Rebuilding education in Egypt

Nehal Al-Ashkar , Thursday 19 Jul 2018

The new academic year will see the implementation of a new vision of the education system in Egypt

Egyptian school students
File Photo: Egyptian school students attend class at a school in a Giza neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cairo, September 28, 2010 (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt’s education system is similar to a piece of ancient architecture that requires constant change and rebuilding.

However, today that rebuilding has taken on a new sense of urgency as there are widespread worries that the education system as it stands is failing to deliver.

There are too many competing options and there is not enough emphasis on standards and skills.

In addition, there are worries that the education system, much of which is in foreign languages, may be contributing to a weakening of identity and a loss of Arabic-language skills. Pressure is building for an overhaul.

Egypt’s 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali laid the foundations of the modern education system in Egypt, introducing a Western educational philosophy to the country as a whole.

Since the end of the monarchy in 1952, emphasis has been placed on both a Western and a non-Western education, with Arabic, English and French being used in different schools and universities.

The result has been that today the education system is divided into two parts. A traditional system using Arabic and a modern one, typically using Arabic and European languages, exist together, creating an unusual dualism in Egyptian culture and education.

Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, which plays the main role in dispensing traditional educational culture in Egypt, co-exists with other universities, some public, some private, offering very different models of education.

According to a 2017-2018 report by the World Economic Forum, “Egypt ranked 129th globally in terms of the quality of education.”

An earlier 2013 USAID report similarly revealed that “one in five students in Egypt in grade three could not read a single word from a reading passage, 50 per cent of students with five years of schooling were functionally illiterate, and only 67 per cent could do basic mathematics.”

It is in the light of such reports that pressure has been building for an overhaul particularly of primary and secondary education, with the state system in particular suffering from a long list of ailments ranging from crammed classes and crumbling infrastructure to poor teaching skills and rote-learning techniques among pupils.

According to the 2014 constitution, Egypt should spend four per cent of its GDP on education, but many educationalists would agree with parliamentary Education Committee head Gamal Shiha that the current state education budget is lower than that stipulated by the constitution.

Now, however, it may be that change is really coming to the world of Egyptian education, as the government has signed a deal with the World Bank for a $500 million loan to reform the state school system over five years.

The loan is supposed to be spent on expanding quality kindergarten education for 500,000 children, creating 500,000 new teaching jobs, and making over 1.5 million digital-learning facilities available to educators and students.

The project also aims to change the current exam system, which puts pressure on students and may be unfair to their future careers, into a more flexible one.

Secondary school students will be able to sit for 12 exams throughout their years of secondary education, having four sets of exams each year.

Passing a minimum of six sets of exams will guarantee a student’s success, based on the average score of the six sets of exams out of a total of 410.

This new system should help students escape the anxieties arising from the present system of one-day exams.

The new system will also introduce students and teachers to modern educational technology, and the curricula will be developed to enhance critical thinking and general knowledge.

The loan “is part of an overall $2 billion allocation for the reform of education, with the rest coming from the national budget and taking place over 14 years,” said Education Minister Tarek Shawki in May this year.

“Investing in people is key to inclusive economic growth. We welcome the World Bank’s support for the implementation of our ambitious home-grown education-sector reform programme. It is a strategic opportunity, and the government is fully committed to developing the education system to build a productive generation that is well-equipped and ready for the competitive world,” said Sahar Nasr, minister of investment and international cooperation, who represents Egypt on the World Bank’s Board of Governors.

According to the World Bank, “the project aims to achieve its goals by: improving access to and the quality of early childhood education; developing a reliable student assessment and examination system; enhancing the capacity of teachers, education leaders and supervisors; and using modern technology for teaching and learning, assessing students, and collecting data, as well as expanding the use of digital learning resources.”

Systemic Problems

A recent UNICEF study also lamented “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 study said. 

It is this kind of traditional methodology that the reforms hope to replace in kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools (academic and technical), universities and technical schools and to support in international schools in Cairo and Alexandria serving foreign families and middle-class Egyptians.

Ahmed Yasser Gaber, a 16-year-old student in one of the reformed state secondary schools, said that “the new system has many advantages, including the idea of accumulating the results of the three years of secondary school before the exams, calculating the highest four marks, and being able to know your score before leaving.” He also liked the idea of not having to choose subjects for study so early under the new system.

