2011-2020: Altering the culture of education in Egypt

Ahmed Abdel-Hafez, Tuesday 29 Dec 2020

The new system that the government is planning to have fully in place by 2030 replaces a decades-long culture of memorisation for tests with one focused on student-centred teaching and competency-based learning for life

A $500 million agreement was signed to provide each student with a tablet
A $500 million agreement was signed to provide each student with a tablet

It is imperative for Egypt’s development that projects be run by qualified people who can manage the country’s advanced projects. However, for this to be the case, the country’s education system has to be able to produce them writes Ahmed Abdel-Hafez.

“There is little doubt that Egypt’s education sector had hit rock bottom. It had been neglected for too long and not reformed,” said Dina Borai, an adviser to the minister of education on exams and curricula.

This began to change a couple of years ago, however. In 2018, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki, in office for a little over a year, announced a major overhaul of the education system, including of the traditional Thanaweya Amma high school exams.

Since then, several initiatives have been put in place aiming at increasing the use of technology in schools and changing society’s mindset regarding education from a focus on grades to a focus on learning.

The new system that the government is planning to have fully in place by 2030 replaces a decades-long culture of memorisation for tests with one focused on student-centred teaching and competency-based learning for life. The current reform programme targets a bottom-up reform of the education pyramid, Borai said, explaining that “the stages from kindergarten to third preparatory are being developed in tandem with the Thanaweya Amma examination system.”

The World Bank is taking part in the programme to reform Egypt’s education system via a $500 million agreement signed in mid-2018 to fund the plan to provide each student and teacher with a computer tablet. The programme is also responsible for funding teacher-training schemes, financing curriculum and examination development centres, and making available a knowledge bank for students and teachers to improve the quality of education.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Egypt Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) for 2015 and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for 2016, more than half of students in Egypt do not meet low benchmarks in international learning assessments.

Furthermore, Egypt ranks at the bottom of the participating countries, at 49 out of 50 countries for grade four students in reading, 34 out of 39 countries for grade eight students in mathematics and 38 out of 39 countries for grade eight students in science.

Within the framework of its educational revamp, the government is shouldering expenses to build more classrooms to decrease the number of students in each. There were 22.5 million students in schools in Egypt in 2018-19.

It is also upgrading the technological infrastructure of schools to facilitate access to the Internet, the knowledge bank and educational platforms established by the Ministry of Education. According to the UNICEF Egypt website, many schools still have poor infrastructure, with around one in five school buildings unfit for use and lacking functional water and sanitation facilities.

An important part of the overhaul is the development the Thanaweya Amma examination system at an earlier stage to train teachers and students on the methods of comprehension and not just memorising, said Borai.

The new Thanaweya Amma exams will not be based only on school books, though students will be allowed to take their books with them to exams. The aim is to encourage students to acquire knowledge from multiple sources and digital platforms and to fully comprehend the curricula instead of memorising them.


Former education minister Mahmoud Abul-Nasr drafted a “Pre-University Education Reform Strategy” during his time in office in 2014. It states that Egypt’s education crisis is manifested in high unemployment and poverty rates.

Abul-Nasr said that if educational curricula served market needs, unemployment would plummet. This, he said, was the real test for the education system.

More than 50 per cent of Thanaweya Amma graduates going to universities in Egypt have difficulty finding jobs due to the poor quality of the school education they receive.

“Parents are concerned with the scores their children get, ignoring what their children have actually gained from the learning process. But education, in general, should target teaching students new skills to help them build a future,” Borai said.                           

The education reform programme is faced   with multiple challenges, including resistance to change. A system based on memorising is supported by some people who believe that venturing into the unknown is risky, she added.

“The ministry achieved considerable success in this regard with groups of teachers who have accepted the changes in the system. This is good because the ministry’s plan depends on developing curricula, changing examination methods and upgrading teachers’ capabilities,” she stated.

Abul-Nasr noted that another problem was that about 60 per cent of teachers are either not qualified to teach or teach subjects they don’t specialise in. Moreover, their geographical distribution is not commensurate with the distribution of students between rural and urban areas, which affects the quality of education. This is despite the fact that the education of more than 90 per cent of children in the six to 12 years age group is now assured.

“The pay-back of the education reform programme will not be visible before 10 years at least, when today’s grade one primary students grow up and join the labour market,” Borai noted.

“The new education strategy aims to teach students values and skills. Students should be able to educate themselves throughout their lives to improve their economic and social conditions. Ceasing to learn means exiting the labour market,” she added.

Students should be flexible about learning new skills following their graduation to accommodate new jobs in the labour market, Borai said.

“The Egyptian community needs an amalgam of subjects. The country can’t do well with workers who are armed with science but devoid of skills. To be able to communicate with the rest of the world, a worker has to know his nation’s history and its regional and international status, and he has to be able to communicate in a second language too,” Borai stated.

Ahmed Moradi, a former education development expert at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in the Middle East, believes that business owners should also spend money on developing their workers’ skills.

In the Egyptian labour market, business owners pay entry-level jobs meagre salaries because they believe employees need time to gain skills and expertise. If the education in schools and universities were more adequate, workers would be able to join the labour force with the required skills for the jobs available, he said.

Developing educational strategies is meant to prepare students to join the labour force upon graduation. Graduates should be able to follow developments in their fields on the local and global levels to overcome emerging challenges, Moradi said.

One hurdle on Egypt’s path to reforming education is the need to change the culture. Teachers should be able to accept change and absorb the fact that they should be helping students to understand and not to memorise, he said.

A teacher should contribute to shaping the character of a student who in the future will join the labour force, while society should also understand that the community needs all sorts of jobs and that the lives of a doctor or an engineer, for example, will be unbalanced in the absence of a garbage collector.

To drive the point home, the German Abitur education system allows students to graduate from pre-university education with a degree equivalent to a diploma in commerce. As a result, Abitur students enter the labour market with the ability to carry out administrative tasks in the small and medium-sized enterprise projects that Germany counts on for its economic health.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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