The present Syrian school system traces its origins to the French occupation period. Back in the 1940’s it was, no doubt, a great one, and those who had received their secondary school diploma then and later on into the early 1960’s were among the best high school graduates in the world. But since science and technology (and even literature) have not stood still but perpetually kept moving forward, any educational system must follow suit or risks becoming an obsolete and outdated burden on the minds of students and teachers alike. This is exactly where we are today in Syria with the Bakaloria National Exam, coming up on Sunday the 3rd of June.

This stringent, archaic and futile test is a make or break milestone in the lives of Syrian youth. At their final and 12th year of schooling they encounter the toughest obstacle of their entire lives. Here they are, at the tender age of 17 or 18, coming face to face with a dinosaur, which for all practical purposes should have become extinct by now. For the last year they have been reading and memorizing book after book totally lacking in imagination. They are not required to display any intelligence or creativity. As a matter of fact, the system discourages any personal inventiveness by heavily penalizing the student who strays out of the bounds of the one and only approved text. The punishment is exerted by the deduction of points, which in the end determine the future vocation and career of the applicant.

I will briefly describe the Syrian Bakaloria (Science Option) for the benefit of the lucky ones who have not gone through with this ordeal before. From June 3rd till the 25th, Syrian students will embark on a unified national exam. The questions are shrouded in secrecy and speculation runs rampant amongst students, teachers and parents as to their “nature”. Some teachers have made a good living out of guessing what the questions on any one particular subject will be for this year’s edition. The books have been revised very slowly over the years and the committees assigned to put forth the questions have to dig deep into their twisted minds and souls to come up with a new way of screwing up the kids. Bakaloria teachers in every single school of the country have lifted themselves up a pedestal, usually reserved for Nobel Prize Laureates. Over their entire careers, they have mastered a book or two to the point where they can probably read it backward. For this achievement, they have come to believe that they are the greatest gift to humanity. They will not waste their talents in the classroom of the free Syrian schools. Instead, they will give private lessons at their homes for exuberant fees. A well reputed mathematics Bakaloria teacher in Syria earns more than a competent physician, a profession deemed as the pinnacle of achievement by many students and parents alike.

The total exam score is 260 points and the grades are divided in the following manner:

Natural Science and Biology: 30
Religious Education: 20
English: 30
Mathematics: 60
National Socialist Education: 20
Arabic: 40
Physics: 40
Chemistry: 20

Total: 260

The grade for Religious Education is dropped from the total, but the students have to pass it anyway (if one fails in 2 subjects he or she has to repeat the entire year of agony and pain). Now, here comes the interesting part. A fortnight after the exam is over, the result is announced nationally. The grades achieved by a student determine what college he or she can attend and it goes something like this (exact numbers vary every year):

Medical School= 235/240
Pharmacy= 230/240
Dentistry= 225/240
Civil Engineering= 220/240

and so on downward a scale created by psychotic minds but which nevertheless has gained the validity of a true religion year after year of almost sacred adherence. So, and for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that a particular student wanted to become a pharmacist when she grows up (she must be a little weird at 17) and studied hard and long for the entire year, took the Bakaloria exam and ended up with 229/240 instead of 230/240, then what you might ask. OK, very simple, repeat the damn year and hope that she gets one more stupid point on the National Socialist Education question, without losing any new point on something else, like Arabic poetry for instance. Am I serious, you bet I am, and you know I am. Well more recently, say in the last 4 or 5 years, a new option has become available in Syria, private universities. Are they a good option? Sure, they are great, if you have the money to pay your way. I would daresay that about 5% of the Syrian population can afford this option.

Here I am, at this junction in life when my eldest child, my sweetheart Diana, is less than 48 hours away from her Bakaloria exam. I’m sorry Diana for the Pharmacist joke but I couldn’t resist the temptation. To make matters a little bit more complicated, I’m leaving to Europe on business on the very first day she enters the examination room. I will hear from her on my way to the airport in Damascus how she fared on her Natural Science and Biology exam. By the time I return, she would have crossed the halfway point. Again, Diana, I’m sorry I wouldn’t be here beside you during this grueling period but you know that I have to go. I wish you, your friends and everybody out there taking the Bakaloria the best of luck. I also wish that someday, those in charge of the future of the younger generations come to their senses and turn the system upside down in Syria and wherever educational terrorism is still prevalent.

Only after going through 12 long years of bullshit will you ever appreciate Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.”

Until I'm back, or at the first opportunity I can blog again, I wish you all the best of times.


Anonymous said…
Oi, achei teu blog pelo google tá bem interessante gostei desse post. Quando der dá uma passada pelo meu blog, é sobre camisetas personalizadas, mostra passo a passo como criar uma camiseta personalizada bem maneira. Até mais.
Shannon said…
Best of luck to your daughter!
Abufares said…
Hey o que é acima do doc Assim você é em T-Shirts? Muito interessante. Eu tive um tio que estivesse nos T-Shirts traseiros nos 50's do último século. Desgastaria uma blusa occasionaly mas prefered realmente T-Shirts.

