|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
1 - 7 November 2001
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Resistance clouds the future"Education for distinction and distinction for all" is the official motto. Mariz Tadros asks Education Minister Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin how distinguished Egypt's schooling really is and examines efforts to bring schools closer to the market
Many Egyptians feel disillusioned with the country's school system. They have little hope that much-needed change will ever come about, despite the plethora of new policies, decrees and decisions.
Schooling for the marketAs Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin, the education minister, "We spend US$150 a year on a pupil in basic education. In Israel the figure is $3,500, in the US it is $10,000, in Switzerland it is $12,000."
Development. At these schools, pupils help make saleable goods.
also points out learn state's plan is to transform to a free economy. [The pupil] would have truly gained the required skills."
Th Mubarak and former Chancellor Helmet Kohl], which is one of the most successful educational initiatives for Germany abroad. It is implemented in 23 cities, more than 6,000 students are enrolled and over 13 specialities are on offer. There are 525 companies participating, and 250 contractor companies. It is also funded by the private sector," said the minister. But the plan may not be working. It often seems as if the higher you climb the educational ladder, the more unemployable you become. Graduates of secondary technical education suffer from the highest unemployment rate in Egypt. Bahaeddin also conceded that efforts to have the private sector provide greater training opportunities still have a long way to go. "Our plan relies on industrial and economic growth, because it depends on practical experience in factories etc."
If to reduce unemployment. But if all these secondary-school pupils later choose to enroll in universities, problems could follow. There is a tight bottleneck at university level, as places are limited and demand already outstrips supply.
Bahaeddin also touted the joint curriculum for general and technical secondary schools. Efforts, he said, are being made to increase resources and modernise the workshops and equipment available in industrial technical schools. Subjects such as English, computers, modern secretarial work and marketing will be part of the new syllabus.
When the Weekly suggested that the minister's vision seems somewhat at odds with the experience of pupils, he replied that technical education is a problem inherited from past policies. "At some point, 65 per cent of our children were directed to technical education, without equipping the schools to receive them. Most of these schools did not have high technology or resources, and the budget was pitiful."
Allocation of what meagre funds there are is another problem. Most of the ministry's budget goes to salaries -- and not even those of teachers. Of the ministry's employees, 43.8 per cent are administrative and non-teaching staff, according to the Egypt Human Development Report 1997/98. Only recently has the Ministry adopted a policy of recruiting only teachers.
But Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin, minister for education, is optimistic. While many lament the rising rate of school drop-outs, the broken lavatories and desks, or how little the children learn, Bahaeddin believes that one day all children will enroll in pre- school education, that all children will benefit from the latest technology and that all children will enjoy "education for distinction, and distinction for all." But the grim reality may be harder to overcome.
As part of his efforts to confront that reality, the minister has lately been making surprise visits to schools, in and out of the capital, to track the implementation of his policies. "We have begun with schools in popular, shanty and remote areas whose pupils belong to a social group more in need of government attention than others. Low-income earners have nothing but free education guaranteed them by the state. So we want to ensure that the education they get is up to standard." His findings were mixed. "Children in first and second grade primary can read, write and count, which was not the case a few years ago," the minister observed. But "aspects pertaining to cleanliness and a suitable environment for education were not up to the required standard." Other things than hygiene concern parents, though. During one of his visits, parents complained to the minister about the rising cost of magmou'at -- additional lessons offered by the school to groups of pupils after school hours. The minister introduced magmou'at as an alternative to private lessons (which he has passionately campaigned against since his appointment). Teachers are forbidden (and "severely punished" he warns) from giving private lessons. Private voluntary associations, as well as churches and mosques which used to offer children private tutoring, have been ordered to shut.
One aim of the magmou'at initiative was to check the growing costs of education for low earners. For them, education is supposed to be free. "Free education is a constitutional principle, necessary for maintaining social harmony. It is the only chance thais all public schools.
But despite the minister's insistence that education is free to the poor, the Egypt Human Development Report for 1997/98 issued by the Institute for National Planning suggests that private spending on education has grown considerably during the period 1990-1991 to 1996-1997. The poor have borne the brunt of that growth. According to a survey by the Egyptian National Institute of Planning, published last year, poor households spend a fifth of their yearly income on schooling. That constitutes a serious burden. When the minister was asked how education can be free if the poor have to spend so much on extra-school tuition, extra books and uniforms, etc, he replied that all those matters were "being addressed." Pressed for detail, he observed: "The seven satellite education channels play an important role because they take the place of private lessons and extra-curricular books. We have 1,500 schools that receive the education channels." He added, "As for uniforms, a decree now prohibits uniforms from changing more than once every three years at least. Any violators are punished."
