A little more stability may herald big changes

26th October 2012 at 01:00
New partnerships in the Middle East could be good news for education

Attendees at a recent conference in Beirut who wanted to know the effect of regional turmoil on British schools in the Middle East should have asked the delegation from Libya. Except they couldn't. Only 10 days after protests against a US-made film led to the killing of the US ambassador, a strike by the country's air traffic controllers left the attendees from the local branch of UK Trade and Investment trapped in Tripoli.

The Building Knowledge, Creating Opportunities conference, organised by the British embassy in Lebanon, sought to encourage links between British schools and universities and their Middle Eastern counterparts. Yet in a region hit by crises, from last year's Arab Spring to recent anti-US protests, encouraging investment is not easy.

Amanda Selvaratnam of the Training Gateway, which facilitates partnerships between British educators and those in the Middle East, says some deals were scuppered when last year's uprisings broke out. But she says the potential market is huge, as stale dictatorships are replaced by democracies seeking educational reform.

"The desire for partnerships is there in the Middle East, and there are successful examples," she said. "But it is difficult, as every time a situation occurs like the recent protests it has a big effect on UK schools and universities feeling comfortable coming (into the market)."

But there are reasons to be cheerful. In Libya the reconstruction efforts have led to more prominent roles for UK education institutions, while in Egypt the British Council reported a 35 per cent rise in the number of Egyptians taking UK qualifications in the past year.

The changes that have rocked the Middle East in the past two years have altered societies for ever. But what British schools looking at the market are wondering is whether the changes are closer to 1989 in Eastern Europe, which ushered in Western investment, or 1979 in Iran, which slammed the door shut.

Tom Fletcher, British ambassador to Lebanon, falls into the former camp. "Across the Arab world you see an overall trend towards openness," he told TES. "There are obviously going to be moments where we all have to hold our nerve, but for me there is no choice but to accelerate that process. The best way you can help that is by opening up our education."

Afghan advances

Afghanistan has overcome more obstacles than any country in its bid to educate girls, according to a Unesco report.

The number of girls enrolled in education in 2010 was 79 per cent, up from 4 per cent in 1999 during Taliban rule.

Credit was given to community schools, which had cut travel distances, thus increasing security for girls.

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