Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Reforming education

Egypt’s education system has been ranked as one of the worst in the world. But all is not lost, experts tell Gihan Shahine and Walaa Gebba

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is the beginning of the new academic year and students around the world are celebrating with new books, well-furnished classes and innovative teaching techniques. But for students in Egypt’s public schools, there is little to celebrate.

 It is 6:30am and students of expensive international schools are happily waving to their parents from luxurious buses on their way to start their classes. It’s a different story for the students of Al-Shaheed Al-Maghawri School, a primary school in Daqahliya.

Their new school shoes have been ruined on the first day of school. To the shock of students and parents alike, the Al-Maghawri School premises are awash with sewage water.

And they are not alone in having a disappointing first day of school. The new academic year has been heralded by a series of incidents that further underline the plight of public education in Egypt.

Over the past two weeks, local media have been having a field day reporting on damaged school buildings, teacher absences, book delays and, above all, violence. There have been cases of parents and students jumping over school gates and fighting for front-row seats in overcrowded classrooms.

Some parents, unhappy with the poor conditions in state schools, have blocked roads to protest government “apathy”. In the Upper Egyptian town of Kom Ombo, some have even threatened to go on hunger strike. They have been complaining particularly about teacher absences and the need to rely on private lessons to make up for poor teaching.

 But the parents of government school students are not the only ones who are unhappy in Egypt. Send your children to a state school and you’ll be neck deep in private lessons. Enroll them in a private school and pay through the nose. All educational options end up being expensive, and none of them is satisfactory, according to many Egyptian parents.

Moushira, who enrolled her son in a private school, says that the education her seventh-grader receives is below standard. “I have had to move my son from one private school to another looking for better education and better treatment. But the new school is far from perfect. It is only the best of a set of bad options,” she complains.

“I can’t enroll my son in a state school because the classrooms are too crowded, sometimes up to 100 students in one classroom. The teachers pay scant attention to the children, and so the only option left is private schooling,” Moshira added.

Manal, who sends her three sons to state schools, has had to set aside a substantial sum for private lessons. “The school is not doing its job, and the classrooms are too crowded, so we have to rely on private tuition,” she said. She also bemoans the lack of activities, including sport and the arts, in such schools.

AT THE EXPENSE OF QUALITY: The fight against illiteracy started in the 1950s when then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser expanded free public schooling and gradually increased spending on public education.

In the decades since the 1952 Revolution, unofficial figures indicate that Egypt has doubled the number of primary schools and dramatically increased public spending on education. A recent UNICEF report found that almost nine out of every ten Egyptian boys and girls are currently enrolled in school. University enrolment has also reportedly increased by more than ten times.

Studies, however, show that such expansion has negatively affected the quality of education. As early as 1999, experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that the rapid expansion of access to education was being accomplished at the expense of educational quality. According to its study, “Demographic pressures and increasingly strained resources resulted in the physical disrepair of many primary schools, overcrowded classrooms, and poor teacher morale and motivation in the face of low salaries.”

The study concluded that substantial investment in education has not helped the economy improve as employers complain of an increasingly low-skilled labour force. Nor has more public spending on education necessarily helped fight poverty, because “learning outcomes have been disappointing.”

The constitutional entitlement to free education may not have helped less well-off people to attain better employment chances and, because of this, may not have attained its prime target of greater social justice. Instead, low-quality public education in Egypt has become, in the words of the experts at Carnegie, “a real disaster for the poor, whose main option for acquiring an asset that generates future income is public education.”

 It could even be viewed in the context of boosting social inequality since it has created a society where only those who can afford quality education can get higher-paid jobs while the poorer and middle strata of society lag behind.

“The emergence of private tutoring as a supplement necessary for the completion of public education, compounded by rising user charges and the cost of basic school supplies, also means that education is not, for all practical purposes, free in Egypt,” according to the Carnegie study.

