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Packed Classrooms, Teacher Shortage: Egypt's Failed Education System

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School children at the Talaat Harb government primary school, in Cairo, in 2015.
School children at the Talaat Harb government primary school, in Cairo, in 2015. Credit: Mohamed Elraai / AP Photo

Bleak pictures posted on social media in Egypt caused an uproar that was accompanied by calls for the dismissal of Education Minister Dr. Tarek Shawky. In one image, which infuriated parents, children are seen sitting on the floor while they listen to their teacher. The classroom has no desks or chairs, and the students are balancing their notebooks on their laps.

Another picture shows six or seven children crowded around a single desk; a wider shot reveals that this classroom has somewhere between 50-70 students. Forget about any social distancing for the coronavirus, for one thing.

But a bigger problem is a severe shortage of elementary school classrooms and of teachers, too. The Egyptian Education Ministry estimates that this year the system will have a shortfall of 200,000-300,000 teachers and of more than 28,000 classrooms.

“The education minister spent 9 billion Egyptian pounds just to buy tablets for students in the first stage of high school, and only 12 billion Egyptian pounds were allocated for building new schools and classrooms, out of a total education budget of 56 billion Egyptian pounds – i.e., the tablets account for 16 percent of the total education budget,” one person posted on Twitter in reaction to one of the pictures. Another said, “The school year shows that we don’t have a government, but just a gang that busy controlling the country.”

Three years ago, the government decided to equip all 1.2 million students in the first year of high school and another 625,000 in the second year with tablets to save on the cost of printing textbooks.

Going against the advice of education experts and the education administration who warned that more than 60 percent of the country’s schools were not prepared to adapt to this technical wonder, the government purchased 1.8 million tablets at a cost of more than 3.6 billion Egyptian pounds (about $230 million).

Some of the schools, mainly the rural ones, lacked decent internet infrastructure, if they had any at all, and many students did not know how to use a tablet. The parliament asked the government to reconsider the decision and to first invest in upgrading the infrastructure before having students shift to using tablets.

People browse through books at the Cairo international book fair, in 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

But the education minister insisted, and the tablet program went ahead – with a large portion of the devices ending up stored in cabinets in schools, in part because the state required each student to pay 100 Egyptian pounds to insure the device, a cost too high for many Egyptian families, especially those with two or three kids in high school.

This year, the teacher shortage became so acute that the education minister came up with the idea of having unemployed teachers and university graduates volunteer to teach. It’s not purely volunteer work because each teacher will be paid 20 Egyptian pounds (about $1.25) per teaching hour.

This way, the government can avoid having to hire hundreds of thousands of teachers at a regular salary with conditions and benefits, and the “volunteer” teachers can be fired at any time. The education minister sought to dispel fears that these teachers are not skilled or experienced enough by offering accelerated training courses or hiring retired teachers to teach in the new program.

Many teachers said they did the training course, went through the admissions tests and interviews that were held in Cairo, and passed them all, only to find out that they would not even get one of these temporary positions.

The education minister explained in a press interview that “the failure is not his but belongs to his predecessors who did not properly develop the education system, and now he is the one harvesting the bitter fruit.”

Another familiar argument he made places the blame on “hostile foreign elements” who are out to hurt the government’s reputation. As a deterrent measure, the minister banned filming in the classrooms or schoolyards, barred parents and visitors from entering schools and warned against disseminating pictures depicting the state of the classrooms.

The minister said the government allocated 56 billion Egyptian pounds ($36 million) a year for primary education, and Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly boasted that the government invested 10 times more in education than was invested in 2013.

A primary school in Giza, in October. Credit: Mohamed Hossam/Andalou Agency

Madbouly neglected to mention, however, that in 2013, the exchange rate for the Egyptian pound was 6.7 to the dollar, while today it stands at 15.7 to the dollar. Nor did he mention the clause in the constitution that stipulates that the government must allocate 6 percent of GNP to education – 4 percent to primary and secondary education and 2 percent to higher education. But the government has only allocated 2.4 percent to the entire education system.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s Egypt is earning praise for its economic reforms, and international financial institutions predict a 2.5-4.5 percent growth this year and next year. The deficit has soared to $5.13 billion, compared to $3.83 billion last year, but the expectation is that Egypt will be able to bridge this gap once tourism resumes.

Revenue from tourism did increase in the current quarter to $1.75 billion (up from just $350 million in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic was at its height), but that is still nearly 50 percent lower than what it was for the same period two years ago.

But the encouraging figures that are seen on a monthly or quarterly basis do not relate to Egypt’s long-term ability to compete in the world market with quality Egyptian-made products. Nor do they address the vast shortage in skilled manpower needed to develop and apply innovative technologies – which all require a high-quality school system from the earliest stages.

The shortage of funding to build schools and add classrooms or to hire permanent teachers is just one component of the failed Egyptian education system. More important is the quality of the teaching, the teachers’ competence and skills, and the curricula.

Some schools have begun to make changes in the way tests are given, and are introducing more variety into the classroom material, using videos and educational games. But even in these places, the children are still required to answer questions based solely on the textbooks because “those are the only answers the teachers recognize,” as one student said in an interview on Al Jazeera.

She said that when her father suggested alternatives and encouraged her to read other literature ahead of the test, she told him there was “no point, the teacher only wants the answers that she taught us.”

Billions of Egyptian pounds change hands each year in the country’s private tutoring industry at every stage of education, with the same teachers who teach in schools in the morning supplementing their income with private lessons in the evening. “They are deliberately hard on us in class, so we’ll hire them to teach us privately,” one student from Alexandria claimed.

Two weeks ago, the Akhbar el-Yom newspaper published the story of a girl in second grade who sued the education minister because the school where she wished to enroll refused to accept her, saying that she was “too young,” even though she completed first grade with top marks.

Unwilling to back down, the girl saved up for a year until she had 100 Egyptian pounds and filed a suit against the education minister. The court accepted her claim and instructed the Education Ministry to pay her compensation in the sum of 3,000 Egyptian pounds.

The girl announced that she would transfer the entire sum to her father, aside from the 100 pounds she invested in the lawsuit. Her victory may have made headlines, but that doesn’t make the future that awaits her in the school system any brighter.

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