“Most of the schools in Gaza have not been repaired since the January 2009 bombings”
On the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Caroline Pontefract, UNESCO Director of Education of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) explains how Palestinian refugee teachers and students persevere against the odds.
You are responsible for one of the largest school systems in the Middle East. How much of UNWRA’s activity is devoted to education?
Education accounts for more than half UNRWA’s regular budget. As the Agency’s largest programme, it has been the main provider of basic education to Palestinian refugees for almost 60 years.
Where does the Agency carry out its work in education?
UNWRA operates in refugee camps or centres in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem). Between all these sites, there are almost 700 elementary and secondary schools, 10 Vocational Training Centers, and three educational science faculties catering to around 500,000 students every day.
How many teachers work for UNWRA, and in what conditions?
Altogether UNWRA employs 19,000 teachers and educators.They work in extremely challenging circumstances. Seventy per cent of UNWRA schools are on double shifts! Many operate in unsuitable buildings. Most schools in Gaza have not been repaired since the January 2009 bombings because of the blockade, which makes it increasingly difficult for the refugee children to receive a proper education.
Do UNWRA teachers follow a single curriculum?
No. Following four different national curricula is one of UNWRA’s main challenges. All of the curricula are exam-based, which is the educational model in the region. At UNRWA, we are trying to enhance this model to strengthen classroom practices. We would like UNRWA schools to have more time for sport and creative activities, which are so essential to a child’s development.
World Teachers’ Day (5 October) honoured teachers for providing a sense of normalcy during and after emergencies. Do you believe that “recovery begins with teachers”?
I am convinced of it. Teachers are the single most important education resource. We need to invest more in developing policies and strategies for their working conditions, professional development and career progression. We need to help teachers to acquire skills to respond to the learning needs of their pupils and achieve a holistic vision of education. Above all, we need to honour teachers who are so vital to recovery and growth after conflict. They represent continuity, they support children who have been displaced, who have experienced violence or seen their homes and schools destroyed. Most UNWRA teachers can identify with these situations as they themselves are refugees.
UNRWA provides education, health, relief and social services for some 4.7 million registered Palestinian refugees. UNESCO has worked with UNRWA since 1951. Along with technical support, UNESCO funds two senior international staff members (including the Education Director) and four local posts.