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Egypt’s education system set for major overhaul

Egyptians hope the new education reforms announced by the Ministry of Education will bring about major changes to address longstanding problems in public schools.
An Egyptian woman walks with children in front of the Aziz Al Masri primary school on March 25, 2018 in central Cairo, ahead of the March 26-28 presidential election.
Egypt's military said on March 24 on Twitter that it was making "intensive preparations for the armed forces to secure the presidential election" on March 26-28, after a bombing killed two policemen in Alexandria. / AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by FETHI BELAID has been modified in

Egypt’s Education Minister Tarek Shawki announced in April the implementation of new reforms to improve education in Egypt. The reforms, which are in part funded by the World Bank with a $500 million loan for five years, will cost a total of $2 billion and are expected to replace the existing education system with a new one to better equip Egyptian youth for the current job market.

Starting in September this year, the reforms will be implemented for kindergarten and primary school students, and for secondary students the following academic year.

“September 2018 marks the start of the journey to make our students ready for life, and we are pleased to have this partnership with the World Bank to accompany us on that journey. Our goal is to provide our children with the competencies they need to create a society that learns, thinks and innovates,” said Shawki in his statement to the World Bank in April.

The reforms include introducing a new curriculum that focuses on character building and critical thinking skills, improving teachers’ working conditions and development through training and workshops, changing secondary assessment systems and introducing electronic learning platforms, such as tablets, to students and teachers.

So far, the reforms have been well received by educators and families.

“I think the new reforms are a great initiative,” said Hanadi Fawzi, Early Years educator who has been teaching in Egypt and abroad for 17 years. “Changing the education sector should have taken place decades ago. However, change takes time. It is therefore important that the reforms are implemented thoroughly and consistently to see the desired results that the ministry is seeking.”

It is no secret that Egypt suffers from a poor education system. The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report of 2013-14 placed Egypt last in terms of quality of primary education offered in public schools.

Al-Watani newspaper reported that although Egypt’s public education is free, it is currently under significant pressure to operate efficiently given the large number of students entering schools each year, and that the education budget falls short in providing state schools with adequately trained teachers.

The current system also relies on memorization and fierce competition among students to score high grades on exams and secure a university education. As a result, many parents resort to costly private lessons to supplement their children’s education.

“A big chunk of my salary goes to private lessons,” said a father of four who sends his children to state schools. “The curriculum focuses on memorization, and teachers do not teach in classrooms so that they can be hired as private tutors.”

Changing the curriculum to do away with memorization and costly private lessons is welcomed by many families whose children attend public schools. “I think the new reforms are very much needed and will greatly benefit children. It will also be a relief for parents. I’m personally happy about the changes,” the father, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor.

But changing the curriculum alone will not solve problems inherent in public schools. For the new education system to succeed, teachers must undergo training and professional development. Therefore, the ministry aims to train about 500,000 teachers across all governorates through Teachers First, a development program for teacher training. To date, more than 30,000 teachers have undergone the training and many more are expected to complete the training in the next few months.

According to Teachers First, educators are taught to use specific applications to learn new teaching approaches in the classroom, track their development and even award themselves and their peers for completing milestones. This approach helps teachers embrace the idea of continuous development as well as create a supportive environment where experiences are shared.

“Professional development of teachers is vital,” said Azza Radwan Sedky, an academic who is also trained in pedagogy and has taught teachers for more than four decades in the Middle East and Canada. “Teachers learn from one another especially if they are good at what they do. But there is more to it than professional development. An improved environment, compensation in salary and benefits, and an opportunity to grow go hand in hand with professional development.”

Another aspect of the reform is introducing tablets to high school students. As part of the Education Ministry’s goal to encourage learning in the 21st century, it will distribute 1.5 million tablets to students and teachers for free, which they can keep. Although this move has been welcomed by some educators and families, it is not without controversy.

“It is absolutely important for students to learn to use information communication technologies such as computers, tablets and mobile technology in this day and age,” said Fawzi. “However, I would recommend for the tablets to stay at school with the teachers so that they aren't stolen, lost or damaged. If the students have homework, they can stay after school and complete their assignments on the tablets or use their own devices at home if they have them.”

It seems, however, that giving away the tablets was decided in order to support the national high school exams going digital. The electronic exams will consist of multiple-choice questions and will be based on a cumulative grading system of three high school years instead of a single standardized test. In August 2017, Egypt Independent reported that according to Shawki, this "new system aims to reduce the importance of rote memorization."

“I’m happy with these high school reforms and know that using electronic devices for learning is important today,” said a mother of three boys who attend state schools. “I’m just concerned that my boys will be playing games instead of doing their homework. However, at home I will ensure that they will use their devices for schoolwork only.”

“More important than having a tablet is the information provided,” said Sedky. “If a tablet mirrors the archaic information in textbooks, then we haven’t changed much. But if a tablet opens up the learning experience, allows the students’ minds to expand and explore untrodden places, and takes them to another level, then it’s worth it.”

Alongside these technological developments, the high school curriculum is also expected to receive a face-lift. However, according to Reda Hegazy, head of the general education sector at the Ministry of Education, this will be implemented later, as textbooks for next year have already been printed.

While these reforms are the latest to be introduced by the Ministry of Education, they are not the first. There have been several attempts in the last few years to improve education in the country, but they have been met with limited success. These reforms, however, seem to be far more comprehensive and elaborate than previous ones. Will they succeed? Time will tell, but Egyptians are hoping that they will bring about real change to better the lives and increase the contributions of the next generation.

“I have hope that the education system in Egypt will change for the better, and hence give us better human beings across the board,” said Sedky.

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