Yet for all this, the school drop-out rate in Egypt remains high: and is highest among the poor. According to the Human Development Report, there is a 27 per cent drop-out rate. "This is not true," says the minister. "The drop-out rate in primary schools is less than one per cent" The minister blames the massive discrepancy in the figures on "some of the foreign agencies who resort to experts who take random samples on which they base their nationwide estimates. We have all the information, nationwide."
But there may be things other than cost discouraging children from school. Broken chairs and desks, overcrowding and, of course, beatings are just some complaints. A previous estimate judges that 40 per cent of schools are dilapidated. Windows and walls collapse with unhappy regularity. Last week, a pupil died and another was injured when a metal-framed window fell on them from the third floor of Tamouh preparatory school in Giza. Investigations showed that only a few small nails held the windows to the wall. "Unfortunately, the windows and other installations were done through private (community) efforts, without consulting the school construction authority," said the minister.
With the excuse of insufficient funds, the government has long promoted community involvement in school construction. The minister believes there is no problem with the policy itself, since the School Construction Authority will happily offer technical expertise, as long as financing is not requested. But he conceded that there should be more investment in buildings. "The prime minister has issued a statement calling for the building of 2,000 new schools..", he said adding that the school construction plan had previously come to a stand-still.
Regarding the problem of violence in schools, the minister was candid. Bahaeddin said that attacks on teachers will be considered thuggery, and the perpetrators will be dealt with under the thuggery law. As for teachers who punish pupils physically, Bahaeddin remarked, "Any teacher who hits a pupil will be punished severely. It is prohibited by law. I am fiercely against it. Teachers constantly hector me in meetings, telling me I have deprived them of a tool for maintaining discipline. I reply that I have deprived them of the right to harm a child, and of the right to abuse their power." Bahaeddin denied that the prohibition on corporal punishment is little-known in schools, and denied that teachers ignore it, arguing that cases are followed up, teachers monitored, and abuses punished.
Teachers disagree. Many of those Al-Ahram Weekly interviewed openly admitted that they sometimes use a ruler, throw chalk or slap a hand, as there is no other way to keep order in the classroom. The teachers argue that parents do not bother to raise their children properly, and they are difficult to manage at school, giving them no option but to hit.
Bahaeddin responds that parents can file complaints against teachers, who use corporal punishment, and that complaints are dealt with immediately. These complaints may not be forthcoming. Culturally, hitting a misbehaving child is not taboo.
For parents, other gripes are more pressing. Even if their children attend school and order is maintained, parents complain that the curriculum is redundant. "Curriculum reform is a continuing process," said the minister. "What we developed 10 years ago we are now reforming again. A higher committee was formed this year to develop the curriculum that was developed in 1998, which, in turn, had been developed in 1993. So we are not stopping."
Yet many parents remain dissatisfied. Bahaeddin answered, "I believe many parents abdicated their role in supervising their children and assigned this role to a paid person, be it a servant, or a private tutor. They have lost their connection with their children, so they only listen to what their children tell them, or to their private tutors."
of-year examinations. "This is not a decision, it is only a suggestion currently under investigation," the minister quickly pointed out.
He does not believe that this would give teachers supreme power over pupils, since assessment will not be conducted by one teacher, but many. "Also, it will be the parents' right to come to school and check on the progress of their child. In developed their child's weak points."
In all, it does not seem to be lack of awareness that is keeping the system back. Nor are policies necessarily badly designed. But there is a link missing between policy and its implementation. For example, a ministerial decree says that a child's schooling is not conditional on payment of school fees (in the minister's words, no pupil will be expelled in Mubarak's era). Yet many schools simply ignore that order. Another ministerial policy forbids teachers from hitting children. Yet they clearly do -- and it is questionable how many teachers are even aware of the policy.
Administrative problems beleaguer reformers, too. Huge sums have been spent in furnishing schools with computers, yet pupils' access is often rigidly restricted.
"This is true," concedes Bahaeddin. "There is a gap between policy and implementation. This goes back to laxity in some cases, and lack of experience in others. Laxity is dealt with sternly. But lack of experience we deal with by training and that is why training is a top priority in the ministry."
Bahaeddin also added that a new body has been established within the ministry, whose responsibility is supervision and follow-up. Some critics wryly counter that, in Egypt, there is no shortage of authorities, bodies, institutions and supervising departments. What is questionable is how effective they are.
The minister is also aware that, for all his decrees, it is doubtful whether they will effectively transform the school system. In the end, he says, "progress will not come about because of ministerial decrees I issue. The hardest thing is dealing with human beings. There is resistance in Egypt, as in all other countries. Some resist because they fear the future, some resist because they are happy with the present. Some see their financial interests threatened, some are misguided by ideology. We have to expect this resistance, and we must confront it."
Perhaps there is also resistance because many Egyptians feel the system has changed little. There is a crisis of credibility - which only positive results are likely to change. But in the unfortunate interim, it is the children, and Egypt future, that will continue to be sold short. And no one knows how long that interim will last.
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