By Abdelrahman al-Hourani and Justin Clark

IDLIB: Students in opposition-held Idlib are attending government schools run by the Syrian regime despite the presence of opposition-backed alternatives – and they’re in high demand from parents and students alike.

Despite the province of Idlib’s complete takeover by opposition forces in 2015, many social services – including schools – are still connected to the regime. Teachers, students, and local opposition commanders alike tell the Syrian Voice that these government schools benefit the community.

“I decided to go to a government school because of their effectiveness and their qualified teachers,” Muhammad, 18, tells the Syrian Voice.

Opposition commander Kamal al-Anad says  that government schools offer high quality education and support the local community. “[We] don’t want to interfere with [teachers’] livelihoods. Plus, the continued operation of these schools benefits the students of Idlib who can get their education without interruption.”

Teachers in government schools were last appointed in the province in 2008, a government school teacher tells the Syrian Voice, meaning that even the newest instructors have a minimum of 9 years’ experience.

“Only about 2 of every 15 teachers left their positions,” he continues. “Making government schools sufficiently staffed.”

Abu Ahmed, a government school principal living in the countryside south of Idlib says that a lack of confidence in schools established by opposition groups is but one of the reasons that have made him and others like him decide to stay put.

Teachers in government schools still receive their monthly salaries and remain eligible to receive their pensions post retirement. “Guaranteeing retirement pay is a large part of the decision to stay.” Abu Ahmed tells the Syrian Voice. “For the elderly approaching retirement age, they have no other source of income save for their pensions.”

Though the government is still paying its teachers, they must leave Idlib and enter regime-held territory to actually receive their salaries. At a time when monthly salaries don’t exceed 40,000 Syrian pounds (approx. $75), they must pay for transportation to Hama, the nearest government-controlled city.

“Getting paid is, basically, going through the trouble of getting to Hama,” Abu Ayham, an Arabic teacher in Idlib tells The Syrian Voice. “This carries the risk of being detained at a regime checkpoint, and this has pushed us to dealing with middlemen who often take cuts of 30 to 40%”

Though the schools use a curriculum issued by the Syrian Ministry of Education, changes have been made to fit the culture of “revolution” in Idlib, say teachers. Quotes and pictures of Bashar al-Assad were removed and replaced with mentions of prominent opposition figures, and the entire subject of philosophy was removed for religious reasons.

However, the changes don’t affect the grades that students get when they take their final exams according to Abu Mahmoud, a teacher in one of the government schools. Yet some, like student Muhammad, are unable to make the journey to regime-controlled Hama to take those final exams.

Nevertheless, he believes “continuing education despite the circumstances is better than stopping altogether.”

The Idlib region has been controlled by opposition forces, including Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, since 2015, with the exception of the rebel-besieged, Shiite-majority towns of Kufriya and al-Fuaa.