Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Just another brick in the wall

By Mariz Tadros

It has been a little over a month since a school wall collapsed at a government-run Al-Qawmiya primary school in Zamalek, killing four pupils and injuring many others. The final results of the investigation are expected to be released at the end of this month, although a preliminary examination by experts from the Housing Ministry indicated that the wall may not have been properly built or maintained. The event has shaken the Egyptian public; many parents are scared that their children are no longer safe. Attendance has dropped by more than half at Al-Qawmiya. The mother of one injured pupil told Al-Ahram Weekly she is too scared to send her daughter to school.

Such fears may be justified. A preliminary investigation conducted by the School Buildings Authority (SBA), affiliated to the Ministry of Education, indicates that 30 schools do not meet safety standards, and must be evacuated. They will be pulled down, in whole or in part, because they are beyond repair. Hundreds of pupils are being relocated to other schools, but it would seem that cracked walls, tilting roofs, and shaky staircases are a feature of many schools. Since the Ministry of Education published a number for parents to call if they are worried about their children's safety, the Housing Authority has been flooded by thousands of phone calls.

Who is responsible for the grim situation the most recent tragedy has brought to light? SBA head Samir Youssef told the Weekly that "fate" played a part in the collapse of the wall at Al-Qawmiya. He believes the pupils are ultimately responsible. "If you are living in an apartment, and water leaks through your roof, who is going to notice but the person living there? The pupils are supposed to be the ones occupying the premises. They are supposed to complain when they see something wrong." While it would be difficult for students to detect structural flaws in school buildings, many parents also insist they have complained repeatedly to the school administration, but nothing has ever been done.

Even the SBA itself cannot really determine whether all school buildings are constructed properly, because it has no files dating back before 1992, the year the SBA was established. This means that a nationwide survey is necessary.

Since the SBA's establishment, claims Youssef, 3,000 schools have been repaired, but more could be done if the budget was doubled to LE200 million, he maintains.

According to Youssef, the main culprits are palaces and villas turned into schools after the revolution. The campaign to build new schools will solve many problems, he believes. He denied that the SBA has ignored complaints or warnings: "If schools are not safe, they are closed immediately. We closed no fewer than 200 last year alone," he insists.

Eminent educationalist Hamed Ammar attributes catastrophes like the wall's collapse to a lack of proper planning. "We are incapable of planning and taking measures to prevent catastrophes before they occur," he asserts; "but the Ministry of Education should not be singled out here." The deterioration of public facilities is a general problem: "School toilets are horrific; well, it's not just schools. The only proper toilets you will find are the ones reserved for the exclusive use of ministers."

Salama Ahmed Salama, prominent Al-Ahram columnist, is more critical of current education policies: "The discourse on education is now focused on how to combat private lessons, as if this is what education is all about. The child's welfare is no longer the centre of our attention." Since the early 1990s, Minister of Education Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin has sought to prevent private lessons in any form, Salama explains, adding that the ministry's primary concern is less to bring about real improvements in the quality of the student's education than to show off its own achievements.

"If it can say, 'statistically, we have x new schools,' this will make headlines," Salama argues, pointing out the contradiction in equipping schools with expensive computers while ignoring far more basic problems.

Many schools look as if they have not been upgraded in years: windows are broken, benches are falling apart, desks bristle with nails, and electric wiring is bare. One school in Sohag did not even have electricity; 22 classes are held simultaneously in 10 classrooms. "This is the headmistress's desk," said one teacher, pointing to a tree.

Since the collapse of the wall at Al-Qawmiya, many angered parents have been wondering: "How many catastrophes have to happen before something is done?"

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