Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, 15-year-old Nuha had to transfer to the Muketefa High School four kilometres away from her home in Um Al-Quttain, in the Mafraq Governorate, because of overcrowding in her school.
According to her father, Nuha found it difficult to focus during classes at her school in Um Al-Quttain, as her classroom had 35 students and was seriously overcrowded. The benefits of face-to-face teaching were much reduced as a result. Nuha's family felt that they had no choice but to pay the daily transportation cost of five Jordanian Dinars (US$7) to and from Muketefa High School, there being no cheaper public transport system in their area.
Several months later, on 5 March last year, before the pandemic lockdown, the former Minister of Education, Tayseer Al-Nuaimi, paid the region of Al-Badia a visit, during which he pledged to resolve the overcrowding problem. This followed complaints by Um Al Quttain School head teacher Nour Abu Aleem about overcrowded classrooms with over 1,000 students learning from grades 1 to 12.
By the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, the school had been divided into two institutions, separated by a metal fence, without adding any extra classrooms or facilities.
Mafraq City Council had allocated JD 100,000 ($140,000) from its 2018 budget to add four classrooms to the school. However, this and many other projects never saw the light of day as they required approval from the Ministry of Education.
According to Abu Aleem, the solution proposed by Nuaimi relieved some of the pressure on the school's playground and several other facilities, but did not solve the overcrowding problem in the high school building, although the area behind the school had ample room where more classrooms could be built. The school's 25 classrooms used to accommodate 1,000 students. After its premises were divided, the high school's 13 classrooms had to accommodate 450 students for grades 7-12, with 30 to 40 per room. Despite the urgent need to solve this problem to meet parental demand for places, Abu Aleem says that the ministry made no mention of the proposed project to add extra classrooms.
In the meantime, a report issued by Jordan's Department of Statistics stated that the average number of students per classroom in Jordanian schools in 2019 was 27 in public schools and 19 in private schools.
Um Al Quttain School, like many of the 45 others in the region, was earmarked for extra classrooms to be built. According to Mafraq City Council, though, only eight such projects have been implemented over the past three years.
The root of the problem
In 2018, Mafraq City Council decided to allocate JD 5 million ($7 million) from its budget for education projects. It approved the establishment of 16 new schools, and extra classrooms for several schools in the governorate.
This was the first budget to be prepared by the then newly-elected council in August 2017. The budget was due to be handed over within 20 days, so the council called for the help of all government directorates, excluding municipalities, to identify needed projects and budgets for the council to examine and approve.
Abdulla Ghosheh from the Jordan Engineers Association says that a period of 15-20 days is not enough to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of a new school or the addition of more classrooms. Such studies, he insists, require at least 45 days to complete project exploration, preliminary studies, implementation plans and licences.
As such, 2018 ended without any projects being completed or any classrooms added to any schools. Maintenance work was carried out in 180 schools at a total cost of less than JD 100,000. The remaining funds were returned to the General Budget since they had not been utilised by the concerned executive authority, which is the Ministry of Education, according to Khaled Al-Husban, the head of the council's financial committee in Mafraq.
More than three years after approving the budgets for the proposed projects, two elementary schools were established in Al Jundy and Al Manshia at a cost of JD 405,000. Each school had six classrooms and three administration rooms, although the original plan was for each to include 14 classrooms. The project budget of JD 1.14m for Al Khansaa School was returned to the 2019 budget.
The projects to add classrooms in existing schools got underway. Four classrooms were added at Al-Aqeb Girls High School, and six classrooms have been added to each of Subhia and Al Hamidiah High Schools.
Husban says that projects and budgets would reach the Ministry of Education after the issuance of a Royal Decree approving the Draft General Budget Law and the Budgets Law of Government Units, followed accordingly by either a process of tendering or by transferring the projects to the Ministry of Public Works. There would be no direct communication between local councils and the ministry.
Upon examining the Ministry of Education's call for tenders for the year 2018, this investigation found that only three tenders were issued for projects related to additional classroom and the construction of central ("nucleus") buildings. These included and were limited to the addition of six classrooms to Um Al-Jemal Boys' High School and the establishment of central buildings for the elementary schools of Al Manshia and Al Jundi, both located in Mafraq's central district.
