Egypt: Classrooms without seats, as Gov. builds new prisons and presidential palaces

The first day of the new school year (2021-2022) in Egypt, on Sunday, witnessed a severe classroom over-crowdedness in most public schools; and even some classrooms had no seats, where pupils were prompted to sit on the ground.

In some schools, density reached more than 100 students in one classroom, prompting school administrations to request additional seats from the Ministry of Education, amid the complete absence of preventive measures, as had been announced by the Ministry in the face of the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic, reported Alarabi Aljadeed.

The London-based news website quoted Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, as saying “There are countries around us that have been lost although there was no illiteracy there, amid a high level of education, but this did not protect their homeland from being lost,” Sisi said in one of his speeches while underestimating the value of education. “What may education do in a lost country?,”  Sisi wondered!

This is how General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed his vision for the education system in 2016, which is witnessing a state of apparent collapse since Sisi took office, due to prioritizing spending on sectors such as the defense and interior, then roads and luxurious housing, in addition to construction of new presidential palaces and new prison complexes, at the expense of education and health.

The Egyptian government doubled the allocations for the defense and security sectors during the past five fiscal years, at the expense of education and health allocations, in violation of the provisions of Articles 18, 19, 21 and 23 of the Constitution, which obligated the state to allocate a percentage of no less than 4%  of the government spending for pre-university education, 2 % for higher education, and 1% for scientific research.

The allocations for the education sectors combined in the current Egyptian budget (2021-2022) amounted to about EGP 172 billion, 645 million, and 700 thousand, which is equivalent to only 2.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), which amounts to about EGP 6.4 trillion, according to the estimates released by Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait.

Over-crowded Classrooms

In 2011, the Arab Spring gave Egyptians hope for real social change, in particular that a new political climate would permit overdue reforms of a deficient education system.

However, ten years later, education in Egypt still remains highly deficient, where over-density negatively impacts the general output of the educational process as well as the student’s ability to learn, a research paper said.

The 2020 AUC policy paper said some 75 percent of Egyptian students sit in overcrowded classrooms with more than 40 students, and in other cases schools operate in a multiple-shift system, where students’ learning time is cut in half.

A policy paper titled “Improving the quality of primary education in Egypt, between hopes and reality” that was published on 12 Feb. 2020 by Alternative Policy Solutions, a research project of the American University in Cairo, said that over-density negatively impacts the general output of the educational process as well as the student’s ability to learn, especially in the primary stage, where the average classroom density stands at 47.5 students.

However, some new estimates say the current classroom density in some public schools surpassed 100 pupils each.  

The paper, prepared by Hania Sobhy, expert on education policies in the Middle East and a fellow researcher at Max Planck Institute MMG – MPG, confirmed that: “Reforming Egypt’s current school construction system does not necessarily require building new schools. In fact, in the past few years, schools have been built where they were not actually needed, whereas areas with the direst need were neglected,” the paper said.

It also illustrated that the inadequate learning conditions, compounded by sanitary and maintenance problems, disproportionately affect those students who are already disadvantaged and aggravates inequality in educational opportunities based on geographic location and economic status.

Dealing with such a serious conditions, the paper recommended to reduce costs by restructuring the General Authority for Educational Buildings, reforming financial regulations and spending more on maintenance, basing construction plans on a new set of indicators and building larger urban schools and smaller rural schools.

It also suggested upgrading disbursement system and to spend more on current schools’ maintenance.

Egyptian public schools in particular are riddled with problems. There is severe overcrowding and a lack of play areas or yards. Some schools have to be divided into two or three shorter daily sessions to accommodate all the children.

“My children struggle to take notes and it is impossible for them to focus on the teacher because there are just too many people in the room,” said Ahmed, a father of three children who attend Omar Ebn El-Khatab public school in Cairo. “The teacher does not care about his pupils, and the pupils do not concentrate.”

In the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, Egypt ranked 133rd out of 137 countries for the quality of its primary education and 130th for the quality of its education system overall.

Egypt that has more than 100 million people and a steadily increasing poverty rate, is currently suffering from a severely underfunded education system.

Students on the ground in Qalyubia

Pictures of the students of the al-Mothalath Elementary School in Khanka while sitting on the ground have sparked a state of controversy on social media, after some pictures of a number of students sitting on the ground were circulated on the first day of the new school year 2021/2022, due to the lack of seats in the school classrooms.

