BEIRUT: After a last-minute deal following a tense standoff over a disputed pay raise bill, more than 90,000 middle school children across Lebanon Friday began the first day of tests that will determine whether they are admitted to secondary school.
Outside Shakib Arslan Public School in the Beirut neighborhood of Verdun, students gathered in small groups. Despite the early hour, they looked wide-eyed, but though nerves may have been jangling, the only topic of conversation was football.
“I wish I could have watched the World Cup [last night],” lamented Hussein Khamis. Instead he was doing some last-minute studying.
“If I weren’t studying, I would have watched the World Cup,” agreed Ralph Sawma.
But for Khamis’ father, the postponement of the exams and the present uncertainty about grading had affected more than just his son’s TV habits.
“Last week was full of stress,” he said. “I felt so bad because my son has been emotionally and physically drained.”
The test, originally scheduled for June 5, was delayed after the teachers threatened to paralyze the official government exam process unless Parliament approved long-sought higher wages.
Education Minister Elias Bou Saab reached a deal with the Union Coordination Committee late Tuesday to start the four-day exam Friday despite Parliament’s failure to pass the wage hike. The UCC includes a coalition of teachers at private and public schools, along with other public sector employees.
While touring Brevet testing sites around Beirut Friday, Bou Saab said he endorsed the wage hike and emphasized the importance of resolving the situation.
“It’s now clear that we need to make a decision about how much to increase [the teachers’] salaries,” Bou Saab said.
However, he added that it was important to find a “balance between revenues and expenses,” pointing out that some members of government had suggested reducing the proposed wage hike by 5 or 10 percent.
Outside Salma al-Sayegh school in Ashrafieh early Friday morning, hundreds of nervous parents and students waited outside the school, jamming traffic in the neighborhood.
Melissa Machaaliny said she wasn’t very worried about the test.
“We had lots of time to prepare. Last night, I went over the things I still had to study and then put my books away at 6 p.m.,” she said, fluttering her blue-lined lashes.
Hasan Tannir said he had been studying between 14 and 16 hours a day for the test.
“I’m not nervous. It’s like any other test, but official.”
Still, he said he was concerned about the Arabic section: “It’s a really hard subject to study.”
After the exam, Tannir said he would spend the day outdoors with his friends.
Outside Beirut, the official exam period kicked off in both north and south Lebanon without incident.
In the north, 12,924 students sat for the Brevet exam, with only 320 recorded absences.
Nahla Hamati Nehme, the head of the educational district of north Lebanon, toured different test sites in Tripoli, commenting on the calm, professional atmosphere maintained by the exam proctors.
“The students were very comfortable with the monitors ... [who] were very transparent, serious and calm,” she said.
In the southern districts of Sidon and Zahrani, 3,812 students took the exam at 12 different testing sites, with the Internal Security Forces helping to maintain order.
Bou Saab praised the high turnout across the nation. “The percentage of participation was very high, higher than last year.”
The Brevet is a uniting experience for young Lebanese, he added, even those who live in far-flung corners of the world.
“The Brevet is also being held in Ghana and Qatar,” he said. “The plan is to expand [the Brevet] in the future to other foreign countries where Lebanese are living.”
After completing their math and geography tests, students filed out of a public school in the Ras al-Nabaa Beirut neighborhood early Friday afternoon as members of the Army looked on.
“I suspected it would be easier,” 15-year-old Karim Assi admitted. “I needed more studying.”
“I was a bit scared but when you take the test, the stress goes away a while,” Faher Hassan added.
But while the UCC deal may have brought relief to students anxious to get the exams out of the way, the teachers have not yet agreed to grade the tests, raising the risk of a long wait this summer for the results.
UCC head Hanna Gharib said Thursday that if the salary scale was not passed by Parliament during its next session, set for June 19, the committee would look into a new strategy in order to make the matter a national issue, stressing that an open-ended strike was still a possibility.
Bou Saab has emphasized that the ball is now in Parliament’s court: “Correcting the exams requires coordination with the UCC, and it requires endorsing the wage hike.”
“I hope we can find a solution ... and endorse [the wage hike] before the exam correction period, or else we’ll have a big problem,” he said. “I have told the prime minister and all other ministers that the Education Ministry cannot force the exams to be corrected.”
For Assi, however, the timing of the exam results was the least of his worries: “We just have to take the test. Whenever they correct them, it’s fine.” – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari and Antoine Amrieh