According to Dr Sabri Al-Zayadnah, the head of the council's education committee, the Ministry of Public Works estimated the cost for building the proposed schools, classrooms and other requirements at JD 35m, which is seven times the actual budget allocated by the council to spend on improving its education sector.
The estimated budget for building the proposed new schools was JD 1m per school. The cost of the Hashimi neighbourhood Al-Khansaa Elementary School was JD 1.6m. The same cost was estimated for Al-Manshia Elementary School, while the cost for adding four classrooms to Um Al-Quttain Girls' High School was estimated at JD 390,000.
After the Ministry of Public Works declared that the total estimated cost for the proposed projects would be JD 35m, members of Mafraq City Council claimed that the discrepancy in the estimates reeked of corruption, especially that the budget allocated by the council was based on estimates made by the heads of government directorates themselves. The discrepancy seemed to be a result of the fact that the building standards set by the Ministry of Education were different from those set by the Ministry of Public Works.
After further examination of the tenders from the latter, it became clear that the ministry was specifying requirements judged to be of no importance by the Ministry of Education such as the provision of student friendly and comfortable learning environments, as described by Zayadnah.
It is worth mentioning that, at the time, the City Council had allocated JD 100,000 from the 2018 budget for the addition of four classrooms in Um Al-Quttain Girls' High School, but the cost was estimated by the Ministry of Public Works to be JD 390,000. This investigation referred the project to an engineering consultancy office which estimated the total cost of adding four classrooms according to the council's requirements to be JD 58,000.
Where's the budget?
Despite the fact that the cost of maintenance for 180 schools out of 460 in Mafraq did not exceed JD 100,000, Zayadnah and Husban say that, so far, no budget money has been used for the proposed construction and additional classroom projects. Hence, according to the law, the unused budget of JD 5.1m is to be returned to the state treasury since these capital projects were never implemented.
The other proposed projects were completed under the 2019 budget, and the expansion of Um Al-Jemal School was suspended due to the lack of funds.
A teacher at Um Al-Quttain School who was interviewed for this investigation wonders why the four proposed extra classrooms were never added despite the availability of suitable land behind the school, as well as another unused plot along the fence of the adjacent boys' school. The teacher added that the estimated cost of JD 100,000 is a drop in the ocean compared with the millions allocated for other Ministry of Education projects.
This investigation visited the area of Um Al-Quttain in the north-eastern Al-Badia region, and found that at the beginning of the second term of the academic year 2020/2021, and in an effort to solve the problem of overcrowded classrooms, the Ministry of Education had rented a building of four classrooms, two kilometres away from the school.
With regard to the allocations that were rejected by the Ministry of Public Works before its call for tenders, Zayadnah points out that the current top priority is to provide more classrooms, especially for students in remote areas, and that prioritising the establishment of student friendly schools at the moment will prolong the suffering of these students as they struggle to reach schools in other villages. He added that although student friendly school environments are important, they are difficult to achieve in light of the current budget of the City Council. As such, priority should be given to solving the problems of overcrowded classrooms, remote schools and run-down school buildings.
He says that remote areas and villages in Mafraq are not in need of high capacity schools that can accommodate 1,000 students. "The buildings which are rented currently and used as schools, which are not suitable learning environments, only hold 80 to 90 students."
Another obstacle facing project implementation according to Zayadnah is that the budget allocated for construction is merged with the budget allocated for feasibility studies which, in turn, are rendered through special tenders either by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Public Works. The budget for feasibility studies covers areas like the design of engineering plans, site analysis and municipality licences, and so require a special call for tenders for each study, the cost of which may amount to JD 20,000 from the council's budget.
In an attempt to avoid returning part of its project budget to the treasury, the council decided in August 2018 to transfer JD 1.9m to public works projects, specifically the rehabilitation of Al-Khalidiah Road, which was completed in 2020.
Ministry projects are usually controlled by the Government Procurement Regulations, and any government project is automatically referred to the Ministry of Public Works if it exceeds JD 500,000. According to Nasser Abu Al-Rish, an engineer at the Ministry of Education, this often hinders the ministry's ability to implement its own projects.
Abu Al-Rish says that projects implemented by the Ministry of Education are often given to grade three and grade four contractors, while those implemented by the Ministry of Public Works are given to grade one and grade two contractors, hence the higher cost in materials and equipment.
