Before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, ninth grader Nuha, 15 years old, had to transfer to the ‘Muketefa’ High School which lies 4 kilometers away from her hometown of ‘Um Al Quttain’, part of the Eastern Desert region of Al Mafraq governorate, as a result of overcrowding in her school and its proximity to the boys school nearby.
According to her father, Nuha found it difficult to focus during classes at her high school in ‘Um Al Quttain’, as she had to sit in a overcrowded 35 students classroom, missing out on all the benefits of face-to face instruction. Nuha’s family felt they had no choice but to pay the daily transportation cost of JD 5 for their daughter’s trip to and from ‘Muketefa’ High School due to the lack of public transport system in their area.
Several months later, specifically on March 5th, 2020, and 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 all problems of overcrowded classes. This was after complaints made by ‘Um Al Quttain’ school headmistress Nour Abu Aleem about overcrowded classroom at a school with over 1000 students learning in grades 1-12.
After one semester, and at the start the following academic year 2020-2021, the school was divided into two schools, separated by a metal fence, without adding any extra classrooms or facilities.
The City Council of Al Mafraq allocated JD 100 thousand (approximately $140 thousands dollars) from its 2018 budget to add 4 classrooms in the school. But this and many other projects never saw the light of day as they required a list of approvals from the Ministry of Education.
Headmistress Abu Aleem says that the solution proposed by (Ex Minister) Al-Nuaimi relieved some of the pressure on the school’s playground and several facilities, but did not solve the problem of overcrowded classrooms in the high school building, although the area behind the school had ample room for (building) more classrooms.
The school’s 25 classrooms used to accommodate 1000 students. After its premises were divided, the high school’s 13 classrooms had to accommodate 450 students for grades 7-12, with a capacity of 30–40 students per classroom.
Despite the urgent need to solve this problem to meet ‘parental demands’, 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 country’s average number of students per classroom in 2019 reached 27 students in public schools and 19 students in private schools.
The school of ‘Um Al Quttain’, like many 45 others in the region was earmarked for further development to add extra classrooms, but only 8 such projects were executed in the past three years according to Al-Mafraq governorate’s City Council.
In 2018, Al Mafraq’s City Council decided to allocate JD 5 million ($7 millions dollars) from its budget for education development projects approving the establishment of 16 new schools, and the addition of extra classrooms to several schools in the governorate.
This was the first budget to be prepared by the newly elected City Council in August, 2017. The budget was due to be handed over within 20 days, hence the council called on 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, as such studies require at least 45 days to complete project exploration, preliminary studies, implementation plans and finally licensing.
2018 ended without completing any projects or adding any classrooms. Maintenance work was carried out in 180 schools at a total cost not exceeding JD 100 thousand. The remaining funds were transferred to the General Budget since it had not been utilized by the concerned executive authority which is the Ministry of Education, according to the head of the council’s financial committee, Khaled Al Husban.
More than three years after approving the budgets for the proposed projects, two elementary schools were established in ‘Al Jundy’ neighborhood and ‘Al Manshia’ at a cost of JD 405 thousand, each school containing 6 classrooms and 3 administrative rooms, although the original plan was for each to include 14 classrooms. The project budget for ‘Al Khansaa’ school allocated at JD 1.14 million was transferred to the 2019 budget.
The projects to add classrooms in existing schools were underway to build 4 classrooms to ‘Al Aqeb’ Girls High School, and 6 classrooms have been added to each of ‘Subhia’ and ‘Al Hamidiah’ high schools.
Mr Husban states 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, the investigator found that only three tenders were issued for projects related to classroom additions and to construct nucleus buildings were issued. These included and were limited to the addition of 6 classrooms to ‘Um Al Jemal’ Boys High School and the establishment of nucleus buildings for the elementary schools of ‘Al Manshia’ Eastern Neighborhood and ‘Al Jundi’, both located in Al Mafraq’s Capital District.
According to Dr. Sabri Al Zayadnah, 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 35 million, which is seven times the actual budget allocated by the council to spend to improve its education sector.
The estimated budget for building the proposed new schools reached one million Jordanian Dinars per school. The cost for establishing the Hashimi Neighborhood’s elementary school, known as ‘Al Khansaa’ School, reached JD 1.6 million. The same cost was estimated for the’Al Manshia’ Elementary School, while the cost for adding 4 classrooms to ‘Um Al Quttain’ Girls High School was estimated to be JD 390 thousand.
After the Ministry of Public Works declared that the estimated cost for the proposed projects would be JD 35 million, members Al Mafraq’s City Council claimed that the discrepancy in estimation 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 Ministry of Public Works tenders, it became clear that the ministry was specifying requirements often unimportant to the Ministry of Education; such as the provision of student friendly and comfortable learning environment as described by Mr Al Zayadnah.
It is worth mentioning that at the time the City Council had allocated JD 100 thousand from the 2018 budget for the addition of four classrooms in ‘Um Al Quttain’ Girls High School, there actual cost was estimated by the Ministry of Public Works to be JD 390 thousand. The reporter of 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 thousand.
Despite the fact that the cost of maintenance for 180 schools out of 460 in Al Mafraq did not exceed JD 100 thousand, Al Zayadnah and Al Husban state that, so far, no budget money has been used for the proposed construction and addition projects. Therefore, and according to the law, the remaining unutilized budget of JD 5.1 million is to be transferred back to the country’s treasury since these capital projects were never executed on the ground.
