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COVID Exposes Harsh Reality Of Egypt's Public Schools

In Egypt, private schools are driven solely by profit. As the economic effects of COVID-19 forces families to choose cheaper schools, many parents are forced to confront the country's endemic education problems. And they're discovering that expensive private schools are better in outward appearance only.

Egyptian students attend a class  at Maadi school in Cairo, Egypt.

Egyptian students attend a class at Maadi school in Cairo, Egypt.

Nada Arafat

For the past several months, Heba Ismail has been wracked with feelings of anxiety and guilt over her son’s future and mental health.

It all started when her husband lost his job amid the coronavirus pandemic and they could no longer afford the fees for seven-year-old Ali Eddin’s private school. She transferred him to a cheaper experimental public school — a type of school that teaches part of the curriculum in English. However, far from being a smooth transition, Ali Eddin’s experience at the new school was “devastating,” Ismail says, prompting her to keep her son from attending classes and getting him tutored at home. “If I had the money, I would transfer him back to his old school, no question,” she says.


Ismail’s family ordeal has become increasingly common as the economic effects of COVID-19 have left many Egyptian households financially squeezed, forcing parents to transfer their children from private schools to public schools, reversing a decades-long trend.

A "donation" to guarantee school access

Ali Eddin’s family initially opposed transferring him to another school, concerned about the effect the change in social environment could have on him. Yet the LE30,000 (around $1,909) in annual tuition for his private school eventually proved too steep.

Ismail selected a newly established experimental school for her son, hoping it would provide a decent level of education. In July, she applied for a school transfer online through a site run by the Education Ministry. The official deadline for a response is 45 days, yet Ismail and other parents said they never received any response to their applications.

Every time Ismail logged on to the site she saw the same status: “Your application is under consideration.” In October, the family decided to pay a visit to the local education directorate to try and follow up, only to be told that the school they had selected was at full capacity.

They made several more trips to the directorate in an effort to find a solution before an employee advised them to offer the school a “donation.” The school administration presented Ali Eddin’s father with a wish list that included items such as projectors and photocopiers and asked him to select one to donate. After the family purchased a LE4,000 printer for the school, Ali Eddin was finally accepted. Even with the kickback, the LE 2,300 (around $146) tuition fee was cheaper by orders of magnitude compared to the private school.

Egypt's endemic education problems

But they quickly found out that the standard of education at the experimental public school was far from adequate.

Ismail said that by the second month of the academic year, the administration had begun to announce school days off on a regular basis, attributing closures to maintenance on campus, for instance, or on bad weather, even though there would be no Education Ministry decision to that effect.

The administration then proceeded to shorten the school day and let students out early. Classrooms were merged, doubling the number of students. Children were allowed to skip lessons and stay on the playground all day. The students who did attend classes were taught by unqualified teachers. “A student affairs employee is teaching Arabic until they hire an Arabic teacher,” Ismail says.

Overcrowded classrooms and a high student-teacher ratio are endemic problems in Egypt’s public schools. As the Education Ministry has done little to address the issue, individual schools have been forced to find makeshift solutions, such as dividing the school day into two shorter periods with roughly half the students attending each, or decreasing the total number of school days by declaring days off outside of national holidays.

Being bullied by classmates — and teachers

Even more concerning for Ismail was how the new school environment had affected Ali Eddin’s behavior after just a few months. He got into fights at school and became more violent at home, using language that was unusual for him. Ismail came to realize that he was being bullied at school by other students and sometimes even teachers.

I used to take out loans to pay my child’s tuition

One day, Ali Eddin came home injured after his classmates had ganged up on him and beat him. Ismail went to the school to complain, but she quickly found that there was little she could do. Not only was there a complete lack of teacher supervision, but the administration also seemed altogether absent. “There’s nobody to complain to,” Ismail says. “I ask to see the principal and they tell me he’s clocked out for the day. I complain to a teacher, he tells me that he can’t focus on my son when there are 50 other children in the classroom.”

Aside from the bullying, Ali Eddin’s education and language ability were suffering. His ability to communicate in English was poor and he was unable to properly express himself. He missed his old classmates and German — the language of his former private school.

As the situation continued to worsen, Ismail decided to keep her son at home and provide him with private tutoring. “I worry that he might resent me one day for not giving him a good education like the one his cousins and former classmates received,” she says.

Students learn to make and design jewelry at Egypt Gold near Cairo, capital of Egypt,

Students learn to make and design jewelry at Egypt Gold near Cairo, capital of Egypt,

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua

The outward appearance of a better education

Like many Egyptian families, Ismail was compelled to transfer her child from a private school to a public one for financial reasons. However, the quality of education at many private schools is often only marginally better than public schools — even though they can cost tens of thousands of pounds more a year — and offer little benefit other than their social standing, according to a number of families who spoke to Mada Masr.

