The decision by Egypt's interim-authorities to exempt public school elementary students from annual symbolic fees this year will do too little to improve the education system, whose decades-old problems are set to keep lingering into the new school year and beyond.
When asked if the decision would ease his financial pressures, Mohamed Farahat, a self-employed father of six with an elementary student, stressed that "60 EGP a year is nothing in comparison to hundreds of pounds paid every month for private tuition."
His son Mahmoud, a senior student at the Elementary Mixed-gender Tahrir School in Cairo's impoverished neighbourhood of Beau Lac Du Caire, explains that private tuition is a must, because "teachers do not tend to explain everything in classrooms, unlike during private lessons where they are able to word by word."
He added: "It is much easier to understand the topic in private lessons where there are only several students, while classrooms are usually packed with up to 60 students."
Some classrooms in public schools are overcrowded to the extent that students cannot find desks, with no strict restrictions on the number of pupils per class. However, this was never the sole reason behind private tuition, with teachers pushing for it to supplement their salaries.
"I pay around 300 pounds for Mahmoud's private lessons per month. Teachers often impose psychological pressure on students if they do not opt for private lessons, stigmatising them," Farahat added.
Essam El-Shenawy, a primary teacher at the public Ibn Khaldoun School in Cairo's working-class Agouza district, believes it is normal for Egyptian teachers working in public schools to seek private tuition, considering their low wages.
"My salary is 470 EGP; how am I supposed to live when my rent is 600 EGP?" he told Ahram Online. "How is a teacher supposed to live and work normally when he has to count how much money he is spending on breakfast?"
El-Shenawy added, "most of the money allocated to education is spent on government officials' wages and high earners, whose salaries can be up to 40,000 EGP a month, while teachers' pay remains extremely low, even though we are essential to education."
Omar Morsi, a teacher at the Electronic School for Girls (situated in the rundown district of Sayeda Zeinab) and leading member of the independent Union of Egyptian Teachers, voiced similar sentiments.
"Some teachers have become greedy and started neglecting their teaching in schools because of the benefit of private tuition." He added, "The problem is widespread and systemic."
"Teachers often write their own learner guides, which are not always better than state allocated books, but help students prepare for exams. They sell the books to students to make extra money."
"However, this doesn't mean teachers are happy with the situation," Morsi elaborated. "In mass demonstrations to demand higher salaries over the past few years, teachers have chanted, 'wages must be just and humane, we don't want to give private lessons.'"
Egyptian teachers' wages are among the lowest in comparison to other public sector workers. Former local development minister Ahmed Darwish said in May that an average of 16 billion Egyptian pounds is spent on private tuition per year (equivalent to 25 percent of the 2012-2013 budget for education).
Some 67.5 billion EGP (83 percent of the 2013-2014 education budget) is allocated to salaries and payments for education ministry workers and teachers, with a huge gap between the salaries of senior management and those of lower-ranking employees.
Poor, insufficient facilities
Complaints are not limited to underpaid teachers and private tuition, but are also rife regarding poor facilities and the lack of investment in developing and refurbishing public schools.
Ibn Khaldoun, considered to be an average public school, is testament to this state of affairs.
Paint flakes off the walls and there is a broken window. Around 20 desks are placed in rows, each shared by up to four pupils in overcrowded classrooms. Some of the benches are broken, and there is barely enough room to pass between the desks.
The school has 30 classrooms, all of which are in the same condition. There are up to 2000 students, with some classes crammed with 90 pupils.
Omnia Abdel Ghani, a teacher in charge of the school library, laments the lack of technological resources for teaching, such as projectors and computers, as well as restrictions on the number and diversity of books the school can purchase.
Almost all public schools are in such wretched conditions, Morsi explains. "The labs are always in a very bad state. Classrooms sometimes do not have enough desks and some schools are so overcrowded that students sit on the floor."
