The centres of Kom Ombo and Nasr Al-Nuba in Aswan governorate in Upper Egypt are home to new eco-friendly schools. The schools, built by the Misr El-Kheir (MEK) foundation, are the first of their kind in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.
Green schools are eco-friendly built out of natural eco-friendly material like bamboo and mud bricks and have an eco-friendly approach to education in terms of their syllabus. For instance, they teach students how to use eco-friendly alternatives in life. There are similar schools in Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, India and Kenya.
“We have been focusing on sustainability for the last three years in MEK and were the first to use Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks (CSEB) code in Egypt in our projects,” MEK head of engineering Tamer Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly. Hassan said they first built a prototype building in the National Research Centre a few years ago and so far have built four in Aswan using the same code. They utilise compact soil from the land the school is built on, Hassan said.
The schools are in line with Egypt’s 2030 vision to achieve sustainable development and in conjunction with the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, currently being held in Sharm El-Sheikh. They are also part of the efforts MEK has been exerting since 2016 to deal with climate change.
Using local natural materials, Hassan said, saves a lot of money and helps provide job opportunities for the residents of the area without the use of any complicated machinery. The temperature of the buildings is also suitable for the environment.
Hassan pointed out that building schools in an eco-system saves raw materials and reduces costs by approximately 25 per cent. He said construction was carried out with a system of load-bearing walls, domes and vaults, making the temperature of the buildings moderate at all times. They were also built in half the time it takes to build a conventional building. Moreover, the method they employ is advantageous in that they do not use any steal. Cement represents only 25 per cent of each building block. This makes the temperature much cooler in the buildings, he added.
The walls are 35 to 40 centimetres in width. The width is essential for preserving temperatures in the buildings. “It resembles the buildings our ancestors, the ancient Egyptians, used to build,” Hassan said. And they feature high openings in the walls for efficient air flow. The buildings also have a water drainage system on the roof in case it rains and are built with water resistant components. The roofs are also curved so rainwater drains easily, Hassan said, adding that they have taken several measures to ensure the safety of the buildings.
“We chose Aswan because it is all about identity, so we built it in the Nubian style. We also chose Aswan for its consistently warm weather. “Buildings built with the CSEB codes are eight degrees less in temperature than any other type of building,” he said. “This means they won’t need air conditioners inside.”
He said they plan to build more structures using the same technique and use biogas generating stations that make use of sewage or grey water to provide the neighbourhoods with green energy. They have also been using solar energy panels in some schools already built.
Each school is painted in bright colours and decorated with colourful signs and numbers to attract children. Classrooms are furnished with wooden tables with small yellow and green chairs and shelves with trays for each student on one side and books on the other. There is also a creativity corner for children to experiment with handcraft and arts.
MEK is working on 25 more community schools in partnership with the National Bank of Egypt.
“Community schools are under the umbrella of conventional education but we call them ‘irregular education’ because it is different. It is parallel to the ordinary primary stage but also a second chance for children who live faraway and are deprived of primary education services,” Hala Farouk, MEK head of the community education sector, told the Weekly.
Farouk said their system of several school day sessions depends on creative methods of learning. Management of the classes is partly for the teacher and partly for the students who are divided into work groups to teach them how to depend on themselves. For instance, there is a group in charge of cleanliness, another in charge of order in the class.
“Every day there is an educational ‘corner hour’ in which we give each student a free hour to go to a corner of the classroom to learn a certain craft or hobby: crochet, reading and practical science,” she said. For instance, she said, there is a life-size human respiratory system that can be assembled by children. This teaches them all about the respiratory system just by playing with a plastic model, she said, adding that in some cases it is more effective, especially with low achievers.
The system provides summer courses for children who might have missed some classes. This type of education is flexible since it can be tailored according to the students’ needs. They give priority to older children to enroll so that they are able to join conventional preparatory schools sooner. Moreover, they have a system of tutorial speed-up, meaning that older students are allowed to cram a two-year syllabus into one year to finish school quicker.
They apply a system of monthly examinations. Every answer sheet is examined carefully, not for the grades but to see what a student needs improvement in, according to Farouk. “We have what is called an ‘improvement plan’ that is drawn up according to the results of the examination,” she added.
“Education in this school is different from the conventional methods of teaching in any other school,” commented Shazli Gaber, a parent.
“Two of my three children are enrolled in this school and so far, they have learnt more than the other who is in conventional education,” Abdel-Mohsen Abul Magd, another parent, told the Weekly.
Each student is periodically tested for basic educational skills including reading, writing and mathematics and is accordingly given a remedial course to improve on the skills they lack. They also analyse the reasons behind the drawbacks in a student. “These differ. They may be social or psychological reasons that may influence the child in the future so we must know what it is,” Farouk said.
Teachers are chosen after being tested for many educational skills. They also must have an educational background, she said, adding that they give priority to those living in nearby areas. They are also evaluated on an annual basis.
One problem facing these schools is the availability of cadres in remote areas. “We need more specialised teachers and we are ready to train them,” Farouk said, adding however that female teachers in general do not like to teach in schools in places far off because of customs and traditions.
They have, though, been making some progress in reversing what she described as misconceived concepts. “We try to give female teachers incentives like transportation fees to encourage them to go,” Farouk said.
Besides the eco-schools, MEK launched a regional initiative Towards Green NGOs during its participation in COP27’s Civil Society Day. The move comes in the belief that civil work organisations are one of the three pillars of the development process, along with the private and governmental sector, and that it has an important role in managing the development process and achieving sustainable development goals, MEK CEO Mohamed Rifai said.
Towards Green NGOs consists of several activities, including the issuance of a local quality specification certificate for the accreditation of green NGOs, according to a set of criteria and indicators, MEK head of the Associations Development Sector Mohamed Mamdouh said.
The second is working to provide technical, institutional and programmatic support to assist NGOs to shift from traditional systems of management and practice to work systems consistent with sustainability and the transition to green. Helping qualify regional cadres of civil work organisations and support green community initiatives for NGOS are also on the agenda.
The role of the MEK Foundation in climate action on the national level is to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries. From 2016 to 2022 it has been improving the housing environment for the poorest, reconstructing and renovating old homes while boosting natural lighting and ventilation to use less energy. It also provides potable water and sewage connections to homes in low-income areas.
It has also been raising community awareness on daily activities that contribute to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and how to reduce it. It has also provided urgent relief to families affected by the outcomes of climate change, including the collapse of buildings, fires and floods -- any incident that prevents them from living safely in their homes.
The role of MEK in climate action on the regional level includes mainstreaming climate change dimensions into local adaptation and mitigation actions taken by NGOs through awareness raising, capacity building and advocacy. For instance, it helped 25,000 youth and women working in Arab NGOs by engaging them in activities related to climate change.
MEK issued the Arab NGOs Charter for Climate Action with the participation of 500 NGOs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.