Studies suggest that private lessons devour more than 20 per cent of household spending in families with school-age children in Egypt. This has led to a general state of discouragement among the poor, high rates of grade repetition and high dropout rates.

 The problem does not seem to have changed since the 1990s. In 2010, the UK-based magazine The Economist reported that illiteracy in Egypt was close to 71 per cent, the same level seen in South Korea 50 years ago. It was not confined to reading and writing skills either, the magazine noted, but was also affecting general knowledge.

“It is not merely a question of literacy,” the magazine said. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that Egypt’s high rate of traffic accidents, for instance, may be largely due to ignorance of basic rules. High fatality rates in hospitals reflect poor standards of training, accountability and hygiene.”

The Economist also noted that one out of 50 women in Egypt, and one in every seven men, lacks basic knowledge about HIV. Even among well-off men, who constitute the most educated section of society, only one in three have accurate knowledge about the virus.

A recent government study suggested that 88 per cent of Egyptian families do not read books, 75 per cent do not read newspapers or magazines, and nearly 80 per cent of those who do read focus mainly on religious topics.

This situation may change in the future, as 75 per cent of young people between the ages of 15 and 29 now surf the Internet regularly, and half of them read books online. But so far, their top interests have been religion and sport. Only a small percentage reported an interest in scientific matters.

A recent public opinion poll conducted jointly by the government and the anti-poverty group CARE found that the rate of functional illiteracy in Egyptian schools is as high as 80 per cent, as reported in the US magazine Foreign Policy. The World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit organisation, ranked Egypt as one of the worst countries in the world for the quality of education in 2014.

The problem is not just due to poor funding, although that is a large part of it. Last year, Egypt spent about LE45 billion ($6 billion), or nearly four per cent of its GDP, on education. Divided by the country’s 14 million students, this comes to about $300 per student annually.

Critics insist that this budget could have made more headway had it been properly allocated without corruption. In the 2013-2014 education budget, for instance, whereas 83 per cent of this was allocated to salaries and payments for Education Ministry workers and teachers, teachers’ salaries remained low.

There is often a huge gap between the salaries of senior management and those of lower-ranking employees, teachers say, insisting that a large part of the budget is actually spent on bonuses for high-ranking officials or development work and research that remains in closed drawers.

Meanwhile, only LE5.4 billion (6.7 per cent of the same year’s budget) was allocated to purchasing educational requirements and services, and around LE7.7 billion (9.4 per cent) was allocated for educational investments.

Egypt has a total of 330,000 classrooms, each accommodating on average about 40 students. But in some cases, the number of students is said to exceed 70 per class, or sometimes even 100. At this level of overcrowdedness, experts say, education ceases to be effective.

THE MUBARAK ERA: Kamal Moghith, a researcher on education, said that education in Egypt deteriorated considerably during the 30 years of former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule, to the point where it now turns out students “with no skills or abilities.”

According to Moghith, “the Mubarak regime didn’t seem bothered by illiteracy in schools, nor was it worried about the deterioration in Egypt’s educational performance.”

Under the Mubarak regime, the affluent classes sent their children to expensive private schools, leaving the poor to fend for themselves in over-crowded and incompetent government-run schools.

“The Mubarak regime offered good education to the affluent through expensive private and international schools, leaving nearly 96 per cent of low-income and middle-income families” prey to substandard education, he commented. Those who couldn’t afford private schools or at least private tuition fell into near illiteracy.

Mona Sadek, who runs the Working Child Centre (Markaz Al-Tifl Al-Amel), an NGO, is convinced that overcrowded classes produce illiterate students. Children who receive a poor education in school are at a clear disadvantage, she said, adding that the school day in Egypt is also much shorter in Egypt than in some other countries.

According to Sadek, a child needs at least four hours a day to learn basic mathematics plus reading and writing skills. The rest of school time should be spent on activities, interaction with teachers, and revision of lessons, she remarked. In France, a child often goes to school at 8 am and leaves at 5 pm.

