Despite obstacles, Gaza students score well on exams

Palestinian students search newspapers for their exam results, Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)


AMSTERDAM (IPS) - Call it that choice between looking at the half-full or half-empty part of the results. And it is almost half; 55 percent of schoolchildren passed their general secondary school examinations in Gaza this year.

The results in the humanities section in the exams, the tawjihis as they are called, were four percent better than last year, and in the sciences they were better by two percent. So much for the impact of the Israeli bombardment last December-January, on most of the children anyway.

Hanan al-Manameh scored 99.4 percent in science, the sixth highest in the exams conducted both in Gaza and the West Bank. “The war and the siege on Gaza will not break us down,” she tells IPS by phone from Gaza City. “The war didn’t put an end to the school year, and it didn’t kill the motivation inside me.”

Mahmoud al-Segali, 18, scored 99.5 percent. “My family had to move from one shelter to another while Israeli F-16s bombed the houses around us. Then, and later, we have been short of electricity, and short of paper, but I still managed my dream result.”

School children are getting used by now to studying without paper — and that’s not because they have computers. “I had to use my textbooks as my class notebooks as well,” says secondary student Duaa Khalil. The siege has brought shortage of paper among other things.

Of the 47,469 students who passed the exam, 1,189 scored more than 90 percent. They had to survive more than three weeks of Israeli bombing — though that killed many children. Disruption came earlier after hundreds of teachers went on strike. Many were threatened with salary cuts as a way of exerting pressure on Hamas (the teachers in Gaza are paid by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank).

“The results of the secondary school exams of this year have a special meaning, because it was difficult and full of obstacles and blood during the aggression on both the West Bank and Gaza,” Hamas de facto Prime Minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh said at a rare public appearance to honor students who had excelled. The government also awarded certificates posthumously to 23 high school students and to 12 teachers killed during the Israeli bombing.

But then, there is the other half that failed. No doubt the successes and the overall improvement in the pass percentage can be summoned as argument that the Israeli bombing made no difference. But there is no simple statistical way of determining such an effect. Some children are more affected by such upheavals than others; that’s just the way children are.

What is doubtless is the mountainous difficulties in the way, for those who overcame them, and for those who could not. And these are not the sort of difficulties children face in many schools around the world.

“Gaza has suffered severe shortage of paper; many books did not arrive till late in the year, and some did not arrive at all,” Gaza-based education ministry spokesman Khalid Radi told IPS. “Supplies of ink and paper are no longer available.”

Many teachers “are concerned about students’ inability to concentrate, and this has become worse after the war on Gaza.” Sometimes it is a far more basic issue than concentration, says Radi. “In many schools children can’t see what is written on the blackboard because of inadequate lighting due to shortage of electricity.”

Seventy-five new schools were due to be constructed in Gaza, but the Israeli siege means there are now no construction materials to build them with. The average number of children in a classroom has meanwhile risen from 40 to 55. Thirteen schools in Gaza were demolished in the bombing, 176 were damaged.

Diab Jumma, 18, is among those students who did not clear the exam. “My mother fainted when she heard,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t have the time to read, but when I do I am just not able to understand. I get nightmares about the bombing, and when I sit to read a book I find it hard to collect my thoughts and put them into studies.”

Such problems are common, deputy minister for education Dr. Yousif Ibrahim tells IPS. He speaks of the al-Samouni family. “How is it possible for a student to focus when he has seen the flesh and blood of his parents’ body stuck on the walls of a room of what was once his home?” Twenty-eight members of that family were killed in the bombing.

And yet Gaza’s results are comparable with those in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, says Dr. Ibrahim. “And imagine, in those countries they have all the budgets, the stability, the means to create a proper atmosphere for education.”

But some children will always triumph. And they set their own standards for success. Al-Segali with his 99.5 percent marks failed in his own way. “It was his handwriting that prevented him from getting that extra 0.5 percent,” says Dr. Ibrahim. “He must work on that.”

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