As a new academic year starts, several social woes question the role that schools play in mitigating Morocco’s “decaying” value system. Despite non-stop official discourse that ranks education as the kingdom’s second top priority – after the Sahara issue — the educational system is frequently blamed for both a failure to cultivate citizens and a withdrawal from curing hazardous social problems. However, singling out education is far from innocent. Given the cold cultural war to which it is witness, Moroccan society has been deteriorating for decades.
Several features demonstrate the educational system’s problematic outcome. For instance, every year, thousands of pupils and students leave schools due to language problems, inadequate infrastructure, parent poverty, test-oriented classes and a lack of clear future motives, especially jobs. Meanwhile, Moroccan schools suffer from cheating, alarming levels of violence and juvenile delinquency. Thus, pupils and families increasingly distrust state-run schools, stirred up by a context of impunity and politicians’ paradoxical promises and deeds.
These aspects affect society in numerous ways. Among the most awful recently was the incident of sexual harassment on a public bus. A short video went viral on social media showing around five youngsters undressing a young girl forcibly. The video triggered wide social anger, international media coverage, two sit-ins in Casablanca and Rabat, and a police investigation that has put the perpetrators behind bars. Such public condemnation means that the act, despite the attackers’ age, is still unforgivable and unwarranted for society.
While state schools were the main culprits for the wrongdoing, the event became a source of political embarrassment too. Pro-deep state media outlets used the incident in a twofold tendency. First, they depicted Moroccan society as morally decadent, which didn’t fit with the public vote for the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD). That analysis foregrounds the public yearning for democratisation but neglects deep changes within Islamists. Both the PJD and the citizens who vote for it today prioritise respect for the public will, equality of opportunity, good practices in investing public funds, and providing jobs and infrastructure for youth within a stable country. Dealing with moral problems is left mainly for civil society.
Second, the media outlets depicted the government-leading Islamists as unable to protect civil and individual rights, especially for women. For instance, a media official linked the government silence to a Minister’s headscarf. In a Facebook tweet, Omar Dahbi, Medi 1 channel’s executive director, accused Bassima Hakkaoui, PJD minister for solidarity, equality, family and social development, of being imprisoned by her hijab to the extent that citizens should not expect much from her. Dahbi’s explanation posits that since Hakkaoui is unable to shake off the shackles of her religious observance, how can she defend women’s individual rights in public squares?
The insult is the tip of the iceberg in a public media policy that links hijab to illiteracy and confinement, and sensuality to modernity and freedom. In televised Moroccan movies, hijab-wearing characters are always illiterate, exploitable, submissive and naive women who are incompatible with the challenges and requirements of the twenty-first century. Hence, the media and political practices have been eroding civic values in ways that schools cannot resist alone.
Since educational policies are mired in ideological struggles, portraying the school system as a fiasco needs considerable caution. State-run schools are trapped between their failing programmes and their narrow political margin for cultivating serious citizens. They are besieged within frames of uselessness and inability to meet the country’s current challenges. For instance, Imane Taouil, the student with the highest baccalaureate marks nationwide this year, struggled hard to get a scholarship for a private college of medicine in Rabat. Despite her marks, she received little encouragement from the ministry; she needed to trigger a support campaign on social media.
Mustapha Khalfi, government spokesperson and representative of the Sidi Bennour constituency that Imane originates from, may have intervened to ease the grant. Unprecedentedly, he thanked the Minister of Education for the grant on Facebook. Thus, a smooth enrolment becomes a gift when the recipient is a hijab-wearing student, since many high-profile graduate colleges and institutes are infamous for erecting discriminatory hurdles against veiled girls.
Equally noteworthy is that the portrayal of the educational system as a failure benefits certain parties. They invest in spreading dissatisfaction with state schools and blame them for all of the moral bankruptcy affecting the country. First among them are private schools’ lobbies. In the 2012 government, the Minister of Education, Mohammed El Ouafa, tried to reduce private schools’ dependence on public teachers, but to no avail. Today, private schools’ fees are rocketing.
Second among school-tarnishing profiteers are corrupt officials in educational administrations. They circulate generalising narratives to justify corruption and impunity. Thus, despite squandering huge sums on the failed Emergency Plan, reports were embedded to avoid a public discussion of the projects and the impact of their failure on education quality.
On top of that, the state considers schools a source of trouble. Since the late King Hassan II’s days, state schools have been taken as a source of ideology-based political trouble. This has led to launching several reform projects, but in vain, since illiteracy serves governors well. Without changing that tendency, state-run schools will remain culprits for a social quagmire of which they are also victims. Genuine reform starts with changing the official gaze on the position of public education within society.