Moroccan governments have invested efforts and finance in the education system in the fight against illiteracy and poverty, or at least to tame their damaging effects on society. Nevertheless, events within and beyond educational buildings reveal the wide divide between public policies and the promised levels of progress in the eradication of both. The kingdom continues to rank low in international education reports. For instance, it stands at 102 out of 144 countries in education quality, as featuring on the Global Competition Report. Meanwhile, at a deeper level, the current situation facilitates hegemony and the exploitation of the poor and the illiterate as shields in political strife.
Despite the incessant reform charters, plans and strategic visions since the 1950s, setbacks within educational institutions can be traced to four sources. The first is the language of instruction. In addition to the bilingual reality of the country, with Arabic and Amazigh as official languages in the 2011 Constitution, schools present French at very early stages and a plethora of other languages later on. The lack of a clear language policy leads the Moroccan student to end up neither bilingual nor multilingual, but rather "ni-lingual", to use linguist Abdelkader Fassi-Fihri's term that denounces the country's mediocre language grades and performances. Another dilemma aggravates this fact. Nearly all of the sciences are taught in higher education in French, even though students study them in Arabic earlier on. Thus, the inability to cope with the language change, or challenge, leads to too many dropping out.
The second element is that of school values. Though some reports lament the increasing rates of delinquency, drug abuse, AIDS and cheating in exams, secular activists often accuse Moroccan schools of breeding extremism. They have frequently taken Islamic Education for a subject that promotes fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts. As a result, the subject's study hours and coefficients have been reduced. Even the curriculum has been changed several times, to add insult to injury. Somehow, Morocco witnesses a sort of clash of civilisations in its education policy-making that manifests in the conflicting values that textbooks promote. This, no doubt, contributes to an identity crisis or cultural discrepancy which a considerable number of Moroccans undergo, as the Religious Situation Report observes.
The third is the degrading classroom atmosphere. In line with the previous point, the number of students per class has soared unprecedentedly this year. Up to 60 pupils are crammed into classrooms that normally cater for a maximum of forty. This adds to the failure to provide adequate infrastructure, especially during the Emergency Plan (EP) that Ahmed Khchichen, the pre-2011 Education Minister and current mayor of Marrakech, implemented. The EP is notorious for fraud and squandering of public funds, especially on void in-service training programmes and humble facilities. The inadequate number of classrooms is aggravated by insufficient teachers, many of whom retired last year.
The fourth point is the employment terms and conditions of the teachers. Their salaries have been stagnant for the past five years. Promotions have been slow. The medical services that their national fund offers are being reduced. Meanwhile, this year they will have to pay more taxes towards their retirement fund. The effort they make in the classroom is immense, but such a discouraging atmosphere not only creates violence but also tarnishes the image of schools. When society belittles or mistrusts the school as an institution, the outcome is recalcitrant illiteracy that more than one-third of the population suffer from, including youth.
However, illiteracy, especially when coexisting with poverty, proves more than a mere social phenomenon. Certain contexts, such as the run-up to the elections, reveal the ways that corruption and despotism feed upon illiteracy politically. It is common in Moroccan elections for notables in remote areas to "buy" the votes of towns wholesale, relying on a mix of illiteracy, corruption and tribal lineage. However, in the 7 October lead-up, illiteracy deals a blow to democratisation efforts, especially as the Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) and its supporting elements within the Interior Ministry make of it a stepping-stone towards chipping away at the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD).
The PAM claims to be a progressive, modernist party. The first promise made by Ilyas Elomari, PAM secretary general, after nomination was to fight Islamists. Yet, the PAM mainly wins votes in the countryside, where illiteracy thrives, due to PAM's links with some Interior Ministry agents familiar with election tactics.
Furthermore, in an anti-PJD rally in Casablanca on 18 September, around 8,000 marchers raised slogans and placards calling for a ban on the "Ikhwanisation" of the state or society. Though the march was an attempt to duplicate the Egyptian counter-revolution that preceded the military coup in Cairo, most participants could not explain their reasons for protesting. More significantly, none of them managed to say what state or society "Ikhwanisation" actually means. To avoid the trap, they revealed that the placards had been written by the "authorities". Many said that they were taken to Casablanca to protest against causes other than Islamisation or insulting Abdelilah Benkiran, PJD secretary general and current Head of the Government. They were told other stories, but, mainly due to illiteracy, they reacted to the official trick with nonchalance, a customary reaction towards corruption and exploitation especially in pre-2011 Morocco.
For reform efforts to affect the deeper structures of society, prioritising the education sector is inescapable. This should be pivotal in the next government's work, especially if the PJD leads it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.