Following the paper trail
The summer vacation is likely to be far less sunny than many thanaweya aama
students had hoped, writes Reem Leila
For a month the thanaweya aama (secondary school certificate) examinations have been making headlines. The most distressing news was the death of two students who killed themselves after suffering severe depression because of the tests. It is not the first time such a tragedy has happened. In June 2006 a group of students attempted to collectively commit suicide because the exam questions were too difficult.
While private lessons are potentially one, albeit expensive, way to jump the examination hurdle, this year some parents opted for a second route, purchasing leaked examination papers. Nineteen people involved in the scandal, from four towns in the governorate of Minya, have now been referred to the Criminal Court for trial.
Other students, not alerted in advance, were caught in what are by now all too familiar scenes, screaming, weeping, even fainting as they opened their examination papers. Newspapers and TV channels have thrown a spotlight on the discontent of parents who blame the government and education officials for the stress they place on their children, and for the expense they must endure paying for private lessons.
Secondary school exams have become a recurrent nightmare for Egyptian families. A total of 792,859 thanaweya aama students this year find their futures dependant on grades attained in the two-year system of tests the results of which determine which faculty they can join. Students with grades above 95 per cent often cannot enrol in the public university of their choice, and just 0.1 per cent in overall marks can make all the difference between success and failure.
"This year's exams were shocking and unfamiliar," says student Fatemah Gihad. "Even the very best students could not answer them."
Some students claimed the questions diverted from the model of previous years', that in some cases problems lacked any solution and often covered areas not included in the curriculum.
The Ministry of Education insists that this year's exams conformed to usual standards. The average student, insists ministry officials, should have been able to answer 75 per cent of the questions, above-average students 90 per cent, whereas only the most distinguished would be able to tackle every question.
Farid Abdel-Samie, official spokesman of the minister of education, Yosri El-Gamal, insists that "this year's exams weren't as difficult as students claim."
"Most of the questions were included in the model exams previously issued by the board," he said, arguing that tests were fair and should not have been beyond the capability of students who had worked hard.
Opposition MP Mustafa Bakri, who has a reputation for fanning controversy, sees a conspiracy behind this year's exams. The problems, he claims, have been deliberately exacerbated in order to reduce the number of students enrolled at public universities. "Instead of establishing and creating new public universities," he charges, "the government has chosen to butcher students in the exams since this won't cost it any extra money."
"The government is sending an indirect message to parents and students. It wants to force them to enrol in private universities in order to decrease the pressure on the 22 universities funded by the state."
While for teachers private lessons to push students through the thanaweya aama represent the bulk of their income, for parents, who often put their own lives on hold for two distressing years, the costs can be prohibitive.
MP Omar Sherif, head of the People's Assembly Education Committee, points out that students have long needed to score over 97 per cent, and sometimes 100 per cent, in order to guarantee a place at the faculty of their choice. "Many become depressed after scoring less than expected. Given the way society views the exams they are considered losers," says Sherif.
Although the ministry this year introduced a hotline for students to submit their complaints, the website www.thanwya.com has become the preferred forum for discussing concerns.
"The problem is that there is no communication between the ministry and the public. The hotline they initiated was supposed to form a link between them but it has not worked," says Sherif. The site, however, developed five years ago, now has over half a million members and 126,000 visitors daily. It offers students access to study sheets and exam models and allows them to submit questions to teachers or complain about specific topics.
Reda Abu Serei, assistant to the minister of education, says this year's grades are expected to be lower than last year's which means that university entrance requirements will be downgraded.
"There is no need for parents or students to panic. Everything is under control. The ministry's first concern is its student's welfare, no more and no less."
Bakri remains sceptical about the efficacy of the National Democratic Party's Education Committee's attempts to improve the curricula and overhaul the education system, believing that rather than adopting foreign models for examinations Egypt, like Malaysia, should adopt a system tailored to the specific needs of the country.
"We have our own specialists and experts who have the ability to introduce the necessary development. Why doesn't the ruling NDP request their help in order to spare our people the trauma of thanaweya aama ?" he asks.
Sociologist Ahmed Zayed, dean of the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, complains that such is the distress associated with the thanaweya aama that families are willing to do anything, whether legal or not, to survive the crisis. He also points out that more than 70 per cent of thanaweya aama students opt to join the arts section, since they are widely believed to be easier than maths or science.
"This does not coincide with the country's needs. If the education system as a whole, in particular the thanaweya aama, is not reformed within 30 years Egypt will have none of the engineers and scientists necessary for development."
Analysts and commentators have long called for changes to the thanaweya aama system. The Ministry of Education, says Zayed, constantly promises radical solutions without any constructive results. "Egypt's education system is in dire need of an overhaul. Instead of wasting LE3 billion on private lessons, half of that amount could be used to improve schools, curricula and the status of teachers."