage of specialized teachers,” school administrator Khaled said. “The majority of elementary school teachers are contractors who only hold high school diplomas.” 

At times, “we have had to merge many classes” as one solution to the teacher shortage, he added. 

The administrator expressed concerns about “chaos, disorganization and absences of contracted teachers.” In his view, “they are aware they are urgently needed and there is no alternative, so principals are forced to cover over their mistakes.” 

The official at the Daraa Education Directorate echoed his concerns, noting short-term teachers “now control educational decisions, in terms of appointing them only to the schools they want,” he said. “They reject schools that are in dire need of them, and impose conditions on school administrations, such as receiving an extra salary or flexible work hours.” 

Employee losses at the Ministry of Education have also left some Daraa schools without administrative staff, the official added. “A majority of schools do not have a principal, assistant principal, secretary or librarian,” which negatively affects the educational process “since the administrative director alone cannot oversee education in the way required, in terms of teacher performance, teaching methods and skill development,” he added. 

To retain staff, Damascus has adopted several measures to tighten procedures for accepting resignation requests and even ban resignations altogether. In September 2023, the Ministry of Education suspended provincial education directors’ powers that allowed them to grant resignation requests. 

“If the Ministry of Education allowed resignations, there wouldn’t be a single teacher or principal left,” the official said. “The educational process will continue to collapse if the financial situation and salaries remain as they are now,” he warned. 

For now, community efforts are helping Daraa’s schools get by, but this may not be sustainable in the long term. “The educational process is proceeding by relying on people’s support, because the government does not care if education succeeds in Daraa or not,” Abu Hussam concluded. “What if this support stops?”

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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