Students of the Hussein Salem Tamaa primary school in Tebin, Helwan, will be happily returning to an upgraded and renovated school next week.
As the new academic year starts, they will be greeted with colourful classrooms, brand-new desks and rooms for activities such as music and art for which there was no space before. The school upgrade has also included increasing the number of restrooms for the children. Whereas only eight restrooms were serving over 1,500 students before, the school now has 24.
The school is also now friendlier to children with special needs, with wider doors for at least one classroom in addition to in activity rooms or labs whenever possible. There is an equipped restroom as well as ramps for children with special needs.
The Hussein Salem Tamaa school is the latest to be upgraded by the Takatof Association for Development (TAD) and was made possible due to the support by the Federation of Egyptian Banks (FEB), according to Mirelle Nessim, chief executive officer of TAD.
Over the past 10 years, Takatof has upgraded 26 schools with the support of different donor agencies and the private sector. It does not take on any school, however, explained Nessim. “It must be a school where we can make a difference,” she said, adding that the association consults with the Ministry of Education on schools that are the most in need.
“It is not just about giving the school a new coat of paint. The philosophy is to see value added in the building itself,” said Nessim, explaining that the school area must also allow for the creation of extra room for activities neglected before due to a lack of activity rooms or equipment.
“If I can rearrange and create spaces through a change of design or by building in unused spaces, then I will make that difference,” Nessim said.
Takatof does not involve itself in the curriculum, explained Nessim, adding that the association’s priority is to create an environment in which teachers can deliver their lessons better and students can learn.
“How can we ask teachers to work better in an environment that is not conducive to work at all,” she asked, pointing out that it is important to provide basic needs such as toilets, clean desks, and fans in all classrooms. During impact assessments after the renovations, the children often tell the evaluator that they are happy with the colours of the school and that the new seats do not tear their uniforms, Nessim said.
Upgrading such schools does not come cheap, however. Whereas some LE500,000 could have been enough a decade ago, the cost today could exceed ten times that because of the spiralling cost of construction materials, Nessim said. With thousands of schools across the country, the government cannot manage school upgrades alone, and civil society supported by the private sector and donor agencies must chip in, she added.
Nessim, also co-chair of the corporate impact and sustainability committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo (AmCham), stressed that in doing corporate social responsibility work companies must realise that their contributions to society do not necessarily have to be aligned with the fields they operate in.
“The private sector should cover some of the needs of the country even if these needs are not aligned with the goals of the companies concerned,” she said.
The upgrades by Takatof are not just about bricks and mortar, said Nessim, adding that it also works to change the culture of the children in the way they deal with their school facilities. Besides holding awareness sessions for children on how to maintain their schools, Takatof phases its projects across three to five years during which it monitors maintenance and checks that newly created facilities are being used.
For example, an award for the cleanest classroom is given out every month during the first year, then every quarter, then every term and then once a year, she said. This helps to create a culture of cleanliness among the children. “If after five years they are successful, then they should be able to manage on their own,” she commented.
“Things will not be perfect when we leave, but at least across five years we are creating a culture among the students as well as the teachers.”
SUSTAINABILITY AND GROWTH: Evaluators also sit with the children in focus groups during the phasing period, finding out if the children are satisfied with the upgrades, if the new activity rooms are being used, or if they are sometimes locked, for example.
Sometimes, the school lacks a music or an art teacher, so they ask the ministry to send them a teacher. If the materials for an art class are missing, Takatof also tries to help with supplies.
Such activities are crucial to student growth, Nessim stressed. She said that physical activities and arts and crafts had been important in dealing with a school in Suez, for example, which had earlier had problems with violence. The students needed the activities to vent their energies. Prior to the upgrade, they would beat each other up, throw desks around for fun, or even jump over the school fence as a pastime, with the result that the school became a wreck.
An integral part of the sustainability of the upgrades is the donor and the extent to which it is committed. This too requires a change of mindset, Nessim said, explaining that donors often want milestones and are not necessarily attracted by longer-term projects. They want to do a major project each year or to follow a trend or carry out projects that are making headlines.
“There is a lot of funding out there, but to what extent is it making an impact,” asked Nessim, pointing out that the challenge was to provide quality over quantity. “If you want to do something for the country, you have to be sustainable in what you are doing,” she said. “If donors want to continue working with us, even with smaller funds, their contributions will go a longer way,” she explained.
“The donor must be a partner, not just someone who gives out the money and leaves,” Nessim said, adding that the private sector’s role should be about probing how the money is spent.
The association also offers capacity-building for teachers as well as parents based on various needs assessments. For parents, who often say they want to learn more about how to raise their kids, Takatof organises awareness sessions and brings in specialists to talk and answer questions.
The sessions for teachers focus on behaviour and emotional intelligence. “When they [the teachers] do not differentiate enough, they deal with all the students the same way, and they may end up being very tough with children that have attention deficit syndrome or hyperactivity,” Nessim said.
The sessions with teachers have been very revealing, and the teachers often say they have made a difference for them and their children, she added. The association has also carried out training to deal with children with learning difficulties.
Takatof used to train teachers on how to deliver the curriculum in an interactive way to make it more attractive to children. But this changed, said Nessim, because the ministry began delivering that training itself within the framework of the current reform of the educational system.
Nessim is optimistic about such efforts, adding that starting with the young ones is the best way to go. That was why Takatof works with primary schools, she said, as “this is where any effort will make a difference.”
Moreover, the new curriculum is excellent, as it is interactive and does not pressure the children. However, other elements such as the teachers, the teaching supervisors, and the head teachers must be aligned for real change to happen, she said. It would take time for the teachers and teaching supervisors to get used to the new system, she added. “It is a long-term vision. Within 10 to 12 years there will be major change.”
School directors are crucial to the success of the school upgrades, according to Nessim. “When the director is interested, they will make things happen,” she said, adding that “based on our experience, the most sustainable schools were also those run by women.”
Takatof will soon be marking 20 years since its establishment. While it has been working on schools for the past 10 years, the first 10 years of its existence were given over to upgrading informal housing.
However, this became impractical after the 25 January Revolution, Nessim said, and the association decided to shift its focus, especially since it had already had experience upgrading schools.
Today, Takatof is also working on upgrading medical clinics, starting with some affiliated to the Health Insurance Authority inside the schools.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.