Poor learn hard lessons




Disillusion with the school system continues to grow among pupils and parents alike

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 9 May 2000

Transforming Egypt’s potential into a profitable reality is a challenge that has been at its most stark in the area of education, particularly since economic reform started to place new demands on the workforce.

Despite spending E£10bn (Dollars 2.9bn) on building 10,000 new schools since 1986 and doubling teachers’ salaries to a still meagre E£500 per month in the past six years, the perceptible contribution made by these increased resources remains difficult to see.

A variety of studies have shown that, unlike similar economies around the world, GDP growth has yet to be increased as a direct result of an increase in the length of time Egyptians spend at school.

“There are faulty linkages within the Egyptian economy and society at large,” says Mahmoud Abdel Fadel, professor of economics at Cairo university. “In fact there are no real links between the educational system, on the one hand, and the business community and manufacturing sector, on the other, especially in terms of research and development.”

For the government, the emphasis on education emerged out of a realisation in the early 1990s that the system had fallen under the influence of teachers sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalists. Since then, 4,000 teachers have been fired, and girls are prohibited from wearing the Islamic veil in school. But only since the government embarked on forthright economic reform in the mid-1990s has it begun to consider how to tailor education to the needs of the slowly changing economy.

“The private sector needs to tell me what they need. The private sector is the end user of my products, and the producer must listen to his consumers,” says Hussein Kamal Baha Eddin, Egypt’s bullish minister of education, and a convert to the free market who has yet to see his area of responsibility follow suit.

“If government has only one function in the 21st century, it will be education. We are edging towards being a knowledge-based society. But the minimum requirement for that is tertiary education,” Mr Baha Eddin said.

The schools building programme has been one result of this realisation. More recently, the ministry has launched a campaign inviting private sector companies to ‘Adopt A School’, to which the company can donate resources.

Thirty schools have so far been adopted in this way. Meanwhile, Mr Baha Eddin calculates that 91.5 per cent of schools now have computers, and that 516,000 pupils have been trained in multimedia since 1996.

Despite these efforts, however, Egypt’s most recent Human Development Report, published in 1998, showed that 10 per cent of children aged 6 to 11 are not in school, while in rural areas, as many as 17 per cent of all school age children do not attend classes. Parents blame this on the high cost of schooling, which is the largest single cause of borrowing among poor households, according to a study published last year.

While the system has not necessarily suffered from a marked lack of resources relative to comparable countries, academic studies reveal a lack of strategic thinking intended to address the pressing and connected questions of poverty, illiteracy and the social discontent which has emerged out of years of deprivation.

A study by the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum shows that the poor receive 2.6 fewer years of schooling than the better-off. Despite a rise in educational spending, expenditure per school pupil fell in real terms by 20 per cent between 1981-95, while expenditure on university students rose by 70 per cent in the same period, the ERF study says.

“The entire region does very poorly on education, and Egypt has done a particularly mediocre job, and in particular because it has a huge backlog of illiterate women. They have to retrain the teachers,” says Heba Handoussa, ERF managing director.

Criticism of the neglect of infant and junior level education centres on the extent to which educational levels have been sidelined in favour of university education. It absorbs around 48 per cent of the educational budget, and is markedly more accessible for the better-off. Average expenditure per university graduate is 16 times that of school pupils, according to one study.

Meanwhile, the rising drop-out level among all social classes, as pupils have grown disillusioned with the poor quality of teaching, which relies heavily on rote-learning.

Parents share the disillusionment. Their concerns about the system as a whole have led to a thriving market in illegal private tutoring. A study by the US Carnegie Endowment last year revealed that an average family spends up to 15 per cent of its income on private lessons, to compensate for poor teaching.

Despite this large outlay, however, 25 per cent of children who receive private tuition still drop out of school. “Private tutorials began when the community lost confidence in public education,” says Mr Baha Eddin. “I have to regain that confidence.”