According to Husban, the City Council proposes and approves projects while the concerned ministry is fully responsible for their implementation. He cites as an example the responsibility of the Ministry of Education for the establishment of Al-Jundi School which ran over budget by JD 145,000. Delays in obtaining construction licences resulted in penalties that were four times the cost of the licence itself. This is in addition to the penalties resulting from the construction of a building on agricultural land, all of which brought the project's total cost to a staggering JD 336,000 instead of the original estimate of JD 191,000.
Let councils make the decisions
Dr Sabri Al-Zayadnah says that differences of opinion between the council and the concerned ministry often result in the implementation of projects being stalled, as can be observed clearly in projects to add extra classrooms or while installing the infrastructure or foundations for additional buildings.
The implementation and completion of a project requires the approval of the Ministry of Education since it is the concerned ministry that has the authority to issue the final green light.
Husban agrees with Zayadnah, and adds that stalling the implementation of projects at the Ministries of Education and Health, despite their importance, results in decentralising the implementation of their projects and handing them over to the Ministries of Public Works and Water and Irrigation, which are more efficient and cooperative institutions.
Al-Khansa School, which is still under construction, is the only school that is being built according to the Ministry of Public Works estimates. According to Mohammad Jamil, the project's supervising engineer, the school is being built according to higher standards than other schools in the region, including special acid resistant tiles in bathrooms and laboratories in addition to the installation of European and American gas systems in laboratories.
The tender was awarded to the company employing Jamil, whose bid of JD 1.15m was one of the lowest due to the contractor's strong desire to win contracts in a slow market due to the pandemic and scarcity of construction work.
The school will have 14 classrooms, each with a maximum capacity of 30 students. It was due to be completed by the end of October this year, but lockdowns and curfews imposed by the pandemic meant inevitable delays.
Abu Al-Rish says that Al-Khansaa School project was referred to the Ministry of Public Works due to its high estimated budget, while the projects of Al-Jundi and Al-Manshia Schools were implemented by the Ministry of Education since their lower budget did not exceed the JD 500,000 as stipulated by the Government Procurement Regulations of 2019.
He also pointed out that the Ministry of Education decided that the addition of teaching and administrative rooms to Al-Jundi and Al-Manshia Schools would be sufficient at this point since such buildings represent the nucleus of larger schools and are a springboard for further expansion in classrooms and school facilities. It added that providing the area with suitable classrooms is currently the ministry's top priority.
These two projects, like others, went through three consecutive calls for tenders, the first of which was for a feasibility study covering site analysis, engineering plans and licences. Such studies could cost up to JD 50,000 out of the budget, after which projects are implemented and supervised by specialised engineers.
Abu Al Rish adds that current conditions and budgets hinder the establishment of more schools with larger classroom and larger capacity, as the number of grants directed to the establishment of new schools has fallen over the past few years, which has made it difficult to build larger and more comprehensive schools from day one. In his opinion, it has become more feasible to construct central buildings as a basis for future expansion.
Khaled Al-Okosh, Director of the Ministry of Education's projects at the Ministry of Public Works, says that the standards set by the public works tenders raise their cost, as they must comply with the requirements of Jordan's National Building Code of 1993 and its amendments.
The Ministry of Education specifies the number of required classrooms, administration rooms and laboratories in the project description it refers to the Ministry of Public Works. The latter, in turn, refers the project to feasibility study tenders followed by implementation and supervision.
Ministry tenders adhere to the regulations of the National Building Code that set specific standards for the installation of elevators, facilities for people with special needs and parking spaces.
The Ministry of Education's main focus is on educational and learning requirements, while the Ministry of Public Works is concerned with the provision of proper central heating and boiler rooms, and may include the installation of a solar energy system to reduce the cost of fuel in the long term.
With the first four-year term of governorate councils approaching its end, students still face returning to overcrowded classrooms during the next academic year, especially with the government striving to return to classroom-based teaching as the pandemic subsides.
The coming council elections will see ongoing demands to confine decentralisation project decisions to their councils, and implement projects without the need for any approvals by a ministry and with a minimum amount of coordination. Referring projects to specialised government entities stalls their progress, as has been confirmed by the various sources in this investigation.