"When things break they are not fixed. In my school [Electronic School for Girls] doors are broken, windows don't open, and the water system needs repairing."
Aisha El-Fishawy, a Ministry of Education manager, explained that public schools were once entitled to student fees to develop and maintain facilities. The money was never enough, she says, but now schools have no access to it, and a new method of funding is in effect that is yet to prove its worth.
"Since last year, public schools have to apply for funds to develop and refurbish their facilities, as a percentage of the fees has been allotted to the education ministry to distribute," she explains.
"This system was instigated during [deposed president Mohamed] Morsi's reign. However, now that the fees for primary education have been cancelled, the government has decided to allocate part of the education budget to schools directly. This money should be sent to elementary schools soon."
Egypt is ranked last out of 148 countries surveyed in the 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report, published by the World Economic Forum, for the quality of its primary education, falling behind many Arab, African, Asian and Western nations, including Algeria (ranked 131), Uganda (120), Chad (145), Bangladesh (115), and the United States (41).
Morsi further explained: "There are not enough schools in Cairo and other areas. In certain villages the lack of schools means children sometimes have to take two means of transport or walk miles to get to school. It is one of the main reasons illiteracy rates are so high."
According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Education, there are 15,587 elementary public schools across the nation, and the number of primary students is estimated at 8.9 million.
Effective spending demanded
Morsi took part in a constitutional hearing on 22 October, in which around 30 teachers and school workers from different governorates voiced their opinions on the national charter, which has been deactivated pending amendments since the ouster of former elected president Mohamed Morsi.
Among other issues, Omar Morsi said he wishes Egypt would follow in the footsteps of other countries and spend a larger percentage of the overall government budget on education, "such as Brazil."
Investments in Brazil's education sector, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), have increased from 5.8 percent to 6.1 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to a recent report issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The report puts the largest Latin American country, which has significantly developed over the last few years, on the same educational spending level as fully developed nations, such as Switzerland, which spends the equivalent of 6.1 percent of GDP on education.
Estimated at 82.5 billion EGP ($11.9 billion), the 2013-2014 Egyptian education budget is equivalent to 4 percent of GDP, according to the Ministry of Finance. It surpasses the 2012-2013 budget by 15.9 billion EGP and comprises 11.9 percent of the 2013-2014 state budget, estimated at 692.4 billion EGP (around $100.4 billion).
El-Fishawy believes that such a budget rise could make a big difference to the education system, providing that it is efficiently spent without corruption.
"In general, the problem is that a large part of the budget is spent on bonuses for officials and other peripheral issues. Sometimes it's only for development work on paper that never actually takes place," she explains.
While salaries and payments comprise the largest chunk of the 2013-2014 education budget (83 percent), only 5.4 billion (6.7 percent) is allocated to purchasing educational requirements and services. Meanwhile, around 7.7 billion (9.4 percent) is allocated for educational investments.
"Most education ministry workers do not know their rights, which enables corruption to prevail and prohibits perpetual development."
"The [interim] incumbent ministry is more efficient than previous education ministries from my perspective. It could lead to a turnaround in educational fortunes. We will see," El-Fishawy added.
In an effort that may enhance the education system, the Egyptian government has said it will raise the minimum monthly wage for all public sector workers to LE1,200 ($171), but has not specified how the raise will be implemented or funded.
Additionally, Ahmed Galal and Mahmoud Aboul Nasr, ministers of finance and education respectively, agreed this month to grant more than 70,000 teachers across Egypt permanent contracts, to be automatically accompanied by pay rises.
"We definitely need steps to strengthen the status of teachers," El-Fishawy said. "One of the biggest problems is their poor training and low cultural and social position."
Abdel Ghani said she was told by her superiors when she graduated to forget everything she learned at university because "it wouldn't help in teaching."
"Training is not practical and there is no way to assess whether a teacher is actually able to teach, therefore it is not unusual to find teachers with poor pronunciation or grammar, among other problems," she concludes.