Education Minister Ahmed Gamaleddin Moussa spoke to Shaden Shehab
about reforming one of the country's most crucial sectors
Ahmed Gamaleddin Moussa
Schools with fully equipped classrooms, large playgrounds and computers; competent teachers; and a curriculum that stimulates -- rather than dulls -- students' minds: will this ideal image of education ever be more than an elusive dream in Egypt?
The reality is so far removed from the ideal that it is hard to imagine Egypt's education system ever coming close. Today, 15 million students are packed into some 38,000 schools; a great many classrooms are stuffed with more than 60 students. For poorly trained teachers, this presents an almost impossible dynamic. School books need a major face-lift; and many students have difficulty reading and writing, let alone using a computer.
How did things get this bad? It is difficult to tell exactly when the deterioration began, but as education ministers came and went, introducing reform plans that were often contradictory, the problems just kept piling up.
The makeshift changes that sometimes did take place only served to highlight the grave lack of a comprehensive educational plan. As sixth grade was cancelled, then brought back, and final secondary school exams expanded from one year to two, the nation's children, it was often said, were being experimented on by the bureaucrats.
Now that reform is the buzzword of the hour, much attention is being given to education. When Ahmed Gamaleddin Moussa replaced former education minister Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin last July, a glimmer of hope emerged -- not particularly in Moussa's favour, but more because Bahaaeddin had been in the post for so long that stagnation was the order of the day.
Moussa, 54, obtained his Bachelor's degree from Cairo University's Faculty of Law before going to France for his PhD in general law and political economy, which he received from Claire-Monte Frand University.
Back in Egypt, he rose through the ranks at Mansoura University, from law professor, to head of the Economics and General Finance Department, to deputy for student affairs, deputy to the president, and, finally, in 2003, to the university president's chair itself.
Two of Moussa's three children are still in school, suffering from the same problems he is expected to solve.
With people highly sceptical of the educational system, what hope is there in convincing the public that things can actually change?
Although we must not generalise, we can say there is a general feeling of dissatisfaction, not just in Egypt but also around the world. There is no nation that is fully satisfied with its education system.
The problems vary, of course: in the US, they are worried about violence in schools and other problems. Here, we do face a lot of challenges, but the picture is not as dim as some people make it. Education is a very sensitive issue; it directly affects every family since it is related to their children's future, and thus ultimately becomes every household's concern.
I am optimistic because if we lose hope, we will not be able to do anything, and the most dangerous thing that can happen is to have a general feeling of frustration. I am not starting from scratch but working on things the former ministers have started. There were efforts exerted, [but] there were also problems and poor performance.
We are trying to gradually reform the system by taking positive steps, and having specific goals.
What are your main goals?
There are two main goals: the first involves bringing the educational system up to the quality and standard of international systems; the second is removing the unnecessary burden on both students and families [by reforming the curriculum].
What is the wisdom of having thick books, a huge number of courses, and unnecessary subjects? More important is that students interact with what they are learning in order to simply gain knowledge and acquire useful skills.
What is the fundamental problem or challenge you expect to face?
We have overcrowded schools and schools that do not provide quality education. Some classes have more than 60 students in them, so we also need more schools.
At the same time, increasing the number of schools is unnecessary if the quality of the education being offered does not improve.
Quality is more important than quantity, and if we have a lot of schools without qualified teachers or proper equipment, then we haven't solved anything.
So how is this problem being tackled?
About 30 per cent of our schools have more than 40 students per class. We want to make 40 the maximum. We need a lot of money to reach this goal.
Last year the ministry spent LE1 billion on this, and this year we expect to spend the same amount on building about 800 new schools. These schools are being built with certain specifications in mind to ensure that classes are properly equipped.
What about unqualified teachers?
Teachers have university degrees, but are still not qualified, because they are not properly trained, nor do they have the opportunity to expand their horizons.
The problem is that the teacher has been always treated like a civil servant, with the same salary, incentive, and promotions scheme as every other government employee. This dynamic benefits neither the teacher nor society.
While I believe one aspect of this problem is being worked on by the Administrative Development Ministry, we are also trying to be more flexible in our dealings with teachers, and that is what is happening at a number of experimental schools.
Does the curriculum need to be changed entirely, or by reform do you only intend to reduce the amount of material that is being taught?
