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Egypt’s education woes drive families to home schooling

The increasing frustration of students and parents with Egypt's public education system is leading some families to adopt home schooling as an alternative educational approach.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The merits and drawbacks of home schooling have recently become a topic of debate in Egypt. Students educated using this method forgo enrollment in the state’s public education system to be instructed by their parents and friends. They are taught from a very young age, including some at 3, until 17, using various sources of knowledge, especially digital resources.

Calls for such a system began to be made some five years ago, when increasing numbers of graduates of the public education system were no longer able to meet the standards and objectives set by the state and aspired to by the students themselves. These graduates, therefore, also did not meet the requirements of the labor market, as suggested in part by World Bank statistics documenting Egypt’s high rates of unemployment. In 2013, overall unemployment stood at 12.7%, with youth unemployment at 38.9%. An additional problem experts have noted is that the state’s education system does not harmonize curricula with the needs of the labor market.

In “The Centralization of Education in Egypt and the State Monopoly of Knowledge” a research paper published by the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, Ayman al-Husseini describes alternative education as a spontaneous and unbiased initiative by individuals and groups who object to the state’s centralization of education policies and its authority over educational institutions.

The public education system is based on a large number of students attending school for a certain number of hours during a fixed semester. These students follow uniform educational curricula determined by the state and are subjected to assessment, standards and academic tests that do not take into consideration individual differences among students. Alternative education opposes this approach, preferring instead home schooling, Friends (Quaker) schools and Montessori schools, among other options.

Husseini believes alternative forms of education offer various positive values that involve practices contrary to those that prevail in public schools run by the state. Among them, he cites verbal learning, storytelling, direct practice with the child, experimentation and observation, and other organized and periodic methods. They also use popular tales to improve understanding. Husseini said, “Ignoring this form of learning just because it is not organized over semesters or within an official framework makes us lose important and authentic knowledge sources to help understand our communities and our history.”

Nuha Abdul Rahman is an Egyptian mother of a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old who decided to try home schooling. She told Al-Monitor, “The origin of alternative education is replacing the school teacher with the mother and the father at home. My son will be at the center of the educational process, instead of the curriculum and exam.” No statistics are available on how many students are being home-schooled. Parents choosing this option do not request permission from the state or inform it of their intentions.

Parents who home school follow academic frameworks and general methodologies similar to the classical home-schooling model adopted in the West. Home-schooled children can learn the basics of astronomy, biology, mathematics and other sciences depending on how parents modify the curriculum. The teaching methodologies are based on observation, experience, innovation and creativity in line with the student’s skills and inclinations. 

Isra Abu Dahab, an Egyptian mother, shares her experience with home schooling on her personal blog. Abu Dahab prepares all of her child’s home-schooling activities. She said, “One of the useful experiences for children is dealing with nature directly, whether plants or animals, by touching them and inspecting them. This develops their observational skills. There is also the Treasure Basket method consisting of a basket filled with different sizes of tools that the child will explore in order to form a general perception of the sizes theory instead of using rote learning.”

Nawal Hassanein, a teacher at the Muhammadiyah public school in Alexandria, expressed her concerns about home schooling. She told Al-Monitor, “Certainly, there are some downsides to public education, but how can we educate a child who has no communication with friends and who is being home-schooled alone?”

In Egypt, and much of the Arab world, some students receive a general track high school education while others pursue a vocational-technical track that includes a specialization. Hassan Jaber, a teacher at the Manhal al-Maarifa school in Dakahlia governorate, pointed to the lack of a diploma as an impediment for home-schoolers. He said, “In Arab countries, the government certificate is a main assessment criterion in the labor market and a determination of specialization. How will the graduate be considered proficient in a given science without supporting documentation? If the graduates’ specialization is not recognized by the public education system, their chance of getting a job will be minimal.” 

Arwa al-Tawil, a co-founder of the Ibn Khaldon home schooling community, a nongovernmental organization for the support of home schooling in the Arab world, responded to these concerns. She said, “In the home-schooling approach, we create an environment for the child, with his peers, to acquire different skills. For example, at the age of 15, a child could be sent to learn new skill or a craft and to interact with children of different ages. This is in addition to the periodic field trips arranged by the family over the years of education along with those practicing similar educational experiences.”

Tawil explained that a child can receive an education at home and then take the state’s public exams to acquire a government-issued diploma. She noted that a small number of families have opted for this route. At age 17, Egyptians can enroll in university provided they meet the requirements, that is, pass their entrance exams and whatever other tests might be required.

The qualifications of the parents to teach their children are the backbone of home schooling. Marwa Rakha, who holds an education degree from the North American Montessori Center, told Al-Monitor, “Flexible home schooling is not only a series of activities and tools provided by the parents to their child according to their age. It is also a lifestyle followed by the whole family, based on respect for the child’s abilities and potential and acceptance of his differences and disparities as compared to his peers. However, parents might sometimes be unfit to teach their children, which could be a hindrance. Parents need to make efforts to familiarize themselves with their children’s curricula and to develop the right level of educational and psychological readiness and to make this decision [to home school].”

Rakha said that the parents assume the role of teachers in various disciplines, using an approach to the curricula that allows flexibility in terms of how much time is spent on a chapter, testing methods and so on, stressing that a decent education is the foundation that allows students to find answers to the questions preoccupying them throughout their development.

Home schooling uses flexible programs, such the Calvert School program, which have been used in the West, some of which have been translated into Arabic and can be found online and in print format. Central to home schooling is flexibility and the parents’ role in the process. In addition to the Ibn Khaldon community, in Egypt the Tahrir Academy and Alwan-Awtar provide resources for the home-schooling community.

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