Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2011
Issue No. 1067
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Standing up for education

School pupils have been standing in front of the Ministry of Education in Cairo demanding improvements to the education system. Sarah Eissa listens to their demands

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Students protesting outside the Ministry of Education

"They said I am an idiot, but I am here to change education," was one of the chants of tens of students protesting in front of the Ministry of Education last week. Enthusiastic students cheered and marched around the ministry, yelling out their demands and calling on other students to join them. "Join us and our families, education is killing us," they chanted, adding "they said that education is free, but private lessons cost thousands."

The students also chanted slogans against the minister of education. As they chanted, one man asked them to leave, saying that the attacks on the minister were too personal. However, the students refused, claiming that education was one of the core services the government has a duty to provide.

Although the protest was made on behalf of school pupils, the protesters were a mix of students, graduates and parents. "We want to develop and change education for the coming generations whose parents have got comfortable with received opinions. The revolution demanded change, but it hasn't happened yet," said Samira, 18, one of the protesters.

Egypt's thanawiya amma, or secondary school leaving certificate, can still be something of a nightmare for many students and parents. Studying for two years to compete in a national race for the top universities is a daunting experience, since some students can be denied their dream of going to one of the country's top colleges by as little as 0.1 per cent on the exam.

All students who wish to join the public universities are accepted on the basis of their grades in the thanawiya amma. As a result, private lessons are often the only way that students can score highly enough to be accepted, and parents often spend hefty sums on the last two years in school.

Sami Gamal, a parent of two students in a state school, joined the protest because of private lessons. "I'm fed up. How can I find the money for books, clothes, and books for my children when I work in the public sector," he asked. Gamal makes LE330 a month, but he has to pay for private lessons for his children in addition to the LE115 school fees and LE250 for books. He complains that the state schools are often dirty and that the teachers will even ask the pupils to clean the premises rather than teach them.

Karim Ahmed, another parent, explains that if students do not attend afterschool classes or private lessons teachers make them fail the monthly exams. Gamal says something like this happened to his daughter. "I want somebody to examine my daughter independently, and then I will know whether or not she actually failed the exam," he said.

The protesting students ask how Egypt's education system can be considered to be free when parents have to pay huge amounts for private lessons. "There is no such thing as free education: either you pay for private schooling, or you go to the state schools where you learn nothing," one said.

The students agreed that schools had become places where students gathered for social reasons, since teachers did not bother to teach them. Drugs were sold at the school they attended, they claimed.

Six student movements have been protesting outside the ministry building under the name of the Coalition of School Students (CSS), presenting 17 different demands. One graduate student is Ahmed Nasr, 19, a member of the CSS, which brings together the Thanawiya Amma Students Movement, the 28 September Anger of Thanawiya Amma Students Movement, the Thanawiya Amma Students Revolution, the Socialist Students Union, the Students for Change Movement, and the 6 April Thanawiya Amma Students Movement.

During the protest, the students were not harassed by the police.

"What these students are doing is important, and they should not stop no matter what happens until everything is on the right track," one parent, Ahmed, commented. Nasr said that among the students' demands was a demand to develop the educational syllabuses in Egypt, such that they meet the standards of those in more developed countries. The current system of acceptance offers for universities should be replaced by fair skills assessment tests, he said.

According to Reda Mossad, first undersecretary at the Ministry of Education, the students' protest was a small "gathering" of well-mannered students who were calling for the development of education in a civilised way. Mossad said that the students were right to demand developments in the system of secondary education, since it had not changed for years and was in need of renovation.

The ministry had been planning changes in 2005, he said, though these were not implemented. The minister of education at the time, Ahmed Gamaleddin Moussa, was now once again working at the ministry and would be coordinating with the minister of higher education in order to try to improve the system.

The new secondary education system would ideally end with a certificate like a commercial diploma that would allow students easier access to the labour market, Mossad said. A student graduating from secondary school would also have a five-year period to join a university, he said. Mossad added that the issue of private lessons was also capable of being resolved, with a 60 per cent mark potentially allowing a student to join the faculty of medicine.

Students would take assessment tests under the new system allowing them to go to university, Mossad said, and they would take elective courses from first year in secondary school onwards. "If students want to join the faculty of medicine, they would take subjects related to it. If they want to go to the language faculty, they would probably not have to take physics and biology," he said.

Yet, such changes could not be applied now, Mossad said. The country must be politically settled before reforms are introduced, as these would require the agreement of parliament and public opinion.

Nevertheless, in the meantime a modified evaluation system for primary, preparatory, and secondary schools was in place that aimed to help students learn in a practical way, minimising memorising from books and increasing activities. Groups of students could be encouraged to begin activities like starting a newsletter or putting on a play in a foreign language, for example, and they could then be evaluated on the activity by an external expert.

Activities like music, physical education, science, or art could be designated as passing and failing subjects, and at the end of the semester students could be practically examined in them. This system seemed to be in line with one of the demands of the protesting students, who have long demanded that students should be allowed to develop their talents.

Scientific, cultural, athletic and artistic activities should be encouraged in schools, Nasr, the students' and the CSS media coordinator, said. Many schools do not take such activities seriously, with music classrooms being turned into storerooms and PE lessons cancelled. How could students be given passing grades for these activities when often they do not even take them, he asked.

Mossad said that the offer of such subjects should now improve after the 25 January Revolution. Not all students could choose from among 10 different subjects because not all schools had the facilities.

Another demand from the students was the need for more schools for students with special needs or learning disabilities. Most present schools for such students are in the private sector, and the fees are very high. Mossad said that sending such students to special schools could isolate them, adding that in his view they should be "integrated into government schools according to the ministerial decree."

Aside from the syllabus and private lessons, the student protestors also demanded improvements in student healthcare. Many schools did not have health clinics, Nasr said, and there was little provision for psychological care. Yet, there were many unemployed graduates in such fields, and they could be employed in schools to help improve provision in such areas.

In response, Mossad said that one health provider currently served several schools, but perhaps it would be better if things were managed on the local level. If schools did not have social workers or psychologists, Mossad said, it was up to the schools' management to appoint them and for the headmaster to make sure there are ones available. He added that there is daily supervision on schools and follow-up committees from the educational directorates and the governorates.

Nasr said another demand had to do with adding religious education classes to the final grades of sixth primary, third preparatory and secondary schools, because religion was an important subject. Mossad responded that this would not be possible, since some students learn religion in religious institutes.

Teachers should be punished for abusing or harassing students, Nasr said. "There must be laws to make teachers treat students with respect, because some teachers insult or hit students in schools." Mossad explained that there were already rules designed to ensure that students respect teachers and teachers respect students, though some students and teachers unfortunately do not respect them.

Mossad added that in his view class sizes should be reduced, and there should be more laboratories and sports facilities. Teachers should also receive better salaries, he said. The reason why these things had not been possible in the past had been for financial reasons. If the budget were raised in some areas, it would have to be decreased in others.

"At the moment, in order to fix one thing we have to damage something else," Mossad said, adding that the only solution was to be patient.

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