"How do you like my Google Portuguese?"
Abufares said…
Hi Shannon
Thank you for your wishes. I'll certainly convey them to Diana.
The Syrian Brit said…
Best of luck to Diana, and to all the studnets (and their long-suffering parents!..)..
This is, as you described it, educational terrorism.. inflicted primarily on the students, but equally, on their parents, who go through absolute hell during that year...
Surely.. there must be a better and fairer way of assessing students...
Once again, all the best for your daughter.. I sincerely hope she gets the grades she needs..
saint said…
Fist good luck to your kid,
then you evoked the whining feeling in m as you touched on back bone of Syria political system in a simple post. I do not know if 50 years from know things will change in the education system in Syria and the kids will get what they deserve as theirs counterparts in the civilized countries. The stiff curriculum, the outdated materials, the one exam with no competition between schools and teachers, the teachers salaries, the old fashion building and rigid administration and the absence of critical thinking for students and freedom for of expression for teachers. These things unfortunately will not be changed in the near future.
Anonymous said…
I can claim it's not a blessing to get a place in the best university out there, say, medical school. It only seems necessary that someone has the talent (short-term meory?) to "achieve" 235 out of 240 to be able to memorize his/her way through medical school. He'll be very lucky if he can learn anything useful in the meanwhile. Oh, and a gloomy future will be waiting at the end: another brick in the wall!

But I truely believe in people's ability to make something out of themselves, even if they went to the "Anti-Desertification Institute in Palmyra", which does exist by the way...
We simply choose to be or not to be, and another certificate can't change that...

I'm sure Diana will be a great person whatever she studies...She'll make it to the end of tunnel, after all.

Best of luck
Abufares said…
Hi Syrian Brit
You're right, parents suffer as much as students (if not more) during this crucial year. We have all been living a little differently for the last 12 months. We whisper when we talk. We disconnect all the phones in the house. And, we are eating separately most of the time.
Diana did her best. Let's see what comes out of it and in the end we'll have to consider all the possible options.
Abufares said…
Thank you Saint for dropping by.
You're right. It's not going to change overnight. The few private schools and universities are on the right track toward a better educational system. Unfortunately, the cost is out of reach for most Syrians.
In theory, we have a free equalitarian educational system, but as you've pointed out, with the rigidity of the framework, little or no possible improvement can ever take place.
This is a case when a social mutation should occur, and may be it will.
Abufares said…
It's been a while.
Sure, the whole concept has not evolved beyond memorizing numbers and facts.
I still remember some novels and poems I learned during my highschool years (out of curriculum), but can't for the life of me remember anything I learned from those cheap looking books (and cheap on the inside as well).
I remember that water is called H2O and that Maher and Salwa were getting along nicely in English. There was also a blind Russian musician somewhere in my educational past.
That's about it.
Best of luck to Diana, sure she'll do well in shaa Allah.
Good luck with your travels (where about in Europe? you're not coming around to visit us in the UK by any chance?)
Abufares said…
Hi Syrian in London
Thank you for you wishes to Diana.
I wish I could've made it all the way to the UK, but not this time.
I'll be in Italy, Greece and Belgium for the next 2 weeks.
KJ said…
I was spared those exams when I studied in KSA, I have seen year after year all my friends and cousins go through the pain.

I truly wish the best of luck to your daughter, but, knowing she is your kid, inshalla she will be a nuclear physicist :) (not literally of course, unless she wants to, lol)
Lujayn said…
Good luck to Diana, Abu Fares. Hopefully she'll get the points for what she wants to study. I have seen family members put their lives on hold for an entire year in order to create the proper atmosphere for their kids' bakaloria drama, and its really a pity that the state does nothing to put the exams into their right perspective but allows kids to be traumatized for the sake of a few points.

I studied in a different school system and by contrast, my senior year in high school was a blast - a mixture of studying, friends, activities and fun. The latter three are erased from the Syrian bakaloria student's vocabulary until his exams are over (actually that happens twice in a Syrian student's life - the bakaloria year and the earlier breuvet year).

I hope Diana got to have a little fun this year. If not, then a trip abroad after the exams would be a nice reward! :))
david santos said…
Hello, Abufares. Thanks for you work and have a good weekend.
Abufares said…
KJ, Lujayn & David Santos
Good day to you all. I finally got to sit down and reply (only if I can get around using this Italian keyboard). Yes, you guessed it, I'm in Venezia. Too bad I'm here on work though.
KJ & Lujayn
What you wrote about the Syrian Bakaloria is so true. It's a horror movie for the entire family. While driving to the airport yesterday, Diana called and informed me that she did real well on her Biology exam.
I'm leaving again later this afternoon to Athens this time for at least a couple of days.
Thank you for sharing.
Anonymous said…
All my sincere best wishes to your daughter!
Yazan said…
Abu fares,
I am shamelessly late to comment, please wish Diana the best of luck...

Its only been a couple of years since my own bakaloria year, so i know full well what shes going through.