This is enough time to learn, to do homework, and to interact with staff and students. Egypt too could have such a system, she said, but it would have to spend much more on basic education.

In fact, the entire system of education needs to be overhauled. “Working hours, the number of students per classroom, the ratio of teachers to students, and the workload for teachers, all this needs to be changed,” Sadek said. More oversight and supervision is needed as well. “When supervision is missing, everyone does what he or she feels like,” she added.

Hosni Al-Sayed is a professor of education at the National Research Centre in Cairo, and in his view educational reform is not a job that one ministry can handle alone. “Educational reform calls for a clear vision, whether it is that of a minister or the president,” he said.

According to Al-Sayed, education cannot be the responsibility of the Ministry of Education alone. “The entire government must focus on education and ways to improve it,” he said, adding that he wants to see Egypt establish proper criteria for education, whether internationally inspired or homegrown.

“We must have a set of criteria and then set in motion programmes to carry out a proper plan and assess the results,” he said. According to Al-Sayed, the quality of the education given depends on the school buildings, the curriculum, the teachers, the labs and the budget.

But, in his view, nearly 80 per cent of Egypt’s school buildings are unfit for education, teachers receive inadequate training, and the curriculum needs to be altered.

Hisham Al-Sherif, an IT guru who helped found the Cabinet Information Centre 20 years ago, believes that Egypt can reform its education system within ten to 15 years. One way to do so is to copy best international practice. Speaking to Al-Mehwar TV in March 2015, Al-Sherif called on the government to hold a national conference on knowledge and education as a prelude to root-and-branch reform.

TRAINING AND CURRICULUM: In order to improve education, it is necessary to improve the skills of teachers through ongoing training. This task would be easier, Sadek said, if teachers had a powerful syndicate that could defend their interests.

The current syndicate is of a considerable size, having 13 million members, but it has been held back by corruption and even embezzlement, according to Sadek. If education in Egypt is to improve, the syndicate needs to play a proactive role in providing teachers with relevant training and ensuring that they receive satisfactory salaries, she added.

Other agencies acting independently from the syndicate are in charge of teacher training at the moment, including the Teachers Academy and the Educational Guidance Department. However, these have not achieved satisfactory results thus far.

Gamal Ali, a retired Arabic-language teacher, is dissatisfied with the current standards of teacher training. When he was still working, he received outdated training, he said.

In order to improve education in Egypt it is necessary to ditch the classroom system and introduce a lecture-based system in high schools instead, he argues.

In a system of this sort, students would attend lectures and then go home, making the learning process less cluttered and discouraging truancy. The current curricula are also too ambitious, and they lack immediacy and relevance, according to experts. Many students find them irrelevant to their futures. Therefore, it would be better to focus on practical rather than theoretical knowledge, Ali said.

Shaima Abdel-Fattah, who teaches at Al-Khankah School in Cairo, liked the recent training programme she received, which covered educational strategies, presentation skills, and application of technology to education. But training is one thing and using it in school is another, she said. Unless a school believes in changing its methods, the teachers cannot do it alone.

According to Al-Sayed, teachers must be trained in the best teaching methods. But unless they receive good salaries and moral support, they cannot be expected to give the job their all, she added.

The Egyptian curriculum is not particularly bad, Sadek said, but it is cluttered with information that tends to confuse rather than help the students. “The first three years of education should focus on reading, arithmetic, presentation skills and establishing habits of study,” she said.

“The problem with the current curriculum is that it doesn’t focus enough on the basics. It doesn’t simplify things or try to reduce the load on the student,” she added.

Often, rote learning is given precedence over understanding. Thus, students may score 99 per cent in exams but lack critical thinking, Sadek said. “We are so accustomed to having students score 99 per cent on their exams that we cannot think about the alternatives,” she pointed out.