Walaa Othman transferred her son to a public school after five years at a private school. She realized that the quality of education was nearly the same, the only difference being in after-school activities, parties, and what she called “outward appearances.” Throughout his five years at the private school, her son needed tutoring at home to supplement his in-school instruction. “I realized I was paying twice: for tutoring and for school. Tutoring is more expensive in [Cairo’s] Fifth Settlement than anywhere else,” Othman says.

When she compared the two schools she found the decision to transfer him was easy. She says private schools have class sizes of around 40 students, offer a low-quality education and teach the same syllabus as public schools. Public schools may have larger class sizes, but they cost far less. It didn’t take her long to make up her mind to transfer him, along with her other children. She redirected the money she used to pay for private schooling toward sporting club memberships and into savings for international high school diplomas or international undergraduate education in Egypt or abroad, which would better qualify them in finding jobs.

“Transfers have been happening on a massive scale over the past two years,” says the admin of a popular Facebook group focussed on private schooling in Egypt who spoke on condition of anonymity. They say families across the socio-economic spectrum have been moving their children to schools further down the scale amid the economic squeeze of the pandemic. “Those at international schools transferred to private schools. Those at private schools transferred to experimental schools. Those at experimental schools transferred to regular public schools. Those at public schools transferred to Al-Azhar schools.”

Up to 100 students in a classroom

As a case in point, Abdel Hamid Numan, a principal of a private school in Cairo, says that there have been 30% more transfers from his school to public schools over the past two years of the pandemic compared to previous years.

The burgeoning shift toward public schools amid difficult economic circumstances counters a trend over the last two decades that has seen sustained growth in the number of private schools throughout the country.

Those who can afford it get to buy the commodity and learn. Those who can’t, don’t.

Mostly located in Cairo at first, private schools slowly spread to most Egyptian provinces. As the public education system continued to deteriorate over the years, families increasingly opted for private education options — not only upper-income households but also middle-class families who often took out loans or cut back on other expenses to be able to afford the pricier private schools.

Over the last 15 years, the number of private schools across the country has doubled. In the 2006/2007 school year, some 5,000 private schools for all stages of education were in operation, according to the Education Ministry. As of 2021, there are more than 9,000 private schools across Egypt. Approximately 22.5 million students are enrolled in public schools for the current academic year, while about 2.5 million are enrolled in private schools, according to Education Ministry figures.

While considerations of social status helped drive the shift toward private education, the increased overcrowding and poor facilities at public schools were primary factors, according to Abdel Hafez Tayel, the director of the Egyptian Center for the Right to Education Initiative, who says that as many as 100 students can be crammed together in a small space that lacks basic levels of cleanliness combined with substandard teaching and classroom violence.

Education Ministry data shows a rise in the average class size at public primary schools from 46 students in 2015 to 55 students in the current academic year.

Private schools driven only by profit

Yet after years of increasing enrolments at private schools, many middle-class families have been forced to switch to public schools as businesses shuttered, jobs were lost, and salaries cut as a result of the pandemic. And when schools closed their doors and switched to remote learning, the serious limitations in the quality of education private schools were offering became even more apparent.

“I used to take out loans to pay my child’s tuition,” says Marwa Kamel. “When this happened, I realized that the debt was all for nothing. I get nothing for what I pay.” Kamel eventually made the “difficult decision” to transfer her primary-school child from a private school to an experimental public school.

Meanwhile, school boards in the private sector have continued to try and maximize their profits. They declined appeals from parents to lower tuition fees or other, nonessential fees, such as for school buses or after-school activities, which would often be canceled. Instead, the schools continued to insist on collecting all their fees in full, saying that they had to continue paying their employees, despite the fact that scores of teachers, administrative staff and workers had been let go.

Private school boards did not fail to notice that parents had begun to transfer their children to cheaper public schools. In response, some came up with new ways to compel parents to keep their children enrolled until they could collect all their fees.

The mother of a former private school student told Mada Masr that when she fell behind on tuition installments, she repeatedly tried to withdraw her son so that she could enroll him in a public school. Yet the school administration refused to release his file until his tuition fees had been paid in full.

The file was withheld for more than five months. It was not until the parents of her son’s classmates eventually helped her to raise enough money to pay them off that she was able to transfer him.

The wave of transfers from private to public schools is a direct result of policies by successive governments that have shifted education from a right into a commodity, according to Tayel. “Those who can afford it get to buy the commodity and learn. Those who can’t, don’t,” he says. As the pandemic financially constrained many Egyptian families and left them no longer able to afford private school fees, they began transferring them to public schools — if anything, to keep their children enrolled, even if they never attended classes.

“Students get their educational content from tutoring sessions and only ever go to school on exam days. This is to save them from wasting time and spare them the indignities they would be subject to,” says Tayel.

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