Cairo, Egypt - The primary school building in Imbaba - a deprived, scruffy area of Cairo - looks more like a detention centre, with its stern institutional design, metal gates and huge walls crowned with barbed wire. A group of parents waited to pick up their children outside the school. Although they said the school was better than others in the area, they soon rattled off a long list of complaints.
"The children are not educated well in school and they just memorise things. It's better in the private lessons where the teacher explains things well," said one parent. "The teachers insist on private lessons because they are not paid enough," said another. One parent pays 350 Egyptian pounds ($51) per month for his children's private lessons, a significant amount for many Egyptians. "I often borrow money or eat less food," he said. The primary school often asks the already stretched parents to club together and pay for repairs and resources.
The quality of Egypt's primary education has been recognised as dire for several decades, in a country where the illiteracy rate remains high, at around 28 percent. But a recent report suggested that its quality may be deteriorating even further. This year's World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report ranked Egypt dead last in quality of primary education out of 148 surveyed countries. According to WEF's rankings, Egypt has slipped in recent years to 137 out of 142 in 2012 from 131 out of 139 in 2011.
Overcrowding is one problem, as more than 60 students must fit into some government school classrooms. Infrastructure is also poor, with suitable playgrounds, laboratories, music and art rooms a rarity. Lessons are taught didactically, with a curriculum strictly enforced by the central government, forcing children to learn large amounts of information by rote rather than develop critical thinking skills.
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Government school teachers earn meagre salaries, rarely amounting to more than $281 per month, according to a report by the British think tank Chatham House. The report also cites studies that suggest abuse is pervasive in government schools, and that "teachers on below-subsistence wages use a combination of physical and verbal intimidation to pressure children into signing up for the private lessons that teachers need in order to earn a living wage". Poor students whose parents struggle to afford private tuition are at a distinct disadvantage, entrenching inequality.
The problems are not limited to government schools. A teacher from a private school in south Giza said the school charges annual fees of around 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($435) per year and that the pupils' parents are solidly middle-class: accountants, doctors, pilots, police officers, university professors and people in business. "The parents are proud to enrol their children in a private school," he said. "But it doesn't mean that the quality is good."
As in government schools, the emphasis is on learning by rote. Private school teachers make a significant proportion of their income through extra-curricular lessons. Because it is a private school, they must maintain appearances. "It must be perfect and the students must get good marks," said the teacher. He claims that teachers at the school inflate grades and make the exams easier.
Some have questioned the WEF report's methodology, which surveyed a sample of 71 business people, soliciting their opinions on a range of factors relating to business competitiveness, including primary education, rather than analysing empirical or ethnographic evidence that tests the wellbeing and development of children.
People are very pessimistic in Egypt. They have lost a lot of faith in the government.
Iman al-Ayouty, senior economist at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (the WEF's partner organisation on the report), defended the methodology. "Since primary education is only one of so many dimensions covered by the questionnaire, the results are not expected to reflect the 'expert opinion' of those who may evaluate primary education." Ayouty argued that business people "in general have a well-rounded opinion of the system of education in Egypt, even if they themselves send their children to private schools and not public ones".
Motaz Attalla, Right to Education Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights believes that, although the report does not provide a comprehensive or empirical analysis, it is still useful. "It gives a general sense of the impressions of one particular set of stakeholders in education," he said, "that people in business generally are not happy with primary education".
Tamer el-Nady works as a consultant to the Ministry of Education, focusing on developing clubs and centres to help primary and secondary school children improve their science skills. Speaking in a personal capacity, he believed the report was unfair to Egypt. "There must be a lot of other countries who are worse than us in primary education," he said. Nevertheless, he accepted that the results illustrated malaise. "People are very pessimistic in Egypt. They have lost a lot of faith in the government."
Government reforms doubtful
Hatem Zayed, a researcher at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), says there is no doubt that the quality of the public primary education system has deteriorated in recent years because, as Egypt's population has risen, the share of the budget allocated to education has stayed largely static. Statistics provided by the ECESR show that education comprises 9.9 percent of Egypt's budget in 2013/14, compared to 9.5 percent in 2008/09.
Wealthier people are increasingly turning to private education, which Zayed claims "results in the marginalisation of particular groups who cannot afford private schooling".
Zayed is doubtful that the government will carry out educational reforms, pointing to the lack of increased budgetary funding in recent years. "I think there is a major problem with spending. Egypt has been allocating big amounts of money in the wrong areas," he said. According to Zayed, money is wasted on repaying overly expensive loans from Gulf countries and on prioritising military spending, though he admits that the true scale of military spending is unknown because of a lack of transparency.
The government's plans to raise the minimum wage of public-sector workers from $102 to $170 per month in 2014 may not benefit many teachers as their - albeit low - salaries usually exceed this sum. Instead, this may put further strain on the education budget due to the high number of low-paid bureaucratic workers in a sector that has almost as many administrators as teachers.
If there is one silver bullet in the education system, it's teachers and teacher quality.
According to Attalla, increasing teachers' salaries is critical. "Teaching has to start to draw the smartest students," he said. "The faculty of education doesn't take the high-scoring students for a good reason. It is not an attractive career."
The rising sense of crisis is forcing debate of Egypt's long-failing education policies. "If there is one silver bullet in the education system, it's teachers and teacher quality," Attalla argues. It is necessary to change the culture of teaching, equip them with modern teaching skills, and to give teachers some freedom from the Ministry's restrictive, centralised control.
The government says it is addressing the issues, but it will need to work closely with others to achieve reform. Despite repeated invitations, the Ministry of Education declined to comment on questions raised in this article.
Attalla believes that independent teaching unions set up in the wake of the 2011 uprising may be more effective in pushing for reforms and that the government has engaged with them to some extent. "This is a big development, because the government was only really taking the formal teachers syndicate seriously before, which, as is the case with many of the formal syndicates, is more of a government mouthpiece and doesn't really represent teachers and their opposition to the government."
However, Zayed disagrees: "The ECESR is actually part of a coalition of around 27 organisations and independent syndicates working on education and, despite the fact that it's a collective initiative, we still don't see the desire from the government to include us in any way."
Furthermore, in the recently completed draft constitution, due to be voted on next month, Article 77 states that "no profession may establish more than one syndicate". Where this will leave independent education syndicates is unclear.
The crisis in Egyptian primary education is more apparent than ever and professionals working in education increasingly call for change. "Are teachers going to be able to hold administrators to account?" asked Attalla. "Are the families of pupils going to be able to hold teachers and administrators to account? To what extent is there going to be a transparency in budgetary issues in relation to local education, and hiring and firing? All of this remains to be seen."