The other proposed projects were completed under the budget of 2019, and the expansion project of ‘Um Al Jemal’ School was suspended due to the lack of funds.
A teacher at ‘Um Al Quttain’ School who was interviewed by the investigator wonders why the four proposed extra classrooms were never added despite the presence of ample land space behind the school in addition to another unutilized plot along the fence of the adjacent boys’ school, adding that the estimated cost of JD 100 thousand is a drop in the ocean compared to the millions allocated for other Ministry of Education projects.
The reporter of this investigation visited the area of ‘Um Al Quttain’ in the Northeastern Al Badia region, and found that at the beginning of the second semester of the year 2021, and in an effort to solve the problem of overcrowded classrooms, the Ministry of Education had rented a building comprising of four classrooms, 2 km away from the school.
With regard to the allocations that were rejected by the Ministry of Public Works before its call for tenders, Al Zayadnah points out that the current top priority is to provide more classrooms especially for students in remote areas, and that prioritizing the establishment of student friendly schools at the moment will prolong the suffering of these students as they struggle to reach their 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. Therefore, the priority should be given to solving the problems of overcrowded classrooms, remote schools, and run down school buildings.
He adds that remote areas and villages in Al Mafraq are not in need of high capacity schools that can accommodate 1000 students, since “the currently rented buildings (used as schools), which are not suitable learning environments, hold 80-90 students only.”
Another obstacle facing project execution according to Al 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 feasibility studies budget covers areas like the design of engineering plans, site analysis, and municipality licenses, hence requiring a special call for tenders for each study, whose cost may reach JD 20 thousand from the council’s budget.
In an attempt to avoid transferring part of its projects budget back to the treasury, the council decided in August 2018, to transfer JD 1.9 million 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 governmental project is automatically referred to the Ministry of Public Works if it exceeds JD 500 thousand. According to Nasser Abu Al Rish, an engineer in the Ministry of Education, this often hinders the ministry’s ability to execute its own projects.
Engineer Abu Al Rish says that projects executed by the ministry are often given to grade three and grade four contractors, while those executed by the Ministry of Public Works are rendered to grade one and grade two contractors hence the higher cost in material and equipment.
Al Husban says that the City Council proposes and approves projects while the concerned ministry is fully responsible for their execution. He cites as an example the responsibility of the Ministry of Education for the establishment of ‘Al Jundi’ School which surpassed its original estimated cost by JD 145 thousand. Delays in obtaining construction licenses resulted in penalty fees that were 4 times that of the original licensing fees. This is in addition to the penalty fees resulting from the construction of a building on agricultural land all of which brought the project’s total cost to a staggering JD 336 thousand, instead of the original estimated cost of JD 191 thousand.
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Al Zayadnah says that conflicts of opinion between the council and the concerned ministry often result in stalling in the execution of projects as can be clearly observed in projects to add extra classrooms or while putting the infrastructure or the nucleus for additional buildings.
The execution 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 final approvals.
Al Husban agrees with Al Zayadnah, and adds that stalling the execution of projects at the ministries of education and health despite their importance, results in decentralizing the execution of their projects and handing them over to the ministries of Public Works and Water and Irrigation, which are more efficient and cooperating 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 its labs.
The tender was awarded to the company employing engineer Jamil, whose bid of JD 1.15 million 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 built each with a maximum capacity of 30 students, and was due to be completed end of October this year, but lockdowns and curfews imposed by the pandemic resulted in inevitable delays, according to engineer Jamil.
Abu Al Rish states 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 executed by the Ministry of Education since their lower budget did not exceed the JD 500 thousand as stipulated by the Government Procurement Regulations of 2019.
He also pointed out that the Ministry of Education decided that the addition of class 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, adding 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 licenses. Such studies could cost the project’s budget up to JD 50 thousand, after which projects are executed and supervised by specialized engineers.
Abu Al Rish adds that current conditions and budgets hinder the establishment of more schools with larger classroom and higher student capacity, as the number of grants directed towards the establishment of new schools decreased In 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 nucleus buildings as a basis for further future expansion.
Engineer Khaled Al Okosh, Director of the Ministry of Education’s projects at the Ministry of Public Works, says that the standards set forth by the public works tenders raise their cost as it 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, administrative rooms and laboratories in the project description it refers to the Ministry of Public Works and the latter, in turn, refers the project to feasibility study tenders followed by execution and supervision.
Ministry tenders adhere to the regulations of the National Building Code that set specific standards for the installation of elevators, facilities for persons with special needs and vehicle parking.
The Ministry of Education’s main focus is on educational and learning requirements, while the Ministry of Public Works is concerned with provision of proper central heating and boiler rooms, and may install a solar system to relieve the school of some financial expenses on the long term.
With the first four year term of governorate councils approaching its end, students still face the risk of returning to overcrowded classrooms during the next academic year, especially with the government striving to return to full classroom instruction after the pandemic subsides.
The coming elections will face continued demands to confine decentralization project decisions to their councils, and execute projects without the need for any approvals by the concerned ministry and with a minimum amount of coordination. Referring projects to specialized government entities stalls their progress as has been confirmed by the various sources in this investigation.
Islam Mashaqba participated in the investigation.