There is almost a consensus among critics that one of the main woes of education in Egypt is its increasing reliance on rote learning, which fails to instill the ability to think critically — a prerequisite for progress and innovation. This increased reliance on memorisation has resulted in a generation that is sometimes largely incapable of proper research and problem-solving.

 A recent UNICEF study laments that “one major problem is the persistence of traditional teaching methods” in Egypt. “An Egyptian child is far more likely to be taught using traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods, where the teacher writes on a blackboard and students are expected to repeat or copy by rote, than any more interactive method,” the UNICEF study says. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that boys and girls alike are subjected to physical punishment and verbal abuse.”

Sadek also finds the overlapping of educational authorities counterproductive. “Too many agencies are in charge of developing the curriculum, including the ministry of education, the Educational Research Centre, and the Curricula Development Centre,” she adds, arguing that these authorities could be merged into one.

She also wants foreign experts to stop meddling in educational reform in Egypt. “When foreigners interfere in the curriculum, like the US experts who have been offering their views as a result of the assistance we get from the US and other foreign countries, this can actually undermine education in language, history and the social sciences,” she said.

Egyptians must have full control of language education and the final say on how to approach the Palestinian issue, the Israeli occupation, and other topics that have a patriotic angle, Sadek said.

In addition, Sadek is convinced that Egypt must introduce “action research,” a practice in which teachers assess their work and suggest improvements. In France, teachers try to turn difficult research into formulas that are simple enough for students to try in the classroom, for example, she said. Egypt must also veer away from its overly intellectual curriculum and take more interest in forms of education that are more relevant to daily life.

Moreover, over the past few years, more and more international schools have been set up in Egypt, most of which follow the UK and US academic traditions. This is a cause of concern for Moghith, who believes that at heart education is training in citizenship. He faults the Mubarak regime for having allowed foreign-based education to expand on such an unprecedented scale in Egypt.

According to Moghith, foreign schools may produce students who lack national identity and a sense of belonging to their own country. The government should therefore force foreign schools to have a strong national component in their curricula, he said.

READING AND TUITION: As part of efforts to reduce illiteracy in schools, the Education Ministry in 2011 launched its Readership Programme (RP, or Mashu’ Al-Qira’iya). The programme started with a selected number of second and fourth graders in four governorates, according to its director, Hanaa Al-Qassem.

Speaking to the website, Al-Qassem said that the reading and writing skills of 85 per cent of fourth to sixth graders, as well as those of 35 per cent of high school students, was currently so substandard as to border on illiteracy. It was this that the programme intended to remedy, she said.

The RP is not unique to Egypt, and similar schemes have been implemented in other countries including Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, Kuwait and the Netherlands. Training in the Readership Programme focuses on the names and sounds of alphabetical letters, familiar and unfamiliar words, and the comprehension of spoken and written words.

According to an official report by the Ministry of Education, Egypt has now set up 27 RP units in 27 governorates, all focusing on improving Arabic language skills, listening and presentation abilities, and vocabulary training. But such initiatives cannot do much to help with tuition costs, with parents saying that private schools keep hiking up their fees for no apparent reason.

Moshira finds this trend particularly upsetting. “Are these increases approved by the Ministry of Education?” she wondered. The school her son goes to asks parents to pay tuition in two installments, one in June before the beginning of the school year, and the other in December before the mid-year exams. “If you don’t pay, your child is not allowed to sit the exams,” she said.

Last year, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) reported a 27 per cent increase in tuition fees in pre-school and elementary education. According to the regulations, however, the Ministry of Education is the agency in charge of determining maximum increases in tuition fees.

Ministerial Decree 290 for 2014 sets the maximum increase in tuition at 17 per cent for schools charging less than LE600 per student in tuition, 13 per cent for schools charging LE600-900, 10 per cent for schools charging LE900-2,000, and seven per cent for schools charging LE2,000-3,000.

Schools charging LE3,000-4,000 in tuition per student are allowed a five per cent increase, according to the decree, and those charging more than LE4,000 are allowed a three per cent increase.

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