Egyptians Pull Kids From Classes as Schools Blight Economy

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Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi
Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, faces a key test to improve the education system. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Wafaa Bassiouny’s six-year campaign for the right to educate children at home in Egypt has propelled her from academic pariah to mini celebrity, as the nation’s broken schools fail another generation.

“I get daily inquiries from parents weighing homeschooling,” Bassiouny, who’s writing a second book on the subject after initially being rebuffed by professors overseeing her research, said in an interview. “The problems of education in Egypt are so overwhelming more people are accepting of the idea.”

Egypt’s crowded, underfunded classrooms are emerging as a key test for President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his vow to educate a workforce able to drag the economy from its worst slump in two decades. Employers bemoan a talent crunch that they say El-Sisi must prioritize in an agenda that so far has focused on luring foreign investment and silencing Islamist opponents.

“We have a machine that grinds students to memorize stuff and graduate while not having the basic skills,” said Anis Aclimandos, a leading businessman and chairman of Education for Employment, which trains young Egyptians to enter the workforce. “Young people get what is called an education that’s supposed to get you a job and end up standing in the unemployment line.”

Egypt ranked 51st in an Economist Intelligence Unit survey of 60 nations’ ability to train and retain skilled employees published in May 2011, three months after a youth uprising fueled by anger over unemployment and thwarted ambition ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

Youth Anger

“People didn’t take to the streets to just change politicians,” Abdel Hafiz Tayel, head of the Egyptian Center for Education Rights in Cairo, said in an interview. “They wanted social justice, access to education and health care, and very little has been done.”

A third of state school teachers don’t turn up for work, while more than 70 percent of students rely on private tuition to learn the basics. Playgrounds, let alone music or art facilities, are rare. Around one in five buildings is unfit for use, with poor water and sanitation systems, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“The government is spending peanuts,” Tayel said. “With little state investment, no improvement in curricula, poor pay for teachers and bad school infrastructure, parents are looking for alternatives.”

Model Lessons

Egypt invests about 4,733 pounds ($620) a year per student during primary and secondary education, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. The average among the developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is $9,252. Authorities say they plan to raise spending on education and health care to as much as 10 percent of gross domestic product in two years.

Education Minister Moheb El-Rafei said in March that education is a “top priority” for the government, according to comments carried by the state-run Middle East News Agency. He pointed out overcrowded classrooms, school violence and a growing dependence on private lessons as among the areas of concern.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser introduced free education as he sought to modernize Egypt from the 1950s. The curriculum became a model for the region, with governments employing Egyptian teachers. At home, as demand outstripped resources, the quality of schools deteriorated.

The answer for those who could afford it was private tutoring to supplement state lessons, something Egyptians spend 16 billion pounds a year on, nearly half of household outlays. Among the better off, private colleges are now popular and interest in home or online learning is growing.

“This may be good for the student as an individual isolated from the society, but definitely not for the state’s development goals,” said Tayel, of the education rights group.

‘Big Sheep’

Bassiouny’s first book, “Misr Bela Madaress,” or “An Egypt Without Schools,” was published last year. She said many parents seeking her advice object to the state using education to indoctrinate students.

Schools in Alexandria recently asked students to write an essay congratulating El-Sisi on his “wise decision” to join Arab forces bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen. In January, an exam in Mansoura included a question about “big sheep,” a derogatory term used to refer to members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which El-Sisi has targeted since removing an Islamist president from power.

In April, officials set fire to books at a school in Cairo’s Giza district that they said championed the Brotherhood. The Education Ministry has said it will investigate both the burnings and the politicized exams.

“For some parents now,” Bassiouny said, “the risk of homeschooling their children is nothing compared to that of sending them to schools.”

For more, read this QuickTake: Egypt's Revolution

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