I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I heard about how a group of Egyptian school children have started a Facebook campaign against going to school during the fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Monday.
Over 1,200 group members of between 14 and 18-year-olds, were convinced that the last 10 days of Ramadan, which will overlap with the first 10 day of the academic year, will be useless.
The young creator of the virtual protest movement Ahmed El-Dib told Daily News Egypt that “it would make no difference whether or not school started because it won’t affect how they do in school and because most students won’t go anyway.
If this isn’t the ultimate symptom of the complete failure of Egypt’s education system, then what is?
The students’ attitude towards the education institution as a whole has been irreparably damaged over the years. Rote learning and lack of school facilities despite the huge costs incurred by Egyptian families who rely on the country’s “free education policy, have had such a negative impact on society as a whole, that children now grow up with an innate aversion to the idea of going to school, which only gets worse as they get older and become acutely aware of the huge financial burden on their families.
To those unfamiliar with the uniquely Egyptian paradox of having an “expensive free education system, it must be explained that what families save in school fees, they spend a hundred times over in private tuition.
Latest statistics show that Egyptians spend about LE 13 billion on private lessons a year, equivalent to one third of the 2008/2009 budget of LE 34.8 billion allocated to education by the state. Representing a low percentage of the GDP at 3.25 percent, government spending on education was criticized by opposition politicians who compared Egypt to Tunisia, whose education spending amounts to 7.3 percent of GDP and Morocco and Saudi Arabia’s 6.8 percent, for example.
For parents, educators, businessmen and students, the dire state of education in Egypt has reached crisis levels. Despite impressive economic indicators recording over 7 percent growth in the past two years, businesses continue to complain of a skills gap with thousands of jobs available but a sub-standard caliber of candidates to fill them – hence a delayed trickle-down effect that exacerbates the simmering social tension between the haves and the have-nots.
One of the most dangerous cumulative effects of Egypt’s bad education policies has been the loss of respect for teachers, the majority of whom charge inexorable amounts of money for private tutoring to supplement their paltry incomes.
Underpaid – on an average monthly salary of LE 400 – and generally inefficient, school teachers are no longer regarded as the “prophets of yore, but rather seen as vampires sucking the blood of poor working-class families whose only hope for a better future for their children is a good education.
Incidents of physical assault of teachers by students and parents are often reported, but the public debate over whether the law should criminalize private tutoring revealed the complexity of the issue. Both supporters and opponents of such legislation believe they have the public interest in mind, and agree that government failure has led to this vicious circle, which must accept the inevitability of private tutoring in light of a decaying school system.
Decades of neglect have led to a dead end and even when the education ministry decided to restructure teachers’ salary schemes in the hopes of curing the private lessons epidemic, it found itself caught in another pickle. Realizing that it can’t fund the 50 percent raise, the minister decided to impose a teachers’ assessment exam to “separate the wheat from the chaff according to which teachers will receive the promised raise.
Although I do not fundamentally disagree with the idea of assessment, the poorly planned and random exam for which the teachers were totally unprepared, according to those interviewed by this newspaper, has reinforced the image of an incompetent administration.
It’s difficult to envision how penalizing teachers for scoring badly on a test that does not reflect their classroom competence in any way by depriving them of a few extra pounds will solve Egypt’s education crisis. At best, it will only serve to further denigrate the image of the schoolteacher – especially those who fail the test – and fuel revenge in the form of more private tutoring to undermine a system that has humiliated them.
The education issue is an issue of national security that warrants due attention. The government needs to get creative with its solutions by encouraging private sector involvement in upgrading public education facilities, encouraging intermediate education in areas that will better serve the job market and reassessing the effectiveness of offering free higher education when formative elementary education is in such dire straits and will need all the cash it can get.
Isn’t it reasonable to spend more money teaching children how to read, write, think for themselves and become resourceful? Higher education must not be a free-for-all but should be available against a moderate fee to those who have demonstrated real proficiency and a willingness to learn, work hard and make use of their knowledge, not those who sap state resources to hang their certificates up on the wall or give university faculty the opportunity to leech on a brain-dead higher education system again through the growing phenomenon of university-level private tutoring – but that’s a whole other can of worms.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.