“Exams on tablets have pros and cons, however. They could reduce cheating, but I don’t know how we will do algebra exams using a tablet.

There is also the attendance requirement in the new exams, as a student won’t be able to do the finals exam if his percentage of absenteeism is too high, though this depends on the teacher’s opinion,” Gaber said.

Other problems of the current system include the conditions of teachers. Teachers at all levels (including professors at universities) are not paid well in the state system, and a recent survey found that the average annual raise in the education sector was just LE40.

In Cairo, it is not uncommon to find teachers moonlighting as taxi-drivers, a fact that the driver will sometimes lament in perfect Arabic.

This low pay can translate into poor teaching in many schools and at many levels of the system.

According to the UNICEF study, “while children are required by law to complete both primary and secondary education, many do not. In some poor areas, children do not attend school at all.”

Many a street kiosk in Cairo is attended by a child of nine or 10 being groomed to take over the family business, for example, and there are children who will begin jobs in local cafés or welding shops at the age of 10 or 11.

However, the problems do not stop there, because there are also concerns about the suitability of what is taught in schools and universities for the needs of the job market.

Following university, graduates find themselves dropped into a job market that is oversaturated with qualified professionals (Cairo University boasts over 200,000 students).

This is partly the result of already high unemployment, and partly because the country’s educational culture has not accepted certain non-academic paths.

Students are encouraged to study academic subjects for which there may not be job opportunities on the labour market.

According to the World Bank, its “Supporting Egypt’s Education Reform programme will help transform the education system through bold modernisation initiatives… [aligned] with Egypt’s 2030 Vision sustainable development strategy, which puts a strong emphasis on the critical role of the education sector reform in Egypt’s social transformation.”

For Shawki, the beginning of the next academic year in “September 2018 marks the start of the journey to make our students ready for life.

We are pleased to have this partnership with the World Bank to accompany us on that journey.

Our goal is to provide our students with the competencies they need to create a society that learns, thinks and innovates,” he said.

Models Of Education

Every year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) releases its Global Competitiveness Report on the state of the world’s economies, looking at data on areas as varied as the soundness of banks to the sophistication of businesses in each country.

It then uses the data to compile a picture of the economy of almost every country on earth. 

Countries are ranked according to “12 pillars of competitiveness,” which include the macro-economic environment, infrastructure, health and primary education, and labour-market efficiency.

Finland routinely tops the ranking of the world’s education systems and is famous for having no banding systems, with all pupils, regardless of ability, being taught in the same classes.

The gap between the weakest and the strongest pupils is the smallest in the world in Finland, and Finnish schools give relatively little homework and have only one mandatory test at age 16.

According to the UK newspaper the Guardian, “Finnish education is rarely out of the news, whether it’s outstanding PISA results [a measure of educational quality], those same results slipping, the dropping of traditional subjects, not dropping subjects, or what makes Finnish teachers special. Finland’s education policies have been highly praised and the country has started to export its model around the world.”

Teachers in Finland are given a great deal of responsibility and are allowed flexibility in what and how they teach. Performance is not observed and graded.

Instead, annual development discussions with school leaders provide feedback on a teacher’s own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Detailed plans are not expected either. Each teacher marks work when it benefits them or the student, but not for anyone else’s sake. Could something similar work in Egypt?

The state education system in Egypt consists of three levels: primary school for six years, preparatory school for three years, followed by secondary school for three years.

All levels of education are free within government-run schools, though there are great differences in educational attainment between the rich and the poor as a result of the generally higher quality of private education.

Generally speaking, there are two types of state schools, Arabic schools and experimental language schools.

The national curriculum is in Arabic, and a state English-language curriculum is taught starting in the first primary year. French, German, Spanish or Italian is added as a second foreign language at the secondary level. While education is free, there can be 75 students per class.

Nahed, an art teacher and the mother of a son in the first primary level, said that “as a teacher, I’m conservative about the new system.

No one can deny that the teacher is the main factor in the educational process, and he/she must be fully responsible to prepare students for this new strategy.

However, thus far we have not received sufficient training, and there is still the problem of salaries.”

