Mid-year vacation is over and 15.5 million students are back to school. But what kind of condition are these schools in? Amira El-Noshokaty investigates
Al-Hamadi is a private co-ed nursery, primary and preparatory school in Al-Waraa, one of Giza governorate's lower-middle- class districts. However, were it not for its sign, there would be nothing to distinguish this five-storey cement block from the similarly unattractive concrete structures in the area. The nursery students' official playground is the doorstep. The swings are located indoors, on hard tiles at the foot of a staircase. The only natural lighting in the dour edifice is a few rays of sunlight that force their way through the high, barred windows.
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From top: Champillion Palace housed a school until the Ministry of Culture took over; Misr Al-Gedida High School for Girls in Heliopolis; Singing the national anthem
Unfortunately, Al-Hamadi is representative of school buildings that have been proliferating nationwide. The 35,000 buildings in the Egyptian school system are generally characterised by leaky bathrooms, a lack of recreational services and overcrowding, with an average of 60 students per classroom.
The heritage that makes up our schools can be divided as follows: schools built by European and American Church missionaries in the late19th and early 20 th century - such as Al- Azbakeya school for girls built in1860 and the American college for girls built in1910, palaces, and villas both bequithed and nationalised and modern school buildings.
While expanding the scope of education has been a national aim for successive Egyptian governments, the maintenance of school buildings has suffered from the lack of resources as well as jurisdiction disputes between the local governorates and the Ministry of Education.
To address an increasingly complex situation, the School Building Authorities (SBA) was established in 1992. According to Hatem Zaghloul, consultant architect and head of the Central Department for Designing and Information Technology at SBA, the architectural qualifications of school buildings are now subject to national standards. "Such standards were set by SBA, in collaboration with other specialists. It sets the rules by which both public and private school buildings must be built," explained Zaghloul to Al-Ahram Weekly. The SBA has been responsible for the construction of 13,000 schools since its creation and is also responsible for the maintenance of all school buildings -- regardless of whether SBA originally built them or not.
"A standard school area is required to be 2,500 square metres. However, in districts that are in dire need of schools, exceptions are made and smaller schools may be built. In such cases, the schools we build are not necessarily as big as they should be however, they receive the approval of SBA, Ministry of Education and the governor," added Zaghloul.
"All schools must have a playground," acquiesced Zaghloul. He added, however, that the ratio of space to student varies in accordance to the district. For example, a primary school includes a schoolyard, a library, a laboratory, recreational room and classrooms, each classroom at an average area of 44 square metres, with an average capacity of 40 students. Of course that is not the case at Al-Hamadi school. But according to Mary Shihata, the mother of a nursery student at Al-Hamadi, "This is the best affordable private school in this district. "I pay LE800 for the whole school year. It's clean and provides a good education. The lack of a schoolyard is not a big deal."
Architect Amal Abdalla disagrees. "The concept of having a school with no yard is just wrong. It is as if you are trapping the children in a stairwell. There are rules for school buildings, and in addition to having an open-air yard, no school building should exceed three floors," she noted.
But schools like Al-Hamadi are able to flaunt safety standards not just because parents are strapped to find an affordable school for their children but also due to loopholes in the system. "Well, Al-Hamadi school was built before the establishment of SBA's codes. There's nothing we can do about it," said Sanaa El-Deib, the general manager of SBA, Giza Governorate, to the Weekly. "However, if that school should apply for any expansion, they would be obliged to meet the standard qualification of a school building," concluded El-Dieb.
The limitations of the current monitoring system became painfully obvious in 1999 when a school wall collapsed at the government-run Al-Qawmiya primary school in Zamalek, killing four pupils and injuring 16 others. One year later, the public prosecutor pressed charges against three of the SBA architects on grounds of gross negligence. At that time, an investigation conducted by SBA indicated that 30 schools in the Cairo area did not meet safety standards and needed to be evacuated.
Another problem arises from the fact that many school buildings are shared by different managements. In Al-Waraa, the Osama Ben Zeid Preparatory School for Boys shares its quarters with the Al- Wafaa Preparatory School for Girls, meaning the building is essentially one school in the morning and another one in the afternoon. The problematic nature of this arrangement became apparent in the school year 2001/2002 when one of the school buildings of Osama Ben Zeid Preparatory School for Boys began to collapse. The building was evicted and the boys were temporally transferred to another school while the morning shift -- Al-Wafaa Preparatory School for Girls -- continued to function on the same premises.
According to Sanaa Ali, the deputy principal of Al-Wafaa, today the premises still await the replacement of the buildings that were demolished as a safety precaution. Today, the buildings cater to 1,105 girls, with an average of 60 students in each class, while 65 teachers make do without a teachers' lounge. Even the principal does not have an office of her own.
Abdalla points out that school buildings are not immune to the problems that have afflicted construction since the early 1970s -- a lack of concern with quality and detail and an overwhelming rush towards maximising profit.
Though strict adherence to the proper school specifications may seem like a luxury in light of Egypt's economic and financial constraints, what kind of education can possibly be given in improper -- and sometimes dangerous -- school facilities?
IN SPITE of the expansion in school construction, it has not been enough to keep up with the influx of students. Hence, a statement by the Cairo Governorate a few years ago to the effect that palaces and mansions currently being used as schools might be transferred back to their original owners led to heated debate. "On a national scale, there are many villas and mansions of unique architectural style that were transformed into government school buildings. The return of these buildings to their owners is conditioned by the need of the district. If we have already built alternative schools in the same district, we hand the property back to the original owner. If not, then I would go through the legal procedures required to keep the property a school building, because in this case the welfare of the community at large is in the balance," explained Hatem Zaghloul, consultant architect and head of the Central Department for Designing and Information Technology, SBA.
In fact, many argue that if not for the transformation of villas into schools, most of these valuable relics of 19th and 20th-century Egypt would have been demolished by their original owners by now. According to Seif El- Rashidi, architectural historian, "The fact that such buildings were nationalised or bequeathed by their original owners and converted into schools saved half of them from being destroyed." But it has been preservation at a price. As El-Rashidi pointed out, conversion into schools "has not necessarily preserved the building's original architecture. For instance, if an interior ceiling of a school needs restoration, the simplest way to do it is to repaint it." He went on to point out that "the value of the history of the building is unaccounted for when it is turned into a school, unlike what happens when a building is handed over to an embassy or a research center."