School bell rings as Egypt's new academic year kicks off

Ayat Al-Tawy, Tuesday 23 Sep 2014

The beginning of the school year is a source of tension for many Egyptian families, who scrimp and save to pay for tuition, school gear and sometimes private tutorials

18 million children head back to school across Egypt (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Cairo's streets were more hectic than usual on Monday as school bells rang across the capital, bringing excitement to many students but a crippling burden to parents.

The beginning of the school year is often a source of tension for many Egyptian families, who scrimp and save to pay for tuition, school gear and sometimes private tutorials.

Ola Moghazy, a 36-year-old working mother, says the fees of her eight-year-old daughter's school bus is LE800 ($110) higher this year, hitting a hefty LE3,500 ($490) – which the school, a French curriculum centre located in downtown, attributes to a recent hike in fuel prices.

Ironically, the bus fees are almost half of the tuition.

Tuition fees at Egypt's private schools range from less than LE600 ($85), up to a whopping LE85,000 ($12,000) for American and international education.

The price of her daughter's uniform has also risen, up by 40 percent. She now has to wear a polo shirt and a pair of trousers instead of a skirt, a preventative measure taken by the school administration across all the grades for fear of sexual harassment, a rampant problem in Egypt. 

Divergent concerns

But low-income families who send their kids to state-run schools have other reasons for concern.

Egyptian state schools, which well over 18 million students attend, are notorious for shoddy facilities, overcrowded classrooms, a lack of well-equipped laboratories – and sometimes poor-quality education, too.

Om Hazem, 32, says her nine-year-old son spent last year squeezed in at a desk with three or four other students in a classroom with some 60 others.

She says her husband, a doorman, has tried to shift their son to a private school, in hopes that he receives a better education.

But all the schools they approached said the boy must have had studied in a private school since kindergarten to be accepted.

Problems are not only just financial. For working mothers like Moghazy, the start of the school year means more activities as she juggles her job and household chores.

"During school time I am more tied up to her and end up having no time for myself," she says.

Air of excitement

Many students look forward to returning to school after the summer lull.

But it's not all about fun. Rana Ihab, a grade eight student, says she gets overwhelmed with a full schedule of school classes and necessary private tutorials, which most Egyptian students rely on.

For the most part, though, the 2014 school year appears to be the same as previous ones, school officials say.

"Almost everything, including the fees, is the same this year, but parents usually complain of the slightest increase," said Heba Fouad, principal of the non-profit school Victory College.

The only alteration this year, Fouad says, are modifications to some primary curriculum materials.

"Curricula were corrected after the [Muslim] Brotherhood had introduced inaccurate historical information serving their favour," Fouad says.

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