“We are paid to teach, and we feel that it is wrong that staff working in the ministry receive a bonus whereas we do not. I personally do not rely on private lessons as a source of income like many other teachers, and this make the high cost of living difficult for me,” she said.

“My daughter will go to school next year under the new system, and I cannot deny my anxiety. I can’t see any settled vision for her when she is in the secondary stage, and I do not have sufficient guarantees on the success of this system after it is applied, or whether it is being applied universally.

Theoretically, the system seems to be successful, but will it be applied properly,” she asked.

Gerges Fouad Gebrial, English-language supervisor for the secondary stage in the Assiut Education Directorate, said the new system was a good move on the part of the minister, however. “The strategy has many advantages and will add a lot to the coming generation.

It has the advantage of being fully backed by the state, so it will not change if the minister changes,” he said.

Ahmed Khairy, media spokesman for the Ministry of Education, said the minister had been working on developing the education system and particularly the secondary system of evaluation. The strategy was fully owned by the state, he said, and would be pursued regardless of any changes in personnel.

Private language schools teach most of the state curriculum in English, but they add French or German as a second foreign language. Some of them may use French or German as their main language of instruction.

Dalia, the mother of three boys attending a well-known private language school in Cairo, said two of them were at secondary stage and were preparing themselves for the new exam system.

“The new system seems close to international systems, and it should help solve some of the problems we face in Egypt, including private tutoring and the over-emphasis on one day of exams that decides a student’s fate,” she said.

“I have no problem with the idea of trial and error leading to positive change. However, the teachers should be prepared well for the new system. The school my sons go to already uses continuous assessment in the form of weekly quizzes, and fortunately we don’t have the problem of private lessons since the school deals with weaknesses through a private Internet account for each student. This means that each student can be followed up individually by the school,” she said.

Private international schools are schools that follow another curriculum, like those in British, American or French schools. They receive official certification from the Ministry of Education.

Heba, a teacher and the mother of three young children, commented that “choosing a good school for my children was not an easy task, but finally I sent them to a private international school. I am very satisfied with the education my children are receiving, and I have no problem paying for quality.”

“However, last year the ministry put the school under administrative supervision because the fees rose sharply. Of course, I was against this raise, but then I myself was hired as a member of the teaching staff, and I found that the school had had to raise the fees in order to maintain teachers’ salaries and the high standard of education.”

“The important thing is that there should be transparency, and parents should know where their fees are going,” Heba added. 


The minister’s aim is to introduce a new education system that meets international standards and includes an integrated framework for new curricula that eliminate memorisation, cheating and the over-reliance on private lessons.

News of this new system has kept parents and students busy for a while, and after the details became public some aspects incited a backlash against the minister.

This was particularly because he had announced that under the reforms the government language schools (experimental schools) would cease to exist, as reported in media outlets.

Mathematics and sciences would be taught in Arabic in the first six years of education throughout the country’s national schools, while English would be confined to being taught as a second language during the same phase.

The first preparatory year would be when the teaching language in mathematics and science would switch to English.

This emphasis on Arabisation has been greeted with concern by some. Khairy said that the word was not appropriate, since only general outlines would be taught in Arabic. “Students in the experimental schools will still study all the subjects in English,” he said.

On the other hand, the new system, while adhering to international standards, will help students develop their identity. It will mean that the state schools are of international standard, not obliging parents to turn to other kinds of education when public education does not provide the desired quality, he said.

Improvements in the education system will also be accompanied by improvements in the teaching level. According to Gebrial, at present some teachers are properly trained and others are not, and there will need to be more attention paid to teacher training.

“The teacher is the most important factor in the new strategy, and that’s why we are working on improving teachers’ skills through workshops and training, many of them offered through the official website of the ministry,” he said.

Finally, there has been much comment on the new Japanese schools to be set up in Egypt.

According to Khairy, “the idea of the Japanese schools started in February 2016. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited some Japanese schools on a visit to Japan, and he was impressed by the attitude of the students. He wanted to know how Japanese methods could be introduced to Egypt, and he found the answer in “tokkatsu”, the Japanese word for education.”

“This will be introduced in 45 Egyptian schools in different governorates this year,” Khairy concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Rebuilding education in Egypt  

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