Students, educators, and activists work to address inequality, increase access, and reimagine the future of Moroccan education.
By Clare Wu
A bustling crowd is gathered outside a narrow archway. I shift to catch a glimpse of the scene beyond their huddled murmurs. Between two tall European tourists in front of me, I make out a wide courtyard fashioned with colorful tiles, glistening white, maroon, green, bright orange, and deep blue. Tall columns inscribed with Arabic sayings ensconce the smooth, serene courtyard. A few men are dispersed throughout the courtyard kneeling on vibrant rugs, completing their afternoon prayer.
This courtyard sits within the University of al-Qarawiyyin in the heart of the medina, the city center, in Fes, Morocco. Though initially only male students attended, the university was founded by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri, who migrated to Fes from the Tunisian city of Kairouan. Established in 859 A.D. and hidden within a sprawling entanglement of ancient alleyways, it is the oldest operating and degree-granting university in the world. Muslim scholars, now both men and women, still gather to share wisdom in its expansive courtyard today.
Education has a long and complex history in Morocco. Traditional education centers around madrasas: Muslim schoolhouses typically embellished with detailed geometric tile work and verses from the Quran. In Salé, a small city next to Rabat, I visited a madrasa where the intricate walls displayed not only key Quranic verses, but the entire writings of the Quran. Inclusivity has advanced tremendously since the days where only small groups of male Muslim students congregated at madrasas to learn religious teachings. Today, public education is available to all children after the age of four, and compulsory and free from the ages of seven to thirteen. Teaching still incorporates Quranic messages as moral teachings for younger students, but is centrally based on a French system where students must pass Certificate d’études Primaires for admission into lower secondary schools. Though major educational achievements have been marked in the past few decades, with 95 percent of school-aged children in Morocco now enrolled in primary school, the education system in Morocco continues to face major obstacles. Dropout rates are high and only 53 percent of students enrolled in middle school continue on to high school. Fewer than 15 percent of first grade students will graduate from high school.
On a sunset train from Fez to Rabat, I chatted with a college graduate in computer science about his experience growing up attending public school in his small village outside of Meknes. “I enjoyed learning but would sometimes skip class to play together with my friends in the streets,” he reminisced. This was common, it seemed to him. School, though mandatory, was not viewed as essential. Due to weaknesses in the system, education often wasn’t valued as a reliable path to economic mobility or even security. He described a scene of an overcrowded Moroccan classroom in a poorer district, where a singular teacher struggles to handle the large number of students. For many families, it was more advantageous for children to begin working early instead of attending class. Practical work such as construction jobs or apprentice-type labor with craftsman were popular for students. Today, 31.5 percent of the population over age 15 is illiterate despite a large and progressive public education system. Teacher burnout, overcrowding, and limited resources all contribute to this statistic.
El Mehdi Benlabsir, a college student at the Ensam Engineering School in Meknes, described Morocco’s education system as “not a developed education, but a developing education. You study a lot of theoretical things, but you don’t understand for what reason you are studying, for what purpose.” In his experience, Moroccan schools seem to prioritize scientific fields such as math and physics. Regarding instruction in the social sciences in primary and secondary school, Benlabsir feels it’s nearly nonexistent. He believes the disproportionate focus on STEM results from Morocco’s status as a developing country. He elaborates, “Developed countries focus more on things like art and literature. We are interested in those things, but first, we need to have a good infrastructure. We need to have a good living. There are priorities.”
Concerning change within the Moroccan education system, Benlabsir said he “would promote everything related to languages, for example, Spanish,” noting that many people from Northern Morocco speak Spanish because of their proximity to Spain. He emphasized learning language as a tool to access the world. He had studied hard to learn English in order to increase his chances of working abroad and visiting the United States one day. He added that he would also expand offerings in art and literature, predicting these subjects would help Moroccans explore a sense of shared history and identity, difficult to bridge in such a ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse country.
Disillusionments with the public education system expressed by many Moroccans accompanies a sharp rise in private schools in the past few decades. Muhammad El Kadi, director of the Information Resource Center for the Peace Corps in Rabat, explained that Moroccan children primarily attended public schools from the 1970s to the 1990s, when private schools were a rarity. But El Kadi added, “the quality of public school education is not the same [as private school]. It could be political reasons, or issues with the programs or curriculum.” He says that in the past, public schools were well-respected and educated many current high-level officials and ministers in Morocco. In the 1980s, it was common practice for the government to “absorb all the graduates because there was a big need for government employees,” El Kadi continued. However, since the 1990s, the government has no longer been a main employer of college graduates. Graduates must instead turn to the developing private sector or be self-employed. El Kadi explained, “The system was set for people to be independent but when you graduate, you can work for the government. When these outlets are no longer available, there is a bit of despair in the families.”