There are three things that need to be reformed if we are to reach the quality of education we need. The first involves improving the curriculum, the second involves improving the teaching, and the third involves planning for the future; all three elements compliment each other.
We have recently been in the process of re- evaluating the curriculum, starting at the secondary school level. For each of the 19 subjects being taught, we have chosen an expert, someone who has proven their expertise but who has nothing to do with either the existing curriculum or the Education Ministry itself.
These 19 experts are now our "committee of wise men". Each one has also formed a subcommittee that includes experienced university professors in the designated field to evaluate the curriculum. Each subcommittee has also established a workshop that includes other professors in the field, as well as teachers.
I myself have attended several of the workshops.
Is the target throwing the old books out altogether?
I don't think there will be that radical change at this stage, but maybe in two years, when the thanaweya amma (final secondary school exams) system is overhauled.
Major change needs to occur gradually, or else it just ends up being a quick fix. As of the next academic year, however, we will be reducing the number of irrelevant lessons from the textbooks.
Changing the thanaweya amma system seems to be your utmost priority. However, over the past five years the system has already been changed three times, and it is still a problem. Why do you think the new system will work this time?
My main concern is indeed the thanaweya amma. I am waiting for feedback from everybody -- political parties, syndicates, and families -- because this is the public's project, not the ministry's.
[The primary change in the new thanaweya amma system is that it greatly reduces the number of compulsory subjects that are part of the gruelling two-year exam, making them electives instead].
A recent poll in Al-Ahram indicated that more than 90 per cent of the public was against the new system, preferring one year of thanaweya amma instead of two.
That poll was not scientific, and of course, if you ask people whether they want the thanaweya amma to be one year or two, they will say one, because they are thinking about how many years of private tutoring they have to provide for their children.
People should be aware that there is a comprehensive plan to reform the educational system, so that parents will no longer need to provide their children with private lessons, since schools will provide quality education, a suitable curriculum, and qualified teachers.
Private lessons are a temporary phenomenon that will vanish as soon as these problems are solved. As for the thanaweya amma, you cannot evaluate students with just one exam; it is simply not done anywhere else in the world.
Why don't we just adopt one of the other international systems that have proven successful?
We cannot just adopt a system without reforming the schools and having qualified teachers. If we were to adopt the English system, for example, then our schools and teachers would first also need to be at the same level as UK schools and teachers.
People who can afford it send their children to schools that use the American, German or other systems like the IGSCE. This has turned education into a highly profitable enterprise, with standards often falling by the wayside. What kind of regulatory monitoring is in place to combat this?
Egypt's private schools constitute about seven per cent of the total number of schools, and there are, of course, regulations and monitoring of them.
With the creation of a National Quality and Accreditation Association, this will all change. The association will be affiliated to either the presidential or prime minister's office. The body will be tasked with ensuring that all of those schools follow certain criteria. I believe they will then be even better than international schools.
When will IT be a part of the learning process in schools like it is in the rest of the world?
There are various projects being studied to reach this goal. I expect we will have Internet availability in most of our schools in three years time.
Although all these plans and projects seem promising, when will the average person feel the change?
It is very dangerous to rush. Things will be done step by step, since we cannot successfully [solve all the problems] at once.
I think that schools that started a reform process -- like the experimental school in Alexandria [funded by USAID] -- have felt the change. There are also World Bank and European Union projects being implemented in 10 governorates.
The minister cannot do everything. I can't possibly know what's going on in every single one of Egypt's schools. Everyone needs to do their job; when teachers and parents all do their part, we all help each other.
The reform will be tangible when we make the thanaweya amma more flexible.
Reform talk is often associated with trying to please the US; what is your take on that?
This is all nonsense -- no one is forcing or dictating to us. On the other hand, what's wrong with cooperating with others in a framework that does not affect our own direction?
They [the Americans] did not propose to interfere, nor did we ask them to. The committees we are forming to develop the curriculum do not include any foreigners; their members are all Egyptian.
Are there any new plans to reduce illiteracy?
There are 12 million people in Egypt who are illiterate -- they are mostly in the rural areas and the majority are women. The main problem is that these people do not have the will to learn, with customs and traditions being the main obstacles.
We are making plans to eradicate the problem, but to really solve it, the whole nation needs to be mobilised.