SANA'A, Dec. 13 -While poverty in Yemen has always been, and continues to be blamed as the main culprit behind the high rate of children dropping out schools, Yemeni experts confirm that the poor education system in Yemen has forced many children into the labour market.
Ali, 13, stopped going to school after he failed the sixth grade twice. His father owns a grocery store and two stockrooms.
''Now I'm helping dad in running the grocery. It's better than going to school, where teachers were always across at me. Here dad is proud of me,'' Ali said.
'' Though I failed in maths in school, here I can count well; I can deal with complex digits,'' he said with wide smile.
Ali is just one of the many children who drop out of school and join the labour market.
''We found out that not just children who belong to poor families are working and leaving school to enter the labor market, but also children belonging to the middle class,'' said Mona Salem, Chairwoman of the Child Labor Unit in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.
'' Children and parents are often disappointed by their failure to gain good, or even passing marks at schools, and some parents believe that their kids are not intelligent or cut out for education so they are better off working and earning some money instead of learning,'' said Salem, confirming that much of the problem can be traced back to the education system, particularly the new curriculum that has been taught since the mid-nineties.
''As a mother, I face difficulties teaching my child, as I can't understand the new textbook. I wonder how the children whose parents are illiterate can understand without help, especially those who study in public schools,'' she wondered.
According to the report, the repetition and dropout rates are quite high at five percent among boys and 4 percent among girls.
Studies on child labor in Yemen indicated that 15 percent of working children are not enrolled in primary education, and 97 percent of working children have illiterate parents and are from poor families.
Children work in difficult, dangerous and non age-appropriate jobs, including stone bearing, working in iron workshops, and street-vending, to name a few. As a result, children may be exploited by gangs, and learn anti-social behaviors such as smoking and chewing qat, according to a report issued by The Yemeni Children's Parliament in 2008.
Higher expectations and hard reality
''We had high expectations which did not coincide with our reality,'' confessed Khaled Al-Jubari, director of the Syllabus Department at the Ministry of Education. ''We want students to participate and become active, instead of being just passive recipients of information. For example, in science we want the students to reach the conclusions, and the scientific results through their own observations. However, we had to consider that not all teachers are qualified enough to deliver such lessons, and most schools lack the resources such as labs, learning materials, and libraries to carry out such research," he noted.
Jubari pointed out that the curricula have been going through a constant and gradual change, since the nineties. '' The change in curriculum was invertible after Unification in 1990, as there was a need to streamline and unify the education system,''
Based on academic review and consultation, the changed in the syllabus took place in 1993, and started being taught in 1994.
In a study published in 1998, The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that the number of children aged between 10 to 14 years in the workforce was 2.2 million in 1994 compared to 1.6 million in 1991.
''It was a mistake,'' according to al-Jubari, not to consult the teachers about the curriculum.
''Two months ago, we had a meeting with 110 teachers belonging to different governorates to discuss the issue of the curriculum.''
Too many exercises in maths, typos , linguistic errors, intensive materials in social studies, unstructured lessons, and other issues have been found in the new curriculum, which burden the teachers as well as the students.
''There are few qualified teachers, however the majority, even those who have bachelor degrees, can't deal properly with children and cannot cope with the sudden changes that have occurred in the textbooks,'' said Sadaq Almawri, who is a teacher in one of the private schools. ''Teachers themselves need training,'' he added, confirming that he has begun using the ''stick'' as a tool for disciplining the students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.
''The situation is worse in public schools where teachers, have to deal with overcrowded classes.''
Though physical punishment and psychological mistreatment of pupils has been illegal since 2001, this law has never really been applied, said Al-Jubari.
The educational system in Yemen is composed of three stages. The primary stage begins from the first to the ninth grade, then the secondary stage is from the tenth to the twelfth grade and the final stage is the university stage, and it is for four years at least.
Still, school dropouts are the most serious issue impeding education in Yemen, which suffers high illiteracy rates, currently standing at 29.8 percent for men and 62.1 percent for women.
Nearly half of all children are not attending primary school, according to the Ministry of Education's Comprehensive School Survey for 2006. 46 percent of Yemen's 7.4 million primary school aged children do not attend school, leaving 3,971,853 in primary school. Altogether, 4,497,643 of children of all ages attend schools.
Al-Jubari said he has no idea if there is a link between the increased dropout rate and children joining the labour market, but he admitted that the education system in Yemen is suffering from a variety of maladies, starting with families, who pay far too little attention to their kids' education, right on through to teachers, many of whom are not qualified, and ending up with the curriculum, which is in dire need of a complete overhaul in order to not only try to keep up with international standards, but also to stimulate and retain the interest and intellect of today's Yemeni students.