El Kadi also noticed that private schools, many supported by the government, “have popped up like mushrooms in big cities.” Many parents now feel they must take out large loans to send their kids to private school for a quality education, something their generation is unfamiliar with, having mostly attended public schools. As reflected in and influenced by the growing popularity of private schools, “Families don’t really trust public schools any longer,” said El Kadi. A main problem is that public schools aren’t standardized. Resources are not distributed evenly among Morocco’s many districts and communities, privileging richer areas and falling short in poorer ones. The inequity resembles many imperfect public education systems around the world, including that in the United States.
El Kadi believes some of the central issues with education in Morocco boil down to insufficient or misguided policy. One illustration of this is the limited attention to language diversity. He tells us, “We have families who speak Berber languages at home and in the village. When they first go to school at age seven, because in many areas of the country there is no kindergarten, the teaching and communication is Standard Arabic. It could be the first time they hear Standard Arabic and they have to speak and write in it.” Students who do not know Standard Arabic are disadvantaged from the start, making it less likely that they stay in school and continue on to higher education. In addition to expanding instruction in multiple languages, many reformers believe national officials should do more to support public education and quell the rise of private education.
In a report submitted to the United Nations, The Moroccan Coalition on Education for All (CMEPT) in 2014, a network of more than 40 organizations pushing for education reform in Morocco, detailed the rise of private schools in Morocco and argued that the rise “has led to the reinforcement of inequalities in the enjoyment of the right to education.” The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) had already observed in September 2006 that there was “a striking difference in level between public and private education which denies equal opportunities to low-income sectors of society.” Despite the strong recommendations of the CESCR twelve years ago, which garnered significant public attention in Morocco, the inequity has only deepened. The government is considering strengthening the role of the private sector in education through public-private partnerships “despite abundant research demonstrating the serious and systemic human rights violations that such systems consistently generate,” the report states. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, notes that “the increasing privatization of fee-paying, for-profit schools in Morocco, for example, entails discrimination and inequalities in education for disadvantaged children by creating a system that favours the ‘haves’ over the ‘have-nots’, with the risk of developing a two-speed education system” where public school students are harmed.
Advocates of public education have researched, written, protested, and argued for reigning in accelerating inequality created by increasing private education enrollment, mostly in rich urban areas. Other organizations, both local and foreign, have sought to address the gaps of the education system in different ways. Peace Corps volunteers provide extracurricular and tutoring opportunities by working with the Ministry of Youth and Sports to run sports and physical education programs in youth centers, as well as programs about the environment, entrepreneurship, and the arts, including drama, painting, and music. “Depending on what the needs are in the field, we provide technical resources to support those needs. For example, if they feel there is the need for a library, we provide the resources and assistance to help them,” El Kadi says. According to him, one of the largest needs is English tutoring: “In rural areas, we have a large group of students who are in their last year of high school and must take a national exam in English. In those areas, they don’t have private classes or tutoring, and our volunteers offer it for free to students in youth centers.”
Other nonprofits attempt to respond to access challenges by addressing barriers to public education for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Education for All, a Marrakech-based nonprofit, helps girls continue to secondary education in the High Atlas mountain region. “Our goal is to increase access to schools for girls by building and running boarding houses,” describes Sonia Omar, an EFA staff member. The organization’s houses serve girls from ages twelve to eighteen, offering meals, computer access, and study support through an international volunteer program and local housemothers. Though the Moroccan government publicly supports education equality across genders, 41.2 percent of women in the country are illiterate, and in some rural areas, the illiteracy rate can rise to 83 percent. The promise of free public education is not realized for many poor students who struggle to pay for books, transportation, and other expenses. Very few girls from rural communities, like those in the High Atlas Mountains, continue their education beyond primary school. “When girls go beyond elementary school, they have to go to another boarding school probably in a bigger village. Families are reluctant to send their children, especially girls. That’s why in rural areas, girls often don’t get up to the baccalaureate level or finish high school. It’s quite an issue,” describes El Kadi. Secondary schools are often several kilometres away in larger towns. EFA and many similar organizations illuminate how equal education in theory does not often translate to equitable education in practice due to obstacles like housing and transportation costs.
Tilia, a youth activist group founded by college students in Rabat, works to provide local youth with a wide array of educational, creative, and community-building opportunities. These range from movie screenings and art displays focusing on progressive issues like women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and free speech, to weekly community dinners. In the past, Tilila was one of the main organizations fighting against education privatization. The group currently organizes educational outreach programs like “Philosophy in the Street,” which runs free philosophy lessons for the public. The group has created several iterations of this program with different topics, including “Politics in the Street.” Nabir Belkabir, a Tilila leader, says that the group hopes to reach those who may not have access to or no longer attend the public education system. In selecting topics, they try to choose those that will spark productive dialogue and build critical thinking and creative skills in the general public.
The ubiquity of Moroccan education today is the result of ambitious strides forward towards free and accessible public education for all in the past century. Yet, Morocco still faces an unequal landscape of overstretched resources, loss of faith in educational institutions, and rising exclusive private schools. Amidst these battles over language, inclusion, and access, champions of education can be found throughout the country in the educators, activists, and students who push to implement innovative solutions for improvement.
Clare Wu is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. You can contact her at email@example.com.