Let me flashback a bit, I was a real disaster. I had made a pact with my parents before bakaloria that nobody has the right to question my studying. And even though they kept it till the last day, I swear I could see fire coming out of mom's eyes the whole last 2 months...
The exam period was real surreal time...
the day before the biology exam, mom had to stay in damas in some medical convention, dad is doing military service, and i happened to lock myself outside just 16hours before the exam, wearing shorts and slippers [was throwing the garbage]... I had to get a *najjar* to break the lock.

Fast forward a couple of days to the chemistry exam, while i am "Walking" with my book in our living room, i managed to break my ankle, and had to go awfully painful journey to the doc...

I still pride myself that i didnt get any private tutors, although it was probably gonna drive my mom crazy... but, i mean, you gotta do what you gotta do to keep sane in times like that right? even if it means cut off the parents completely... i was lucky enough that dad understood that, without his help, mom wouldve literally eaten me alive.
Dubai Jazz said…
I am regretfully very late to comment…sorry for that Abu Fares…

Sincere wishes to Diana, Bakaloria seems to be getting tough by the year. Although I've gone through this exam eleven years ago, but I still shudder at the thought; the whole future prospect depends on one's performance during these couple of days. Of course, preparation has its importance, but I am still arguing, ever since I had that exam, that luck and other sideline factors, are a considerable factor…

Anyway, best wishes to Diana once again…inshallah all the effort will pay off…

Have a safe trip and happy returning :)
Anonymous said…
Insha Allah Diana will get what she wants and deserves. All the best for her and I am sure you will keep us posted.
Good luck also on your business trip.

Abu Abdo
mannona said…
Dear AbuFares
Best of luck to my dearest Diana, she deserves the best, I've seen her study hard when I was visiting you and I'm sure she'll get a good score inshallah. Give her my love and good luck to you in your trip. I'll call you soon.
* said…
Inshallah, Diana will do SPLENDIDLY.
And make her parents proud.
When she becomes one, can we get free medicines?
Or at least teach us how to make our own happy pills @ home?
Abufares said…
Lost Somewhere, Yazan, Dubai Jazz, Abu Abdo, Mannona & Kaya

Thank you all for sharing and for the kind thoughts for Diana.
I'm back in Venice and will probably be here for the next few days.
I don't know whether I'll be able to post anything before my eventual return home by mid June.
In any case, and once again, thank you all for being here.
Kinano said…
Good luck to your Diana :)

But to be honest, my time during the Bakaloria year was one of the best and most awesome time I've had in my life. It was really the best year of my life.

Now, as for the education system and the pain and horror and all that... I somehow disagree. I think the Syrian School System is one of the best (granted the most difficult) but it is still one of the best.

I spent four years at university, all that I have learned I already knew from the bakaloria. Especially when it came to Math..

I would love it if some reform went into the grading scale and the university entry grades (and university education as a whole) but not the Bakaloria :)
Sabsoub said…
أول شي هلق و بعد مرور أكتر من نصف امتحان البكالوريا بسورية , بتمنى ديانا تكون عملت كتير منيح باللي مرق و تعمل أحسن باللي جاي ...قدمت بكالوريا سورية و كانت أتعس سنوات حياتي ع الإطلاق .. أنا قدمت البكالوريا مرة بس بابا و ماما قدموها أربع أو ست مرات مع كل حدا من أولادهم .. ماما بتقول البكالوريا قصرتلي عمري و كأنو هي كانت عم تقدم و بابا بيقول حاسس حالي صرلي 10 سنين بقدم بكالوريا .. بكالورا سورية قمة الإرهاب .. سنة من التعاسة و الإكتئاب .. و الأسوء أنو الواحد بعد كل التعب ما يقدر يحقق حلمو ... أنا نقصني علامتين عن الصيدلة.. بس مع هيك شكرت ربي مية مرة أني جبت الهندسة لأنو هلق بسورية صارت الصيدلة و الطب هني الحلم المستحيل و أما الهندسات فهني الحلم الصعب و باقي فروع الجامعة هني حلم ممكن تحقيقو بس حلم ... انشالله كل طلاب البكالوريا السنة بيتفقوا .. ديانا بنتك و ربا أختي و انشالله بتنحل الأزمة من الجذور و بيغيروا هالنظام التافه .. الله بعين
GraY FoX said…
good luck to Diana
and yo2bosh yally byefhaf ( you and pink floyd" )
Karin said…
You have NO IDEA how often I was thinking of Diana ... how MUCH I crossed my fingers for her to achieve her so much desired goal!!!
Let me know how it was ... I am dying to know! I am sure though after ALL those grueling studies and year of iron dedication she did JUST FINE!!
I wish her ONLY THE BEST!!!
Abufares said…
Kinan, Sabsoub, Gray Fox and Karin

Thank you all so very much for asking and checking up on Diana. She has her final test tomorrow 24/06/07 in Chemistry.
Then she expects the official results to be announced in 15 days.
You will know in due time what came out of it.
Inshallah her efforts would pay off.

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