Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 November - 3 December 2003
Issue No. 666
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Experimental education

Endless adjustments to the primary school system have left parents wondering if their children are the Education Ministry's "guinea pigs". Reem Nafie investigates

Earlier this year, when the Education Ministry decided to bring sixth grade back into the primary school system -- after a 15-year hiatus -- parents and educators were shocked. This month, their confusion was compounded after Education Minister Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin signed a decree mandating that primary schools use a new "cumulative average system" to determine grades.

Students had become used to fifth grade being the big year of their primary school life, with major tests at the end of fifth grade basically determining whether students would move on to preparatory. Now, not only would they have to wait until sixth grade, but also -- thanks to the minister's latest decree -- students' marks will be calculated in a vastly different manner than before.

Only 20 per cent of a sixth grade student's final primary results will now be based on how they did in sixth grade itself. The basis for the rest of the mark will be divided equally between a student's results in grades one through five.

Thus far, a vast majority of parents find the new system "absurd". They can't quite understand why a sixth grade student should be judged on results he received much earlier in his educational life.

According to Hassan Belawy, the Education Ministry's first undersecretary, "the new system should encourage students to work hard -- not just in sixth grade, but in grades one through five as well." Belawy said the move was meant to inspire an attitude change amongst Egyptian families, which generally encourage their children to work harder in the final years of primary, preparatory and secondary schools, "at the expense of the other years. If a parent knows that sixth grade results will also be based on what you did in past years," Belawy said, "there will be more of a focus on performing well throughout the years."

Parents and educators who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly were unable to comprehend the new system's benefits. Mona Saber, a Cairo University assistant professor of communications, said, "first grade students are young and prone to mistakes. Why should I grade a child five years later on his/her performance when they were very young children?"

Hani Hakim, a father of two, one of whom is currently in fifth grade, said, "this new grading system doesn't make sense. The entire educational system needs a makeover," said Hakim. "Let's not kid ourselves -- our children learn nothing at school."

The new system also stipulates that students in grades one to five will have 20 per cent of their results based on their conduct and participation inside the classroom. Although this may theoretically seem like a good idea, parents and educators who spoke to the Weekly were convinced it would not work. Olfat Sabry, principal of a Nasr City experimental school, said public and experimental schools are going to have a hard time applying the new rule. Sabry was expecting "problems" stemming from teachers being unable to implement the "new conduct and participation rule without adding their own bias to the results". According to Sabry, most teachers provide preferential treatment to students who take private lessons from them. Thus, even if a student is well-behaved and participates successfully in classroom discussions, he/she might not get a high mark merely because he/she is not taking private lessons with the teacher, while other, less successful students might get better grades since they are.

Faten Galal, a private school administrator, said it would be difficult to stop teachers from doing this, "because it is hard to prove that a teacher is being biased, and it will probably be the student's word against the teacher's".

Ministry official Belawy shrugged off these sorts of concerns, calling them "nonexistent", and saying "teachers know better than to do that".

In any case, the re-inclusion of sixth grade has -- on its own -- birthed a set of additional woes. For one thing, the two million fifth primary students who were supposed to move on to preparatory school next year will now be spending an extra year in primary.

Sixth primary was abolished in 1988 for fiscal reasons by then-Minister of Education Fathi Sorour. The education budget at that time was deemed insufficient to provide the number of classrooms and teachers needed for six years of primary schooling. The argument was that one less year would not affect the quality of educations.

Five years ago, however, Bahaaeddin -- citing an improvement in the budgetary situation as well as reports that skipping one primary year meant many students were ill prepared for preparatory -- proposed bringing sixth grade back. The People's Assembly put Bahaaeddin's proposal on hold to allow the ministry time to work on the necessary logistical and fiscal preparations needed to build the approximately 41,000 classrooms meant to accommodate an extra year of schooling.

This year, the ruling National Democratic Party pushed the proposal forward, and the Assembly approved it. Following a cabinet endorsement, local governments were told to lay the groundwork for the change, and the ministry announced that 15,000 teachers had been trained to teach sixth primary.

One of the ramifications of the decision will be that very few students will move up to first preparatory in 2004/ 2005 (since the current fifth graders who would have, will now be heading for sixth primary instead). Next year's first primary classes will basically be limited to students who fail to pass the grade this year. And for the next six years, until these students graduate from high school, they will always be part of a relatively smaller class. Some educators said that would give this class an unfair advantage when it came to college admissions, since there will be far less competition for access to "top" colleges that typically require high grades.

Belawy said the "minister and his education consultants believe that the system will be very successful and are willing to risk having a small first preparatory class, in order to implement the system." The ministry chose not to pursue another possibility -- allowing those fifth graders with the highest grades to proceed directly to first preparatory.

Maged Helmy, whose two young girls go to primary school, said he "just doesn't understand why the ministry keeps changing the system. First, they cancel sixth grade, then it's back. Then they change the grading system. What will they change in a few years? I care about my children and I don't want them to waste a year of their life. A parent can't wait to see his children graduate," he said.

When Cairo University Professor Saber was asked why parents seemed to be reflexively against the idea of the extra year, she said, "people don't want to feel that the ministry doesn't know what it's doing and is taking haphazard decisions. It gives them the feeling that their children are guinea pigs being experimented on by the ministry."

The ramifications of this feeling may be that parents eventually lose faith in the system, which will most likely be reflected on their children as well. "I can't believe that I'm going to have to stay in primary school for an extra year," said fourth grade student Niveen Sayed. "I thought it was a joke and I don't understand why we can't just do it the old way."

Sayed was also worried that because she hadn't done too well over the past few years, no matter how well she did in the next few years, she would still get a relatively poor "cumulative" result at the end of sixth grade.

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