Later, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in Qalyubia Yasser Mahmoud, said that the al-Mothalath Primary School in Khanka was provided with a number of seats, and the classroom furniture, which witnessed the incident of students sitting on the ground, had been completed.

Mahmoud added, in press release yesterday, that regarding what was circulated on the social networking sites regarding the crowded classrooms and high density in a school in the Al-Khanka Educational Administration, where students were sitting on the ground, the school principal was suspended until the investigations are completed, with a new principal assigned instead to facilitate work there.

Mahmoud claimed that the classroom was under maintenance, and that when the students entered the classroom this morning, it was not ready to receive them because there were no seats in the classroom. Mahmoud held the school principal responsible, saying that the principal decided to keep the students in the unprepared classroom at the beginning of the school day until it is furnished with seats, which was an unprofessional and non-educational decision, as Mahmoud said.

On his part, Ahmed Abdelaziz, advisor to the late President Mohamed Morsi, tweeted, saying:

Shortly… Sisi will open the first largest prison complex in Egypt, one of eight prison complexes in Egypt under construction! at a cost of 450 million dollars per one complex. This cost is a very sufficient figure to establish 2,000 schools and 1,000 hospitals with standard specifications!

“As for the students of Egypt, they receive their lessons while sitting on the ground in this way, which was not the case, even during the era of the British occupation of Egypt!,” Abdelaziz added in his tweet.

Educational Decline

In the 1950s, Egypt was considered a popular country for young people in search of education, amid its free, national schools with instruction in Arabic, where students traveled from dozens of nearby countries to obtain a quality education at Cairo University or at al-Azhar University, the world’s second oldest surviving degree-granting institute.

However, in the 1980s, Egypt’s public education system took a turn for the worse due to a growing population and little reform, leading to extreme overcrowding and underfunding of the country’s schools and universities.

In 2011, following the overthrow of Egypt’s long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian youths took to the streets demanding public school and university change. However, several years later, educational reform has been slow-moving, resulting in a still struggling education system, despite the few improvements made.

Currently, some of the main problems students in Egypt’s public schools face include:

– Overcrowded classrooms, to the extent that students cannot find desks

– Inability of teachers to supervise students

– Extreme underfunding

– Poor school maintenance (including broken windows, doors and desks)

– Unrepaired water and sanitation systems

– Inadequate science labs

– A lack of technological resources for students

– Poor understanding of the courses by teachers

– Obsolete teaching practices, including politically-centered lessons that ignore essential school subjects

Additionally, most students in Egypt’s public schools have to take private tutoring classes after school because the education available in their school is so poor that sufficient knowledge and success are not assured.

Illiteracy rate

Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in 2017 announced that the number of illiterate people in the country — taking into account people nine-years and above — reached 14.3 million, or 20.1 percent of the population as of 2016, with females making up 9.1 million.

In its statement that had coincided with World Literacy Day, CAPMAS added that Egypt’s illiteracy rate declined to 14.4 percent for males and 26 percent for females.

Illiteracy rates among young people — for people aged between 15 and 24 — declined by 6.5 percent while rates for elderly people — 59 and older — dropped by 57.1 percent.

Illiteracy rates in urban areas — for those aged 10 and above — reached 13.5%, compared to 25.2 percent for those from villages.

Illiteracy rates in villages stood at 17.7 percent for males and 32.9 percent for females. In turn, in urban areas, 10 percent of men were illiterate and 17 percent of females.

Governorates in Upper Egypt had the highest rates of illiteracy in 2016. Bani Sweif governorate ranked first, recording 30.2 percent, followed by 30 percent in Sohag, 29.9 percent in Fayoum, 27.9 percent in Minya, and 26.5 percent in Assiut governorates.

Illiteracy rates in Cairo and governorates in Lower Egypt sit at 13.2 percent. Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said governorates recorded 13.6 percent, 13.9 percent, 5.4 percent, respectively, while Beheira governorate recorded 24 percent, the highest rate among Lower governorates, then Kafr al-Sheikh 22.7 percent and Sharkeya 20.2 percent.

Two of Egypt’s border governorates had the lowest rates of illiteracy according to the report — 8.6 percent in North Sinai and 4.9 percent in Al Wadi al Gaded.

According to the CAPMAS statement, illiteracy rates in 2016 for the employed people stood at 20 percent and at 4.9 percent for the unemployed.