Friday, September 23, 2005


The bigger picture

I've just spent some of the week sitting listening to people talking about bits of Syria's next Five-Year Plan, which is currently in preparation. If our project is going to inspire young people, then we have to understand where (or whether) it fits into the greater scheme of things, like education or social reform. The experience has been both inspiring and depressing simultaneously.

I read first the executive summary of a report by the UNDP and Prime Minister’s Office on Education and Human Development in Syria. This is a painfully honest assessment, which just lists one current problem or failure after another. The scale and urgency of the task facing the country is enormous. The document is strong on symptoms and rhetorical questions, but short on diagnosis of underlying causes and recommended treatment, which does not help with the problem-solving. It also does not mention some matters I would have expected, such as team working, communication skills, best practice or benchmarking. It does strike me, however, that any transformation in this area must focus completely around one big idea and use it as the catalyst and momentum for the rest, rather than fight a thousand different fires equally and simultaneously. That is, however, not how it looks to be happening. 100 people (I gather all teachers, who are among the last people I would select to rework a curriculum) have been detailed off to do the reshaping. I fear it will be committee stuff, lowest common denominator, incremental, low-risk, unexciting, more about the profession and the administration than unlocking the potential inside this country's young people.

I later went with Deputy Dina (small in size but big in character) to hear from the authors about the chapter in the Plan on Childhood and Youth. After listening for some time while we were told how we should run the project, and in particular how we should involve sociologists with it, it transpired that the Chapter - er- didn't exist. The Plan is due out before the end of the year (it's late September now) and this chapter doesn't exist? 40% of Syria's population is 14 or under and this chapter doesn't exist?

The uplifting thing about this and other conversations is that I feel that our project - inspirational, fun, collaborative, clear about its purpose - can really stand out amongst all this. I feel too that once it's properly up and running it can act as a catalyst not just for children but for teachers, administrators and politicians as well. We have had great feedback from children and parent to the summer programme which has now ended (we have postponed the Aleppo stage, about which more later perhaps once I've calmed down), so we know there is demand for this sort of activity, and the children really respond to it. I'll post separately on the teenage debates we have run, which have centred on waste and the environment, but the teenagers themselves have raised issues of homelessness, the role and position of women, health, violence, pollution, water and smoking. It has been difficult sometimes to get the debates going - some parts of Syria seem more quiet than others - but we now have some fantastic insights into what young people care about and want to see change. Lots of them have said how good it is to have their views listened to, to have the chance to have a serious discussion. For the next phase we're going to capture this on video.

That aside, I feel that Syria's need for a substantial and rapid leap forward rather than a slow shuffle is going to be hard to achieve. The instinct to try and invent things from scratch here rather than looking for excellence elsewhere and adapting it, the lack of a management culture or context of competition that makes change a matter of daily survival, the risk-averse and insular administration, all work against the possibility real transformation. There are people here with vision, but whether they can carry the day I don't know.

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