A week into the new school year, and tens of videos showing packed classrooms without desks, chairs and sometimes even teachers, have been posted on social media.
In the wake of the images, which have left parents angry, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki issued a ban on filming on school premises.
“I am sure that those who shot these videos are hostile elements using social media to damage the ministry’s reputation,” Shawki said in a TV interview.
The videos prompted MPs to question Shawki over what many say is a disastrous beginning to the new academic year.
MP Sahar Attiya, a member of the House of Representatives’ Education Committee, said the majority of government in Egypt suffer from overcrowded classes and a shortage of teachers.
“It is incredibly sad that the Ministry of Education was so ill-prepared for the new school year. Government schools are in a state of chaos and confusion,” said Attiya, who openly wondered whether Shawki has any policies to rectify the situation.
Ihab Mansour, deputy chairman of the Labour Force Committee, said recent social media posts had shown classes containing more than 110 students and all the Ministry of Education has said is that it will seek to recruit 36,000 teachers but has taken no action to this end.
Mohamed Tayseer Mattar, secretary-general of the Human Rights Committee, criticised Shawki for saying he was considering the possibility of dividing the school day into three shifts to reduce overcrowding, pointing out that such a division will seriously disrupt the education process and inevitably impact on the quality of teaching.
MPs Sayed Shams, Sahar Eid, and Magdi Ashour said the three-shift solution would be disastrous for the school year, and that the most that can be hoped for is two shifts, perhaps with pupils attending school on alternate days.
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, deputy chairman of the Human Rights Committee, criticised Shawki for instructing government schools not to distribute books to students unless they first pay the mandatory fees first. Shawki’s orders violate Article 19 of the constitution which stipulates that the state shall provide free education for all students in government schools, said Abdel-Aziz.
MP Hanaa Farouk, a member of the parliamentary majority Mostaqbal Watan Party, argued that the fees as currently set by the Ministry of Education were beyond the financial capacity of low-income families.
Education Committee member Attiya also pointed out that for the second year running Shawki has refused to intervene to address the problem of exorbitant fees being charged by private schools.
“Minister Shawki’s policy in this respect shows that he accepts that these schools act like a state within a state and can do whatever they like without government supervision,” she said.
Faced with such concerted criticism, Shawki conceded in an interview with Sada Al-Balad TV that “there is a shortage of school teachers in government schools.
“We have a shortfall of between 260,000 and 300,000 teachers across subjects,” he said. Recruiting the necessary staff, he added would cost LE9 billion,
“Right now we are considering alternatives, including employing university graduates to work as volunteers, or for a nominal fee. Unfortunately the Ministry of Education suffers from a severe shortage of funding.”
Shawki said the budget of the Ministry of Education was LE99 billion for 2020-21, 84 per cent of which goes on salaries.
“I want to employ more teachers and build more schools, but this ultimately depends on the Ministry of Finance which has the final say on how much money goes to the Ministry of Education,” said Shawki.
In an interview with Al-Mehwar channel on 21 October, Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait said he is reviewing the financial needs of the education sector. “Minister Shawki will present a report itemising the needs of teachers and classrooms. Once this is complete, and has been approved by cabinet, the Ministry of Finance will be ready to allocate the necessary funding,” said Maait.
Many online posts blamed Shawki for squandering money on buying tablets for students.
“The ministry spent LE9 billion buying tablets for high school students, equivalent to 16 per cent of the total education budget,” read one Twitter post.
MPs also point out that the Ministry of Education bought tablets against the advice of education experts who warned that students on rural areas often lacked the necessary Internet coverage to use them.
MP Ihab Mansour said MPs had asked Shawki in January to invest in upgrading the school infrastructure and employing teachers rather than buying tablets.
Shawki said the decision to buy tablets helped save on the cost of printing textbooks.
In an official statement on 18 October, the Ministry of Education also said it will put in place means tested measures to reduce school fees for families who cannot afford them.
“The fees are necessary to buy books and cover other costs, and we are considering options to make payment easier,” said the statement.
“Parents can pay the fees in installments, or if they are unable can submit a request to the Ministry of Social Solidarity which will assess their incomes and when appropriate waiver the fees.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly