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(E)Quality Education: The Case for Darija in Moroccan Public Schools

During the 2017-18 school year, Morocco implemented a new education strategy, the latest in a string of unsuccessful reform attempts which have belabored the country since its independence in 1956. The Moroccan government presented this action plan in July 2017 as an emergency addendum to its 2015-2030 strategic vision. The plan focuses primarily on early childhood education: the government will build and expand preschools across the country, particularly in rural areas, and emphasize literacy, particularly in French. The United States Agency for International Development has partnered with the Moroccan government in this effort, praising the program’s “ambitious” teacher training and phonics-based reading method.

The 2015-2030 strategy ultimately seeks to “innovate” education in Morocco, and indeed, change would be welcome. Despite devoting 5% of its GDP to education, Morocco’s returns on investment in education are incredibly low, consistently producing results inferior to those of poorer North African states. Only 71.7% of the population is literate, and 80% of unemployment comes from young adults in the 15-34 age range who have not been taught the necessary skills for eligibility in the workforce. What’s more, the country’s school system currently stands as the most unequal in the world. Privatization of the school system has widened the already-gaping divides between rural, largely Berber populations and the urban upper-middle class. This trend began when the French colonial government pursued a “divide-and-conquer” strategy in Morocco to isolate the French and formal Arabic-speaking elite from the rest of their countrymen but has only worsened since then. Despite its problematic legacy, the government has fully supported privatization. Unable to secure an alternative means for reining in skyrocketing education costs, Parliament has become reliant upon elite private education to reduce demand for public schools.

As a result, a staggering 33% of schools nationwide (which serve only 14% of students) are now private. This threatens not only to ensconce the elite still more irretrievably in its ivory tower but also detaches the middle class from the rest of society. As L’Économiste reported with alarm in February, there is now “one school for the rich and middle class, and another for the poor. The first is private and trains … future leaders … and the second is … failing and unattractive.” With private schools on trend and public schools floundering as much as ever, parents have come to view private education not as a luxury but as the only suitable option. Politicians, many of whom own and profit handsomely from private institutions, an increasing proportion of which are poor-quality and designed to take advantage of parents concerned for their children’s futures, have been only too happy to capitalize on this.

Unfortunately, this “innovative” new action plan is only a continuation of the same tactics the government has been using without success for decades and does little to mitigate socioeconomic stratification. Morocco does not need to invest exorbitant sums into increasing access to schools — 99.5% of children already enroll in primary school. The real issue is keeping them there: Only 53% of students who attend middle school will make it to high school, and less than 15% will graduate, according to USAID.

The plan will emphasize French literacy and promote the International Baccalaureate (IB) in order to orient Moroccan students towards the international community. However, the emphasis on French and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the primary cause of poor retention rates and results in the most insurmountable barrier to entry in the workforce. In December 2017, the Pulitzer Center reported interviews to help explain this correlation. Interviewees described the “severe” teachers who rely on corporal punishment and rote memorization to teach MSA and French. The brightest students are funneled into French programs in middle and high school, while the rest are left behind, already seen as displaying “little academic promise” and relegated to an uncertain future in a society whose white-collar workforce operates in French.

The fact remains that for lower class students whose first language is the dialect Darija, learning French or even MSA is a Herculean task, akin to learning a second language altogether. Language consistency at home and school is a critical component to student success and morale, yet the vast majority of lower-class students have parents in agricultural or other laborious jobs who likely only speak Darija. These parents have neither the time nor the resources to reinforce other languages at home;  UNICEF found that between 2005-2012, only 21% of students had access to learning materials at home and only 34.5% had parental support as a supplemental educational resource.

As an anonymous headmaster from the city of Tetouan told Al Jazeera, any truly reforming agenda must bridge the “gap between theory and practice” in order to “transform goals into practical solutions.” And there is, or so it would seem, a very simple solution: allowing Darija, which is, after all, spoken by nearly 90% of Moroccans, to be the primary language in public schools. A local education foundation brought the idea before Parliament in 2014, asking that Darija be integrated into early childhood education. A UNESCO study backed their proposal, recommending the use of the mother tongue to lessen confusion between home and school. The idea also had the potential to reduce costs while previous reforms had not—it would require far less teacher training and reduce dependency upon pricey imported textbooks.  Nonetheless, the initiative died before even reaching the Parliament floor.

Why was the suggestion that public schools conduct themselves in their country’s (by far) most spoken language so unthinkable? The main critique—levied by the ruling, minority elite—is that Darija is inherently an inferior, even blasphemous, language. Prime Minister Moqri Abouzayd cast the proposal from Parliament on behalf of the majority Justice and Development (PJD) Party, accusing it of being “an attempt to destroy the foundations of the nation and a conspiracy against Islam.” Sociolinguistics professor Taofik El Yazidy at Mohammed V University in Rabat took a somewhat less damning approach but contended that Darija ought to be limited solely to colloquial settings, as it is “not rich enough to be used in academia, and is unable to offer the knowledge base that standard Arabic is currently providing.”

Discourses such as these have roots in the colonial period. Under the leadership of Hubert Lyautey, colonial Morocco’s first General Administrator, the French regime built an education system relying upon an oversimplified, orientalizing conception of Moroccan identity, ignorant of regional and individual differences, which sought to isolate different sects of Moroccans in order to discourage rebellion. Under this system, vocational trade schools were established for the masses, particularly in heavily Berber mountainous regions, while écoles primaires supérieures were offered to a select elite. At the time, the latter propagated Hardy’s narrow version of Moroccan identity and the inherent superiority of the European professional, seeking to muddy nationalist conceptions of identity and solidarity.

A (seemingly) more empirical criticism of Darija is that it is of no use in the globalized economy. French, rather, provides an opportunity for greater economic orientation towards the West, seen by many as the key to Morocco’s success. However, Morocco’s close ties with Europe have resulted in a banana republic-esque dynamic in which Morocco has become overly reliant upon its agricultural and natural resource exports (and European manufactured goods). Indeed, the country is currently beleaguered by a $18.8 billion trade deficit, $10.8 billion of which comes from trade with Europe. On the other hand, Darija has the potential to tap into a promising domestic market that could decrease foreign dependency. Young people (under the age of 34) currently make up 30% of the population but are 80% of the unemployed, largely due to their poor French skills. As both Abdeslam Seddiki, minister of labor and social affairs, and the World Bank have both recommended, empowering youth to take a “center stage of development” will be critical in ensuring future growth, and indeed provides an exciting opportunity to rework the economy for the new generation. But making this demographic the central figure of the Moroccan economy demands that their language, Darija, become the language of enterprise.

Ultimately, the successes or failures of the education system extend far beyond the classroom. Although Morocco is now over half a century removed from the Protectorate, sustained ties to the French economy and extreme socioeconomic stratification have prevented most of its citizens from realizing true emancipation. This begins in the classroom with the public/private school and French/Darija dichotomies. As an anonymous researcher in Tetouan reminded his government, funding the same failed “Western reforms” is no longer acceptable, for the simple reason that Morocco “has its own characteristics.” “The setup of any effective reform plan can only be achieved through a participatory approach,” he implored, “this country should restore that dignity.”

Photo: Morocco School Merzouga

About the Author

Zoë Mermelstein '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Zoë can be reached at