In the 1950s President Nasser established free, national schools with instruction in Arabic. Today Egyptians almost universally agree that the schools are in the midst of an “educational crisis” (mushkilat at-ta‘lim) caused by untrained teachers, obsolete teaching practices, and overcrowded classrooms—and they have been for more than a decade.
Increasingly, neither the high school diploma–supposed to qualify students for clerical work in an office or bank—nor the commercial school certificate—certifying training in secretarial skills and business math—are seen as having any real value.
Families are increasingly in despair to find schools that adequately prepare their children for the thanawiyya ‘amma, the national exam that determines whether a student can move on to a college education.
Rather than moving to fix the failing educational system, Egypt’s turn to liberalism stimulated the development of a hierarchy of increasingly expensive private schools.
At the top of this hierarchy are “international schools”, partially staffed by foreign teachers and administrators, offering instruction in European languages and curricula based on American, British, French, or German models.
Less expensive, but still out of reach of most Egyptians, is a range of private “language schools,” owned and staffed primarily by Egyptians, but offering instruction in various foreign languages.
Privatization extends even into the free, public schools, where poorly paid teachers offer private tutoring for a fee, often in public school buildings. Many teachers make the bulk of their incomes through such lessons, and parents often fear that to refuse to pay for private tutoring means their children will be less competitive than their peers.
For most Egyptians, school is their only hope for a better life for their children, but the increasing cost of schooling that might actually prepare children for success in the new economy makes this hope a forlorn one.
Herrera, Linda. 2008. New developments in educational policy in the Arab world. Forum 21 2(12): 68-77.
Starrett, Gregory. 1998. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press.