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Monday, 22 July 2019

Reform and resistance in education

Why has knowledge ceased to be a factor in Egypt’s educational system?

Amina Khairy , Friday 31 May 2019
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Views: 3234

Throughout the past five or even six decades, Egyptian youth have suffered from severe negligence and underestimation. They have been regarded as a headache that can be cured by painkillers every now and then. But their wellbeing was not a priority, and their education and thus future prospects were never at the top of the list. Their social and even mental wellbeing were never taken seriously.

For decades, they have been seen as often empty-headed creatures with no aims, aspirations or targets to fulfil. Egypt’s youth also suffered a lot under former president Hosni Mubarak. According to a 2009 survey carried out by the Population Council, 30 per cent of young men aged between 15 and 29 years old said they were looking to emigrate, mostly to an oil-rich Gulf state and largely because they did not expect to find work at home.

Seventy per cent of unemployed youth said they were jobless because there was no work available. More than 40 per cent of young people thought personal connections were more important than personal skills in securing a job.

With an educational system that has kept deteriorating due to different reasons, ranging from a lack of interest on the part of the state to the mixture of religion and education and the uncontrolled storm of Islamist education that did not offer education as much as strife to a population bomb that has kept exploding at a rate of a million newborn babies every year, Egypt’s youth have been left on their own for too long.

Having been one of the staunchest believers in youth empowerment as the only way out of decades of corruption and stagnation, I find myself today in need of reforming my definition of “empowerment”. This is the process by which young people are encouraged and supported to take charge of their lives. This is done by enabling and constantly improving their access to decent living conditions, physical and mental health services, and last but not least, proper education. It is education that shapes, transforms and maintains their consciousness through beliefs, values and attitudes.

However, the beliefs, values and attitudes maintained by many Egyptians of varying age groups makes one think when it comes to policies to rebuild our deteriorating educational system. Having had the chance to deal directly with the major partners and stakeholders in the system, I have had a lot of rethinking and re-evaluating to do.

Making a real difference to Egypt’s stagnant educational system will not happen through repainting a school, redesigning the covers of textbooks or changing the school uniform (if the notion of a uniform is still there). Making a real difference needs a different attitude. We have gone past the stage of sending out teachers to be trained for a few days in the UK or the US. We are also far beyond the policing approach of closing the private tutoring centres that have outgrown the role of schools and overshadowed them.

The vision presented by minister of education and technical education Tarek Shawki to reform education based on the notion of presenting real education to students rather than simply “model answers” to be studied by heart is based on changing the educational culture, which is the toughest task to be taken on by any individual, institution or government. As far as I know, changing the obsolete culture of education in Egypt, as well as offering the country’s youngsters a real education, though it has been adopted by the government, it has not been adopted by the people.

People in Egypt have been moaning over the past five decades that their children are not getting a proper education and sometimes are not getting an education at all. The public schools have been turned into buildings that offer students the right to take the final exams, but not the education that will enable them to pass those exams and move on to the following year and the years to come with an accumulation of knowledge.

In fact, knowledge has long ceased to be a factor in Egypt’s educational system.

DISFIGURED: Judging by my own experience, I can honestly say that Egypt’s educational system has been disfigured.

We have been pretending that we have an educational system, when we actually do not. Those with the financial ability to enrol their children in private schools will get their children a certificate, probably with varying degrees of information, not knowledge, in accordance with how much they pay.

As for the public schools, speaking of knowledge is unthought of and contemplating education is improbable, but traces of information can be found in extreme cases. Yet, we still insist that our only hope for the future is education and healthcare, meaning that Egypt’s only hope of making a comeback lies in reforming these things.

But when a minister comes along with a vision to change, reform and rebuild education, while having the total support of the president, guess what he finds? An aggressive and sometimes bullying environment that refuses to cooperate, let alone accept to go through the reform experience, despite the fact that everybody who is or was involved in Egypt’s educational system knows that we have already touched rock bottom and nothing could be worse than what already is.

The past few months, with all the uproar that has been going on with tablets, electronic exams, and exam questions, have been extremely enlightening. Leaving aside connection problems, the allocated time for the exams, and the heat waves, and also the few points here and there needed to review and adjust the system, it is no exaggeration to say that this past academic year has been worth a lot of reflection in the hope of finding conclusions and insights.

First of all, there is huge resistance to any sort of reform from the teachers. I don’t have percentages, but I would argue that the majority is not ready to listen to what reform means and what to expect out of it as long as it does not revolve around raises in salaries. This is not to say that teachers do not deserve better living conditions, but educational reform is not on the list of many of them. The other point has to do with private tutoring, a “sacred” arena that sometimes entails indecent rules of engagement.

Asking a teacher to switch from private tutoring to the normal school education which they have long ignored means asking them to give up the thousands of pounds (with no taxes) that they secure away from their salaries. It means asking them to update and improve their teaching skills, which are very far from being perfect.

As for parents, some of them have dedicated their time and energy to Whatsapp mothers’ groups that have turned from discussing their children’s performance at school, problems with teachers, the prices of private lessons, and so on, to forums for experts in education and e-learning among other fields of expertise.

Parents and students who have fallen victims to their parents’ “expertise” care only for high grades, which mean to them good academic achievement, and as far as our obsolete educational culture goes also means enrolling at a top university. However, they rarely look beyond that stage to employment and job demands that are obviously not compatible with the educational culture.

The notion of capacity building is simply not there. The attempts made to modernise and update the system have been strongly and intentionally blurred due to such noise. This noise has been made by private tutors, formerly teachers, Whatsapp experts, formerly mothers, and some public figures who have ambitions of holding public posts in roaring, growling and grumbling.

A friend recently noted that parents, some of whom are teachers, always speak with pride about their children using tablets, computers and mobile phones. But when the state makes tablets available, yesterday’s boasting becomes an attempt by the Ministry of Education to destroy our children and spoil their future.

Our unique ability for self-destruction, the refusal to listen, and to judge every single detail without having basic knowledge deserves some rethinking. Why are parents staunch supporters of private lessons? Why have teachers managed to ignore their original roles? Why are some of us encouraging a few students heading to the Ministry of Education calling for the minister’s resignation because the exams were too difficult, the connection was interrupted or the open book style was not their piece of cake?

The delusional conviction of unquestionable power that took control of some of us after the hype of the January Revolution has led to a social mess. Everybody thinks they know everything. Everybody has become an expert in fields they have never even touched upon. Everybody thinks that the only way out of problems is by throwing stones at others and calling for their resignation. The truth is that everybody is afraid of change, even though they have nothing to lose.

The new educational system needs revision? Definitely. The 2018-19 academic year for first secondary requires evaluation? For sure. The future of education requires more planning and keeping parents and students well informed and teachers well trained. Moving from rock bottom upwards will not happen via mothers’ groups on Whatsapp alone, or through students calling for the minister’s resignation, or teachers resisting change and protecting their private lessons.

Change, reform and development happen in societies that lend an ear to wisdom and reason, rather than the lack of them.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reform and resistance in education

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