Critics say Egypt’s sub-par education system serves to entrench social inequalities

Those who can attend private schools are more qualified and are in an advantageous position to meet the demands of the job market.
Saturday 19/10/2019
The courtyard of the Mahaba school in Ezbet al-Nakhl with a wall separating it from the shanty town in which it was built in Cairo. (AFP)
Up against the wall. The courtyard of the Mahaba school in Ezbet al-Nakhl with a wall separating it from the shanty town in which it was built in Cairo.(AFP)

CAIRO - About 23 million students started attending classes at the beginning of a new academic year at the 55,000 schools across Egypt. An annual opening ceremony brought promises of education system reform.

State-provided schooling in Egypt faces entrenched structural problems as reflected by it being ranked 130th out of 137 countries by the World Bank in 2017, though with a rising trend since 2013.

UNESCO said more than half of the Egyptian students don’t meet the benchmark in international learning assessments, a gap that carries great socio-economic consequences for the country.

“Education is a long-term investment when it comes to social-cultural and economic development,” said Hana Yoshimoto, chief of education at UNICEF Egypt.

“There is sufficient evidence that poor quality of education reduces lifetime incomes,” she added, and “there is mounting evidence that the quality of human resources, as measured by test scores, is directly related to individual earnings, productivity and economic growth.”

One of the main deficiencies of Egypt’s education system are strains on the schools’ infrastructure because of the rapid increase in the number of students and the shortfall of investment required to cope with it. This leads to overcrowding and lack of adequate facilities. About 20% of school buildings are unfit for use, UNESCO said.

The first day of classes this term, the ceiling of a school in the northern governorate of Monufia collapsed. At the end of September, educational supervisors were called to teach to cope with the shortage of public school teachers.

Some of the problems derive from outdated curricula and a highly centralised system in the hands of the Ministry of Education, which leaves little autonomy to teachers, and poor teaching quality, caused by a lack of adequate training at the teachers’ disposal and their low — and falling — salaries, as well as a method of teaching.

A factor limiting the public education system in Egypt is the education budget, which has been falling as a percentage of the GDP. Allocations assigned in the previous fiscal year amounted to some $260 per student, a reduction from the $300 per student allowed in 2011, data from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy indicated.

A main consequence of the poor quality of the state education system is the reinforcement of economic and social inequalities, given that alternatives in the private sector are only available to those who can afford them. In 2014, a report by the official statistical agency of Egypt stated that 42% of the average expenditure on education of an Egyptian family was allocated to private tutoring to compensate for the deficits of the public system.

This means that what is conceived as free education, with fee not exceeding 190 Egyptian pounds ($11.65) at any stage of education in the current school year, leaves children from poorer background at a disadvantage.

“Low-quality education disproportionately impacts those with fewer economic resources,” said Stefan Trines, research editor at the World Education Services. “Children from more affluent households may be able to circumvent problems in the public-school system by enrolling in private schools or compensating with private tutoring.”

Those who can attend private schools, which have more autonomy and better facilities, are more qualified and are in an advantageous position to meet the demands of the job market compared to the students from the lower classes.

“Research has shown that youths from the highest wealth quintile in urban areas are more than nine times more likely to gain access to higher education than youths from the lowest wealth quintile in rural Egypt,” Trines said.

Yoshimoto pointed out that children from rich families are also affected by the quality of education and said the list of the grievances faced by those coming from poor backgrounds were long.

“Children from poor families often cannot afford the textbooks and learning materials necessary for them to study and learn, don’t get enough influence on cognitive development from their parents, need to work or help with the household chores, tend to go to schools with low performing teachers, cannot afford going to good quality schools that cater the learning based on individual children’s needs, need to drop out of schools [or] need to work instead of pursuing higher education,” she said.

Considering the low quality of the state-provided education and its effect on children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, alternatives have emerged in Egypt that propose new methods to achieve different results.

“In the conventional [education] system, you bring together a group of children and try to teach them something, whether it is interesting for them or not and whether it matches their development or not,” noted Safia Trabelsi, the founder and head of the Nile River Montessori school, the first of its kind in Egypt.

Montessori schools use a child-centred method of education that adapts to the level of growth and development of the child, she said.

“Education reforms in Egypt, as well as in other countries, should absolutely pay special attention to the socio-economic dimension of the challenge, looking in particular at participation and attainment rates of impoverished children in rural regions, where educational quality often lags,” Trines said.